Slaves to the machine

A glitch can make your world come crashing down

By Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY

02/18/99- Updated 09:42 AM ET

A golfer who just wanted to play the new Tiger Woods PC game found himself deep in an unending spiral of fixes and conflicts when he tried to add memory so the game would run. A financial planner almost lost her business when her PC had multiple failures -- for six full months.

Computers were supposed to liberate us and make life easier, but instead they've enslaved us. Too hard to use and prone to inexplicable problems they're not labor-saving devices -- they're a whole new kind of labor unto themselves. components later. "It's more convenient, and it's been tested," says Klee Kleber of Dell.

"We're helpless victims," says John Kaufman, a San Francisco writer plagued by PC problems for months.

"Companies don't take it seriously that users have to bear the consequences of their sending products out that aren't ready," he says. They leave tech support to deal with it, "but when you try to call them, it's either busy or you stay on hold for hours, long distance!"

Kaufman didn't really get angry until the third SyQuest drive (a computer backup system) he'd purchased failed straight out of the box. After five days of calls to tech support, he was told to FedEx the drive and the disks back to SyQuest. The next day, the company went bankrupt, and Kaufman's disks were gone forever.

"We don't expect to get on a plane and have it crash periodically," he fumes.

But the PC world is "full of bugs and glitches, and they expect us to put up with it."

Kaufman isn't the only onewho spends weekends tryingto get balky machines to work.

About 70% of the cost of owning a PC in the corporate world is for support, estimates GartnerGroup, a technology research and analysis firm in Stamford, Conn..

People didn't want to believe it when the figure came out, says Gartner's Marilyn Truglio -- it means that when a company buys a $2,100 PC, it will spend an additional $4,900 over the three-year life of the machine to help users use it.

That doesn't surprise biochemist Rich Neese. He's the designated computer guru in his research lab at the University of California-Berkeley. While he's happy to lend a hand when a colleague has a PC glitch, last year he found himself spending two or more hours a day solving tech problems.

"Things got so bad, we were seriously discussing hiring someone to coddle the computer system so I could do my work," he says. Only a total overhaul of the lab's network let him get back to his experiments.

It may seem like madness to keep fussing when something won't work. But we're in the grip of the strongest possible psychological forces, says Clifford Nass of Stanford University.

PCs provide what psychologists call "intermittent reinforcement," says Nass, a professor who studies people's relationship to machines.

"If you car doesn't turn on, you're stuck. If your toaster oven doesn't toast, it's broken. But computers can half-work. You feel like you're making progress," he says.

That would explain the spiral of frustration experienced by Tom Murphy of San Lorenzo, Calif., who only wanted to play the Tiger Woods '99 PGA Tour Golf PC game.

Though his PC was less than a year old, it didn't have enough memory to run the popular 3-D game. Murphy's manual made upgrading memory seem like a simple operation, so he decided to try it.

"It just shouldn't have been more than a half an hour popping them out and plugging them in," the 46-year-old accountant says.

Try most of a Sunday and every night for the next week. The initial chips went in fine, but first produced an incessant beeping, then a totally black screen. Over the next week, Murphy called tech support from work (they were only open daytime hours) and spent evenings trying the procedure they'd suggested for what had gone wrong the night before.

A week later, he not only couldn't play the computer game, his modem no longer worked -- much to his wife's annoyance.

"She'd just sent out months' worth of genealogy research to all her brothers and sisters and was expecting e-mail back. Now she's more frustrated than I am," Murphy says.

Conspicuously absent from the ranks of those telling horror stories are Macintosh owners. Not that things don't go wrong with Macs, but because Apple controls both the hardware and the operating system, there's less chance of problems.

"Keeping things bug-free and simple is daunting when dealing with different hardware, different graphics cards and different drivers," says Tom Boger of Apple. "We avoid some of the problems."

One reason software programs are so complex is that they have to be "backwards compatible."

