Monday, January 28, 2008

I Don't Care What Time It is In Katmandu!

A few weeks back there was an interesting segment broadcast on 60 Minutes discussing the increased complexity of technology. David Pogue, a respected and articulate technology columnist for the New York Times was featured in the segment. The discussion centered around the popularity of new services launched to help Joe and Mary Consumer deal with new home computers, appliances and entertainment systems. David was challenging the interviewer to find the on and off button, volume control and channel change button on a new remote control. As you might guess, the intelligent educated reporter could not easily find any of these basic functions. All I could think of is “been there, bought the tee shirt.”

The 60 Minutes segment related that service companies like “Geek Squad®” and “Firedog” have developed quickly to fill a need. Technicians from these companies come to your house and can fix your PC or teach you how to use your remote control. We shouldn’t need them for the latter. For sure some companies do a better job of friendly intuitive designs. Apple, for example, seems to be able to have powerful devices with easy to use interfaces. They remain one of the few.

While I am not an engineer, I have more than a passing knowledge of new technology and I have to admit some of the controls and instructions for these devices leave me clueless. Why is it that we can design and build a vast array of truly marvelous devices and can’t make them easy to use?

I think there are two main reasons. First of all designers seem to want to make every electronic device a sort of Swiss Army Knife. It is not enough for the refrigerator to keep food cold, someone wants to put a TV on the door. A simple wrist watch not only tells you the current time but must be able to tell you what time it is in Katmandu and what time sunrise happens in Timbuktu. Don’t even get me started on cell phones. The classic has to be the much maligned BMW and Lexis controls that required you to use a menu system on a flat panel display to control the AC and other basic functions. Why do they do this? Because they can. The use of microprocessors makes the incremental cost to add these functions minimal so engineers keep pushing the envelope.

The second reason has to do with the fast pace of change. Products are coming off the production line and into the store in record time. With the attitude first adopted by software developers, i.e. “we’ll fix it in version two,” there just is not time for “real” people to use the product and find the design flaws before it is shipped. In other words, products never get to the mature level.

On another topic, I got the following email from a reader in West Harrison:

I read your article printed in the January 16, 2008, Harrison Press regarding DTV converter coupons. Apparently the information I obtained when I called DTV-2009 was different from the information you obtained. I was told the coupons would not be mailed until the converters were available in the stores, and the expiration date would be 90 days from when they were mailed.

I was also told only 2 coupons would be mailed to each household, so if you let your coupons expire before using, you cannot have any additional ones mailed to the same address. Therefore, reapplying for coupons will not be an option, unless you have them mailed to someone else’s address.

I look forward to your advice on which converter to buy and where to find the best deals.


Nancy asks some good questions. I also have read several versions of how the program is rolling out. I have read several different interpretations from NTIA, the government office in charge of the program. The most recent NTIA release stated that coupons would begin to be sent out Feb 17, 2007. How they will know if the tuners are in our local stores is beyond me. A recent discussion with one of the sales people at Best Buy™ gave me even more pause, as he not only did not know when converters would be available at Best Buy™, but I had to explain to him what a converter was, what it was used for, and that there would be coupons. Not a good sign.

The government has some 22 million coupons to send out in the first round. Another 11 million will be available after the first round is used up. In the second round though, you will only be eligible for coupons if you DO NOT have cable or satellite.

All this being said, I still think that since we have more than a year before we need converters, waiting to send for the coupons until the devices are available in local outlets is the better way to go. Also, I am not sure that I want a first generation model anyway.

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