I just finished Stephen Shankland’s CNET report of his interview with Ron Coughlin, who runs the Personal Systems Group at HP, the computer and printer business that split off from Hewlett-Packard in 2015. Coughlin believes that personal computers are still a hot item and that HP is bringing a plethora of innovations to that market. He may be right, but his optimism does not necessarily provide grounds for feeling bullish about HP.
The problem is one of a legacy that goes all the way back to the days when William Redington Hewlett and David Packard were still actively involved in their company’s future. Hewlett-Packard was originally a hardware company. It designed and produced an impressive variety of devices that changed the nature of work in the technology sector. However, these were devices that were designed by engineers for use by other engineers.
As a result, for example, the idea that a digital computer could be “personal” was never part of the HP mindset. The same could be said for the idea that the value in a personal computer had more to do with its software than with its hardware. Thus, in the early days of HP’s venture into digital technology, they may have set a world record for some of the most user-hostile interfaces on the market. Apparently, this legacy does not signify in Coughlin’s mindset. Do a text search on Shankland’s article; and you will discover that the word “interface” never appears.
For those of us for whom computers dominate over the working environment, the future is far from the rosy one that Coughlin anticipates. That is because the software we are using keeps getting progressively worse. This is not just a problem of protection against malware. It is also a matter of basic functionality.
For example, part of my work involves using a Web-based “B2B” (business-to-business) download service. Most downloads are large and are therefore delivered as compressed files that need to be “unzipped” after they have been downloaded. This past summer, many of us using this service discovered that we were getting defective ZIP files that could not be decompressed. Over the course of several months, some of us participated in a variety of test cases, none of which showed signs of much progress. Then, one day, my Inbox had a message that asked if I had tried using Chrome. Sure enough, the Chrome browser downloaded perfectly sound ZIP files while both Firefox and Safari were fumbling the ball!
More recently, I have been making heavier use of audio streaming. For this I need to explain that I use a MacBook Pro, whose lid is kept closed while I work from an HDMI feed to a wide-screen display with “entertainment quality” speakers. Many of my audio resources require Flash, which is software that I try to avoid as much as possible. As a result, I have a setup in which only Safari permits the use of Flash from the sources I need. After the latest Flash “upgrade” (scare quotes intended) I discovered that the audio was no longer coming from my display but, instead, was squeaking out from under the lid of the MacBook! This time I was prepared; and, sure enough, things worked properly once I used Chrome instead of Safari!
I suppose we could turn this into a story about how Google will take over the world. I suspect that Google may have the best talent pool of software engineers in the technology sector, but I do not think that this is necessarily a matter of malicious intent. Rather, I think it has to do with the fact that the basic skills behind writing, testing, and releasing software have all been condemned to SNAFU status. Furthermore, we are so dependent on the technology that, as E. M. Forster predicted in “The Machine Stops,” we basically self-adapt to accommodate every degradation of the services we require. This happens not only at our desks but also in the face-to-face purchases we make, whether on a checkout line or at a food truck.
As the title of Forster’s short story suggests, things eventually come to a head with an across-the-board failing of all service technologies. This does not lead to mass chaos, because people have been so numbed by their dependence that they cannot even think about what to do next. In terms of contemporary culture, Forster assumes a mass of aimless zombies, rather than an angry mob with torches and pitchforks! Was he successful in seeing the future, and are we it?