Guest column: Driving on the bleeding edge in SF

Picture the following scenario, keeping in mind that the future as our IT industry gurus tell it is Internet-enabling every device in the home, at work and on the road.

You're a taxi driver in downtown San Francisco and you're driving one of the Yahoo cabs. Emblazoned with the Yahoo name -- to the extent that visitors would be forgiven for thinking the Web portal vendor company is the latest Bay Area cab company -- the cabs are each outfitted with an Internet-enabled notebook computer.

At this development, the IT gurus are rubbing their hands with glee and saying "This is the future, Net enablement," but what are you, the cabbie, thinking?

Well, first, once passengers in your cab get on that infernal laptop, you can't get them off it for love or money. You drive your passengers to their destination, but do they want to get out? No way. They've got "just one last e-mail to send," and you're sitting there with the engine idling, thinking of all those far more lucrative fares you could be picking up.

What's worse is that you're expected to wear another hat other than that of cabbie. You're the de facto IT support guy on hand when your passengers can't get connected to the Wonderful World Wide Web. Ain't life and technology grand?

You have your own theory on that one. "Computers are all gonna fail one day and then where will you be?" you tell me. After all, the whole year 2000 issue has proved that just such an occurrence is entirely possible. So, do you try and grapple with getting to know your enemy -- the computer -- or is it safer to just ignore it and hope it goes away?

Perhaps this is where the Net-enabled mobile phone really comes into its own - in wooing Internet and IT virgins. The phone makes sense as a concept, and everyone's familiar with it. OK, you might be risking cancer or frying your brain when using mobile phones, but at least they're relatively simple devices that do what you tell them to do.

If your phone breaks or you simply can't get it to work, you just chuck it away and get another one - the perfect example of a throwaway technology. But if your computer fails, what are the odds that it ends up starting a new career as a dust gatherer?

Typically, people new to computers are pretty intimidated by them. The situation doesn't appear to have changed much from the days in the early 1990s when, as a computer trainer, one of my main challenges was convincing my students that it would take more than just touching a PC to break it.

It's strange how computers, though commodities, are still accorded special treatment in the electronics world by those new to the technology. The only way for the PC to win over users alienated by lousy interface design and unreliable software is for the computer to become just another machine -- and simplicity and ease-of-use are the keys. They are also topics the IT gurus have been banging on about for years, but have we really made great strides in that direction? I think not.

Clearly, our industry's previous ideas of dumbing down the PC, such as the ill-famed Network Computer, just haven't hit the right buttons with technophobes. Perhaps that's because the IT gurus think they know what technology newbies want instead of involving them in the whole design process. Did anyone ask our San Francisco cabbie what he thought about his wonderful Net-enabled cab? Somehow, I think not!

James Niccolai contributed to this article.

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