"If you start fresh and make everything simple and easy, then a lot of the old stuff stops working," says Craig Beilinson of Microsoft. "Not only do I have to support the new Barbie digital camera, I've got to support printers from five years ago."

And there's no way hardware and software makers can test every possible combination of products to avoid conflicts.

That's little comfort to Murphy. As of Tuesday, the game finally worked, but he was still without his modem. He figures he spent the equivalent of a full workday trying to solve technical problems -- not exactly the leisure activity he had in mind.

"Why did I do this? It was supposed to be so easy," he sighs.

Why are we willing to put up with all this pain? One reason is that when these complex machines fail, it's easy to imagine that we're somehow at fault. Because we don't have the technical expertise to correctly diagnose the problem, we feel even more hopeless.

When Maureen O'Brien began a new job for Atlanta-based Fidelity Group, the certified financial planner needed aPC for her home office. After a month of careful research, she decided to buy from a local computer store that offered excellent support. Things went wrong from Day One.

"The most basic things didn't work," she says. Programs "would just stop. Something that should take minutes to install took two or three hours. It was a nightmare."


By the end of her six-month ordeal, everything but the monitor had been replaced at least once, the hard drive twice. From January to June she spent "hundreds of hours" dealing with problems. "I literally almost did go bankrupt," O'Brien says.

She acknowledges that it may have made sense to scrap the machine and buy something new. Two things held her back: the $3,000 price tag and a gnawing concern that somehow it was all her fault.

"It turned out that virtually none of it was my incompetence. I just didn't know it," she says.

Which raises an obvious question: Why are computers so hard to use in the first place?

One counterintuitive reason is that they're so cheap. While $2,000 for a computer and $100 for software may seem like a lot, it's still 85% less than in 1992, says GartnerGroup's Carter Lusher, a technology analyst who specializes in customer service.

"Computer sellers have trained us to expect cheaper and cheaper products -- so some corners are going to have to be cut somewhere," he says.

Another problem is that manufacturers haven't caught up with their changing user base. When the PC first arrived on the scene in the '80s, the typical user was a hobbyist who loved tweaking his machine.

"Now there's a much broader set of people who are less interested in technology for its own sake," he says.

Hardware and software makers are caught in endless rounds of ever-faster product revisions, eager to edge out the competition with new functions they can trumpet to bring sales figures up for another quarter to satisfy stockholders.

Whether those new functions are anything the majority of customers either want or need is another question. What is clear is that the rush to get new versions to market fast often means they're buggy.

There is an answer, and it's a simple one: Make computers go away.

It's not as crazy as it sounds, argues tech usability consultant Donald Norman, professor emeritus at the University of California, San Diego.

Instead of large, complex machines that do many things poorly, we need small, simple, cheap machines that do one thing well, says Norman, formerly of Hewlett-Packard.

Rather than using one PC to write letters, play games, keep budgets, read e-mail and surf the Web, he envisions a separate appliance for each activity, like a kitchen with toasters, blenders and coffee makers.

We'll know when technology has truly gone mainstream when it becomes as invisible as a wristwatch, Norman says.

Is that technology?

"Yes, it is," he says. "But we think of it as jewelry."

Tips for tech freedom:

If you want to play PC games you'll need a good sound system. If you just write reports, you probably don't.

Buy what you need, You get what you pay for. Deal with reputable companies. "You might pay a few hundred dollars more going with Gateway or Dell, but they've spent millions getting their acts together," says GartnerGroup's Carter Lusher.

Do your homework. Before you buy, research quality and customer service. See what's written in the press and on consumer message boards online.

Keep it simple. You'll have fewer problems if you choose products that do basic things well and skip extras. (Do you really need fancy word-processing software to send e-mail to mom?)

Don't rush to upgrade. Bugs in early versions of software are usually fixed in subsequent versions.

Buy bundled. You can avoid many conflicts if you get the software and hardware you need when you buy your system, rather than adding on

Copyright 1999 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.