The PC
Let's Start Again

What's wrong with today's PCs? Just two things, the hardware and the software. Am I being too harsh? I don't think so, and I'll tell you why. I would argue that most people would like their computers to be more like another hi-tech item in their home - the TV. Stable, predictable and easy to use. Don't believe me? Think your PC is well designed and needs no improvement? Well, let's have a look at a few examples.

Unlike every other device in your home - you can't just flick off the power on your PC when you're done using it. You have to perform a "Shut Down Procedure." In Windows, this ordeal ironically involves selecting "Start" as one of the steps and then requires more steps, which vary depending on the version of Windows you're using. Sometimes you are required to select things by means of radio buttons and sometimes it's a dropdown menu you need to navigate. In some versions you are even required to wait for about a minute before pressing yet another button on the PC to finally end the procedure. Then when you're done, you're allowed to go on your way. So why is there no shut down procedure for the TV? Well, there is. But the TV takes care of it for you. The designers thought you might have better things to do, and had the television's electronics take care of turning off the scanning gun, stopping current flow to the tuner and whatever else needs to be done just by pressing the power button. I know the geeks out there will point to the modern PC's need for delayed disk writes, caching, multitasking and other techie concerns that would make it "impossible" - but I say bullocks! I was able to shut off my favourite computers from the 80s, the Atari ST and Amiga whenever I felt like it - just like a lamp. Just like a TV. In fact, I could even yank the power cord, and there was no harm done. The problem is that it is much easier to have the user perform tasks such tasks as shutting down than it is to write robust software that allows the user to safely pull the power cord if he or she feels like it. And there is no incentive to do so since all of the major systems out there, Windows, Mac and Linux require you do perform this ritual. Today's PC users don't even realize there can be any other way.

How about the "booting" procedure which occurs when you turn on a PC. Another oddity. I believe there should be no such thing unless there's an emergency. Booting should be done once at the factory and from then on PCs should act like a Palm or iPaq - press on - and you're ready to go. Again, my ancient Atari ST could do this. It should be as simple as a TV. Turn it on, use it, turn it off.

Similarly, I don't want to have to "reboot" just because I added some software or harware to my PC. If I order new PayTV channels for my TV, they never ask me to turn my TV on and off to get them. When I add a DVD player - I don't need to reboot my TV. When I installed software on my Amiga it just worked, no need to turn anything off and on. So, why do we accept this today?

And fans - they need to go. If your PC needs a fan, it's too hot. Microprocessors should be considered defective if they can't operate at room temperature without a fan. Fans are noisy and since they are require moving parts - they will wear out and eventually fail. Can't reach 2 GHz without one? Oh well, perhaps they're not ready yet and we will have to make do with 1GHz. Let the gamers and scientists have their hot-air blowing contraptions, give the rest of us a nice quite PC. The Mac cube was able to do this, so I see no reason why the PC camp can't do so as well. The Mac Cube, however, brings me to the next point - because it still had a spinning hard drive inside, it still wasn't quiet. How do people use Macs and PCs for music is a mystery to me. My Atari ST was silent - and it was popular with musicians in its day - why do today's musicians accept the hum of fans and hard drives makes me scratch my head. We don't need noisy spinning things in our PCs. We don't need hard drives. I can buy a 1GB compact flash card right now. If manufacturers started using flash memory in place of hard drives, the economies of scale would eventually produce cheap and large flash memory storage devices, and we would have far more reliable and quieter PCs. Yes, more reliable by far. The hard drive is one of the most fragile and critical components of a PC - not a good combination. Drop a laptop - and you may have kissed your data goodbye. In fact, you don't even have to drop one since they wear out on their own - and will come to a grinding screeching end someday. It's not a matter of if, but when. Flash memory, on the other hand will not wear out for hundreds or even thousands of years. Dropping them does no harm and they are safe from magnetic fields. Which would you rather depend on? Is your work important?

