When I first saw the advert my reaction was, ‘Whoa, what is HP doing making a toaster?’ Only when I concentrated on the details did I realise this was in fact a photo printer (you can tell because the slot’s on the front, not the top). After that I started seeing the things everywhere: on TV, in magazines, on billboards, and from Canon and Epson, not just HP. It was the season when I search for some artefact that sums up the state of our industry over the previous year, and this digital toaster seemed to be it, the significance being that it allows you to print out your digital pictures without having to mess with a PC. And that’s the message, that 2004 was the year most of the public got utterly fed up with their PCs.
Of course, this does not imply an immediate collapse of the PC market, nor even a precipitous decline – merely a slow recovery from the recent lean years, and then a steady decline as other categories of device come to take over the multiple functions that PCs currently serve. No-one’s ever really succeeded in house-training the personal computer and making it a domestic appliance like a food processor, where there are only four buttons and two knobs to learn. The most obvious reason is that PCs are machines whose main purpose is not defined at purchase: you add software to make it do what you want it to do.
But it is precisely having to support this degree of openness that’s eventually made them too damned complicated. For sure, it was the open nature of the original IBM PC architecture that triggered the amazing explosion of sales and crashing prices, but it also infected the operating system with a lethal degree of complication – drivers and protocols for third-party devices – that produced a nasty case of elephantiasis. Apple, for a while at least, avoided this disease by creating an over-simplified Mac OS, but eventually had to face up to reality and adopt Mach/NextStep, which brought the necessary functionality at the cost of Unixoid bafflement.
We who write and read PC Pro find it hard to grasp the depth of loathing that Joe Public now feels for his or her PC (unless we live with a partner who shares the feeling, that is). There are two categories of humanity left who can tolerate, even like, PCs and our audience probably falls a bit into both. The networked business user treats the PC as a mere work tool, thanks to the enormous advantage of having one or more system administrators who are paid to grapple with all those complexities that so horrify ordinary mortals. On the other hand, the hobbyist/game player/customiser sees the PC as a potent source of interest, a challenge against which one’s ingenuity can be tested – something like a car or motorbike, to be tweaked, tuned, fettled and shown off.
To the rest of humanity, PCs are a constant cause of anxiety and high blood pressure. The Internet looked set to make the public love computers at last, what with email, googling, DIY genealogy (and porn), but viruses and spam have seen that off. The powers-that-be, from the government down to your local ISP, appear to lack either the sense or will to do anything about this crisis, and the technical measures needed to stop spam and viruses effectively for yourself are far too complicated for public consumption.
The other iconic artefact of 2004 was the iPod, which, along with its imitators, is becoming the main music source for young people. Right now you still need a Mac or a PC for Net access to download the tunes, but how long before someone comes up with a dirt-cheap, firewall-style box that does nothing but fetch tunes for you? Then music shops will install great aisles full of them.