Boston — Jef Raskin says personal computers should have been made as easy to use as a refrigerator or an electric can opener or a toaster. But since ``ease of operation'' and operating a PC tend to be opposite notions, Mr. Raskin decided to create a machine that would be, in his words, as simple and reliable as a Maytag washer. His device would be an ``information appliance.''
A full-fledged information appliance would be a small box, probably smaller than a PC, that boils down word processing, telecommunications, calculations, disk formating, and information retrieval into a few instructions.
Of course, no one has seen an information appliance -- yet.
But more than a few level-headed people feel compelled to take Raskin seriously, at least partly because he originated and helped develop Apple's successful Macintosh PC. He left Apple, in 1982, partly because he thought Macintosh was being made too complex.
``One could actually perceive the current advertising [portraying ease of operation] for PCs as almost criminal,'' the bearded Mr. Raskin fumes.
``A lot of people own microwave ovens out there. And that's the point. I think most people don't want to run software -- they want to do things.''
Raskin divides his time between the lab and preaching the gospel of the information appliance to whoever will listen. And venture capitalists have been pumping development funds worth more than $6 million into Raskin's Information Appliance Inc., of Menlo Park, Calif.
His target: the millions of unwitting souls who bought a PC, only to discover they had no idea how to format a disk; thought a menu was something found only in the restaurant; and absolutely didn't care if they ever learned computer lingo. In other words, the $1,999-paperweight-gathering-dust crowd.
Already he has developed a hot new product that illustrates his concept. This $89.95 piece of hardware, called a Swyftcard, plugs into an Apple IIe personal computer. Just flip the PC on and begin typing. There are five commands to learn. Simple.
The Swyftcard is the reality that hints at the possibilities of an information appliance. It takes minutes -- not hours or weeks -- to learn to use.
Although a lot of veteran PC users don't like the Swyftcard's limitations and find it hard to imagine enjoying an information appliance, Raskin says such products aren't really meant for them anyway. Computer professionals agree.
``Swyftcard is a marvelous device -- provided you are not a computer person,'' says Chris Spencer, a professional programmer and assistant director of Apple/Boston, a user group of the Boston Computer Society. ``If you are a computer person, it's not for you. It's as simple as that.''
But magazine software reviewers and PC experts alike agree that Swyftcard's amalgamation of hardware with software instructions built into it is just the ticket for the multitude of computer illiterates. Market analysts are predicting reasonably good sales for the Swyftcard.
``It's a little thing that's simple, very helpful, and pretty inexpensive,'' says Michael Goulde, an analyst with the Yankee Group, a Boston-based market research firm.
``It's going to appeal to a lot of people who brought back their boxes of Apples, opened them, and immediately got stuck. It's really foolproof and frustration free.''
Mr. Goulde estimates that Swyftcard will sell between 200,000 and 400,000 copies -- or about 10 to 20 percent of the roughly 2.2 million Apple IIe and IIc computers sold. Worst-case sales for Swyftcard would be 5 percent, or 110,000, he says.
What's so great about the Swyftcard?
You turn on the power and begin typing a shopping list, perhaps. When you're done, you hit the print key and the list prints out on the printer. No messing with systems, formating, or any other complexities.
But the LEAP key is the feature that impresses most. You hold down one of the leap keys and simultaneously type in the character or word you're looking for. In 300 milliseconds or so the cursor arrives at the spot.
Swyftcard is aimed partly at stirring up interest in an information appliance. But analysts say it will require the marketing and distribution expertise of a large computer company to make such a product successful.
The Yankee Group's Mr. Goulde says he believes Raskin has already approached major computer vendors, who haven't exactly welcomed the appliance.
``It's an approach that's antithetical, diametrically opposed to the way things are currently being done,'' Goulde says. ``He's talking about narrowing the range of function. But major vendors are striving to present the maximum amount of information and function . . . .''
Raskin, however, has his enthusiasts, many of whom are confident that an information appliance is so needed that it will inevitably work its way into the marketplace and businesses through the back door.
``The information appliance idea has the potential of revolutionizing the PC business, because of its simplicity and ease of use,'' says David Fradin, an analyst with Dataquest Inc., a high-tech market research firm.
``It combines in one package all the things people want to do,'' Mr. Fradin says. ``All you do is turn it on and start typing. That's what people want -- a can opener that will open cans.''
Raimund Wasner, who analyzes consumer and technical markets for the Yankee Group, says of the idea: ``It's nowhere now. It's got a long way to go. But I'm intrigued by the concept. . . .''
Mr. Wasner says he believes there's a ``very, very attractive market out there for a machine like an electric typewriter, but with Swyftware built into it in the $600-to-$700 range.'' It might be constructed around a variety of information needs like those of a stockbroker or a student, he says.
Yet the big picture of where all this could go rests solely with Raskin. On a separate level, apart from mainframes, minis, and micros, he says there will evolve an entirely new market base in offices (as well as at home) for the information appliance.
``There's another customer base to tap with three to 10 times as many people, most of whom can't even get past the instruction manual of a personal computer!''
The notion of an information appliance has been with Raskin awhile, but it was when he and his wife were overseas that he realized the fullness of the concept.
``When I went to Denmark, I got out of the [Silicon Valley] hothouse atmosphere. It was there that I discovered I didn't want a computer after all. I wanted an information appliance so that I could get something done.''