As I've said, all of this could coexist together. The power users could use their loud, hot and fragile spinning devices, while the rest of us could get by quite comfortably with our functional quiet and reliable PCs. Right now, it's as if everyone were using experimental hardware. Imagine a TV that was a little brighter than the ones we have today - but it made a constant droning noise because it needed a fan. Which one would you choose? You'd probably find that today's TVs are bright enough, and not put up with the reliabilty and noise issues of a fan for a slightly brighter picture. Some may have a special need for an extremely bright image - so, of course, they should have the choice of buying the noisy TV. But why is it that we don't have the choice of buying the quiet reliable PC?

Imagine that the TV had a fancy computerized image sharpening feature - but it took 2 minutes to boot up and shut down - and that it might be damaged if you don't shut down properly. Which TV would you buy? The reliable ones we have today - with an OK picture and instant off and on. Or one with a sharper picture, but routine delays to turn on or off and the potential for damage just by turning it off too quickly. Of course let the videophiles have their sharper imaged sets if they so choose, but why do we not have this choice with PCs?

How about this - would you choose a TV that works reliably like we have today, or would you like one that can be upgradable, but subject to bugs in new updates, security problems with viruses and an ever changing user interface so that you'd have to relearn things you had already become familiar with. If you're a power user or early adopter, then you should be able to buy the upgradable TV, but is it fair that it's the only choice for everyone? So, why is there no PC for the common user who just wants things to work.

Would you like your wireless remote control to be be an expensive upgrade? Wouldn't you laugh if the TV salesperson handed you a remote attached to a cord to the TV, and said it's $100 extra if you want the cordless version. Well, we accept this with our mouse and keyboard for some reason.

What if 95% of all TVs were from Zenith, and a few nicer Sony's were available, but they were more expensive and not compatible with as many channels as the Zeniths. So, as a result, almost everyone bought a Zenith. Wouldn't you be upset by the lack of choice? Wouldn't you love a Sanyo or Panasonic to exist to compete with Zenith on price and performance and to also be able to tune in all the same channels as the Zeniths? For some reason, we accept this with PCs. Imagine Zenith were Microsoft and Sony were Apple. Well guess what - we have no eqivalent to Panasonic, Sanyo or RCA for that matter. We're all using Zeniths and we don't even realize it. And to make matters worse, we're all using old 1970s Zeniths with wired remote contols and questionable reliability since we no longer have significant competition as incentive for innovation. Commodore, Be, Netscape and others could have provided that competition and could have been the next Panasonic or RCA. Although their products were arguably superior, they were swept to the wayside by various reasons I won't go into here. And we are poorer for it.

And what about the situation where you buy a VCR for your TV and you're so happy with the purchase that you decide to buy a new larger TV to even better enjoy your movies. Well, what if Zenith's new TVs no longer "supported" your VCR. Now you'd have to buy a new VCR as well. This would be outragious, but not in the PC world. My digital camera, PC card reader and photo printer no longer work on my PC after upgrading from Windows ME to XP. I have to keep an old Windows ME PC around just so I can continue to use the peripherals that I bought just last year. Perhaps there should be a better system.

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And what if the TV came with a "Movie Maker" program like Windows does. But you found you never used it and it just took too much room - so you wanted to

I think there is room in the marketplace for a basic, but usful easy-to-use stable computer. I'd also like it to be silent, quick and eastheticly pleasing. And sure, security would be nice too. I don't think this currently exists. I want something that is reliable and stable above all else.

Here are some suggestions:

1) I'd like a small stable OS burned into ROM. Two of my favourite computers use this method: The HP200LX Palmtop PC and the Atari ST.

The HP 200LX was a hand held PC from 1991 that I still use today. In fact, I wrote this article on it. First of all I like that it is fairly stable, In the decade that I have been using it, I have only lost data once. And even this was not catstrophic since I had it backed up anyway. What makes it stable? First it runs MS-DOS 5 in ROM. DOS isn't perfect, but since it can't do as much as windows, it has less oportuity to screw up. I'm not advocating DOS as the perfect OS, just pointing out that if I'm just typing in an article, I have far more trust in it than I do in Windows, Mac or Linux. Furthermore, since the OS is in ROM, It cannot be corrupted. There's no spinning disk to crash, there is no chance of accidentally erasing something. There is no chance of a virus erasing something. The system will always work. It's quiet and has a battery life measured in months.