Here’s a story to illustrate a conundrum: If computers are such productivity boosters and time savers, how come we spend huge amounts of time trying to make them work? Marshall Brain, a writer, former teacher and consultant, tried to figure out how much time we spend on fixing computer stuff but timing it: Last month he spent 11 hours and 20 minutes solving computer problems, from fixing Mom’s printer driver (1 hour) to solving a daughter’s Christmas trauma resulting from a bad Cheerios game CD (15 minutes).
Now first off, that’s a lot of time, but I’d say not surprising. I run a small home network and am forever trying to get things working (even the Wi-Fi seems to have a life of its own.) But is it acceptable? Marshall compared it with his house repairs for the same month: replacing 2 light bulbs, zero problems with the car. “In other words,” he concludes, “there is nothing else in my life that comes close to the time being spent maintaining the computers in my home.”
So who’s to blame? Marshall has some suggestions. His main target: Microsoft. “Personally, I feel that a good bit of this waste and vulnerability is caused by Microsoft. Even more frustrating..is that Microsoft has the resources to fix the problems.” I think he’s right. While he also takes aim at boring and complex user agreements, dealing with spam and installing drivers, I feel that Microsoft, as the dominant software player in practically every field, has cavalierly ignored the problems that users have to deal with. Marshall points to the need to reboot after installing many different types of software — which if removed could “save the nation millions of man-hours per year”, the silly procedure for loading drivers (I still don’t understand exactly what Windows is searching for when you allow it to search for drivers; it never finds them unless you tell them which directory to search in, which is a bit like playing hide and seek with all the closet doors open).
I’d add my bugbear: software bugs. Microsoft, I suspect, just doesn’t fix most of the bugs that it finds. When I asked a senior MS guy about this, complaining about some Word bugs that haven’t been fixed for years, he said I was “missing the big picture”. But if I buy Word for that feature, surely it should work? That’s my big picture: I use that feature (large tables for big chunks of text) and it’s supposed to work. Who should I be sueing if it’s not fixed (answers on a postcard, please.) My suspicion is that we waste a lot of our time not just fixing stuff, but working around stupid bugs that, somehow, we’ve accepted.
As Marshall concludes in his post: “The amount of time we are all wasting on our computers right now is unacceptable, and our machines are far too unreliable.” Which brings me to my final question: Just how productive are we in the face of all this repair time? Are computers wasting our time?