Relevance: The Holy Grail of Personal Computing

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The six computers have their own booth. On top of each one is the inviting sign: ``Try Me!'' And try them people do. Ever since Microsoft's chairman, Bill Gates, announced the new product this morning, people have been flocking here to see ``Bob.'' Bob is a piece of software that promises the apparent Holy Grail of personal computing: ease of use.

``There's something really lacking that won't let us get into the broad market,'' Mr. Gates told an overflow audience at the winter Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nev. ``Today, the PC is not incredibly easy to use.'' Coming from the man whose first operating system included goofy commands like ``edlin'' and ``debug,'' that statement is something of a mea culpa.

But no matter. With Gates on board, making computers easier to use is everybody's favorite goal.

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By testing thousands of novices in its labs, Microsoft has discovered that novices liked PCs best when an expert hovered behind them, answering questions. The key to making PCs simple is to create software that recreates that social interaction, Gates says. Hence, software named ``Bob'' and the beginning of what Gates calls ``social computing.'' So here we are a few hours later, watching newcomers step up to the Microsoft booth to try Bob. The program is certainly different. You knock on the front door, which leads to a room you can customize. Click on one of the objects in the room, the checkbook on the table, for example, and Bob moves to the checkbook program. (There's also the letter-writing, household-management, electronic-mail, and other programs.) If you get lost, more than a dozen of Bob's friends - Java the Dragon, Chaos the Cat, and so on - will offer advice. There are no manuals.

So how do people like Bob?

Elizabeth, an average user, thinks going through the interface would get too repetitive over time. That's the trouble with shows like this. Anyone who travels to Las Vegas to look at electronic gadgets is going to be way too technical for the likes of Bob.

Now, here's a woman clicking the computer mouse very tentatively. Excuse me, ma'am, how did you like the program?

``It's like entering into an alien world,'' she says.

Is it simple?

``It's easier to use, I am sure,'' she says, sounding not at all sure and backing away.

Will you use Bob?

``I just went out and bought a fax machine. I'm working up from there.''

And with that, she was gone and the promise of the PC Holy Grail dimmed a bit.

In America, people play bridge, organize a home, manage an office, drive a car - activities that in their way are more difficult than using a personal computer. Yet there is no clamor to simplify bridge or make car technology easier. People do these things because they want to or have to. They rise to the challenge.

It's that way with computing. People adapted to these quirky machines because that was their job. Others were curious. And whether the screen before them displayed gobbledygook like C:\ or a cartoon dragon, it really didn't matter. They'd learn. It's a wonderful thing to make the learning process easier. But as personal computers become more important and more relevant to our society, more people will use the machines. They will have to.

The Holy Grail of personal computing is not really ease of use, it's relevance. And for better or worse, here on the brink of the 21st century, that relevance is becoming more of an issue. Even for those just starting with a fax machine.

* Send your comments to CompuServe (70541,3654), America Online (LBELSIE), or via the Internet (laurentb @delphi.com).

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