Technology should be user-friendly as well as innovative
NICOLAS NEGROPONTE is a very senior technology innovator indeed - a 'cardinal of geekdom' you might say. As the founder of MIT's Media lab he has been responsible for many computing breakthroughs, is a co-founder of that techno-futurist bible, Wired magazine, and the originator of the non-profit 'one-laptop-per-child' project which is dedicated to ensuring that cheap computing, via its $100 laptop, becomes widely available for schoolchildren.
So it might be slightly surprising that Negroponte has chosen to hit out at the complexity of modern mobile phones which he has described as "ridiculous". "Some devices are so packed with features that they are becoming caricatures", he said during a recent technology conference in Spain.
Or maybe it is more surprising that other technology leaders haven't also expressed such a view - because modern technology innovations have become so complicated that they have become very difficult to operate.
Recently I needed to update the mobile phone which my parents-in-law, Jim and Evelyn, use. They are both in their eighties, but they managed fine with their old mobile. I asked the shop for the simplest handset, with no built-in camera, or web browser or suchlike - just a simple phone for making calls. Unfortunately even the basic Nokia model has squeezed so much of the control menus onto its tiny screen and reconfigurable buttons that it is really not at all easy to use. Jim and Evelyn are still perplexed by it.
It's the same problem with developments in home entertainment systems, especially when you have to accommodate different devices for related functions. My in-laws have a Sky satellite system; my children bought them a DVD player for Christmas, and now digital switchover means that they have to cope with both digital and analogue broadcasting. Try as I might, I find it very difficult to explain to them quite how to switch from receiving a digital channel via Freeview, to watching a DVD from the DVD player, or getting a satellite channel via Sky.
It's all got far too complicated, and nobody seems to be trying to make it any simpler. I remember when Alan Sugar started making computers; somebody showed him how to use an early version of Microsoft Windows, which had been described as 'user-friendly'.
After trying to do some basic tasks and finding that he wasn't able to, his conclusion was that this system was "about as user-friendly as a cornered rat!" And it hasn't got much better since.
The latest innovation to challenge my sanity is my new Internet radio which receives its signal via a Wi-Fi network. Having bought one of these I've succeeded in sort-of getting it to work. I can receive normal radio stations, but then I can get those from over-the-air broadcasting in any case. I can receive some podcasts, but not others, and I can't for the life of me work out why. Mind you, between setting up the device, the WiFi network, and the interface to drive it that is programmed via my computer, maybe I should be grateful that anything works at all.
Negroponte is a non-executive director of several big businesses, including as it happens, Motorola, one of the world's leading manufacturers of mobile phone handsets. Motorola's handset business has been struggling a bit recently and the corporation has announced that it will be spun-off as a separate business next year.
But maybe, instead of giving in and spinning out their handset business, they should listen to one of their directors and make a phone that ordinary people can actually use.