Phones, TVs, and Computers

After returning from CTIA in New Orleans a couple of weeks ago, I observe that we have indeed made quite a lot of progress: Our televisions and phones are now as difficult to use as our computers!

by Robert O’Hara

In May of 1982 I worked at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York. Along with several colleagues, I was exploring ways to improve the usability of IBM’s mainframe timesharing system of that time, VM/370.

Let me remind you of the state of technology thirty years ago. Personal computers were still largely regarded as hobbyist toys. The Apple II was just beginning to see uptake by businesses. The IBM PC had been launched the previous August and was just beginning to be recognized as a huge and unanticipated success. The MacIntosh was two years away. Mainframe computers represented the majority of the computing power in the world. If you used a computer, you used it at work. There were no tablets or laptops, no portable computers of any kind. The Internet had yet to be born (although its predecessor, Arpanet, was available to universities).

At home, the world was quite different from today. There were no cellular phones or even cordless phones at home. You got your phone from the phone company: desktop, wall, or princess (remember that?). Answering machines were only beginning to appear, and voicemail was an experimental project at IBM Research residing on (again) a mainframe computer. So your telephone was quite easy to use. If it rang, someone was calling. If you wanted to call someone, you pressed the keys, and that was it.

Television was also quite simple: You turned it on and selected the channel you wanted to watch. I had twenty or so cable TV channels, which I accessed through the television tuner. Cable set-top boxes had yet to appear. VCRs had been introduced only a couple of years earlier and were still quite rare. For most people, if you wanted to watch a television show or sporting event, you had to be in front of your TV at the time of the broadcast.

I relate this because at a lunchtime conversation at IBM Research in early 1982, a colleague of mine lamented that if only we could make computers as easy to use as televisions or phones we would make quite a lot of progress. We all agreed that this was a worthy goal.

Now, it is thirty years later. After returning from CTIA in New Orleans a couple of weeks ago, I observe that we have indeed made quite a lot of progress: Our televisions and phones are now as difficult to use as our computers!

It takes four separate remote controls to operate my television, cable box, disc player, and amplifier, and multiple button presses on them to acquire what I want to view. Thirty years ago I simply turned the TV on and it was playing the channel I had last watched.

To make a call on my smartphone I must press two different buttons then tap the screen before I can begin dialing a number. Thirty years ago, I simply picked up the handset and started dialing.

As for computers, well, I will leave them out of this. While still complicated, they have come a long way from the days of MS-DOS or the mainframe timesharing systems. Computers are indeed easier to use than those of thirty years ago.

What has happened?

Our televisions are more difficult to use because they are no longer merely televisions.

Thirty years ago, I had cable TV at my house, but no cable box was required. Rather, the television’s tuner accessed the twenty or thirty available channels. VCRs were beginning to hit the market, and I did not yet own one. So my television was only a television, and the single remote control was all I needed.

My television today is no longer a standalone device. Rather, it is one component of a sophisticated home entertainment system. Its 55-inch high-definition flat screen puts the 1978 Sylvania 25-inch CRT to shame. Instead of the single six-inch speaker in the old TV, I now have a five-speaker surround sound system that provides immersive high fidelity music and soundtracks. Through the cable box, I have access to scores of channels plus movies and special events on demand. I also have a Blu-Ray disk player that delivers beautiful movies from disks the same size as the floppies on my original IBM PC. The player also has a set of applications, including Facebook, Netflix, Pandora, and Vudu that provide access to all sorts of media from the Internet.

Of course, the television, cable box, disk player, and amplifier each have their own remote controls. Turning it all on and off or selecting the proper input or application for the television takes quite a bit of doing. In fact, I have had to write up a one-page document on how to watch television in our house!

While I would not trade the capabilities of today’s entertainment system for my television of thirty years ago, I do miss its simplicity and ease of use. This leads me to ask, what is the source of the complexity, and how can it be reduced? I believe there are two main problems: poor integration among the multiple devices that make up a home entertainment system, and the use of one-way infrared signals to control those devices.

DLNA, the Digital Living Network Alliance, was supposed to solve the integration problem. It provides a means for the various devices to recognize each other and transfer control and media among them. In theory, it should enable me to build a home entertainment system using components from different manufacturers. This is a great goal, but in my experience the reality falls short.

In order to watch television, I must turn on the television, the cable box, and the amplifier. The television and amplifier are DLNA-compliant, but the cable box is not. My amplifier cannot be controlled from my television. It worked with an older television, but not with the newer one. Thus I have two choices: Use the multiple remote controls provided, or purchase a smarter, programmable remote control.

This leads us to the second problem—trying to control multiple devices with a single remote control. Such programmable remotes are surprising easy to program, although I’ve never wanted to spend an hour or more programming them. That accomplished, we are still left with the inadequacies of the one-way infrared signaling system. The key problem is that the remote control cannot know the state of the device it is trying to control. In particular, it cannot turn the device on or off; it can only toggle between on or off.

When I use the remote control to begin watching television, it first sends a signal to turn on the television, then a second signal to turn on the amplifier, then a third signal to turn on the cable box. This takes close to five seconds, during which time I must continue to aim the remote control at the devices. If I fail to hold it steady, one of the three devices will not turn on. If I use the remote to try to turn the others off, those that are on will turn off, and the one that is off will turn on. Thus I must get up and go over to turn it on manually.

Once everything is all powered up, I must still navigate to the Netflix application if I want to watch a movie, and must remember that to get to Netflix the Blu-Ray player must be powered up and I need to select it as the input source for the television. Sound complicated? It is.

Our telephones are more difficult to use because they are no longer merely telephones.

My smartphone is a computer. Of course, since it is a cellular telephone I can use it almost anywhere in the world. And, of course, it does so much more than the corded landline phones of 1982. Today I use Microsoft Outlook on my computer and access the same Exchange server from my phone. My email, address book, calendar, and tasks are all automatically synchronized. This works really well and was simple to set up.

Beyond that, from my phone I can access friends on Facebook and colleagues on LinkedIn. Because my phone has a GPS receiver, I can get driving directions and a traffic app to help me avoid backups. With the browser, I can access any website in the world. Simply amazing from a device that fits in my shirt pocket.

While all of this capability is wonderful, it makes the phone more complex. I must navigate through different screens to access the information I want. Applications I never use clutter the screen. Since my Facebook friends are displayed in the contacts application, I must wade through all of them to find the person I actually want to call.

What is the solution? Better design. This is easy to say but difficult to do well. I’m not about to teach anyone how to build a better television or phone. Instead, I offer three principals that are often lacking in many of today’s mobile phones.

  1. Prioritize. What is the most important function of the product? If it does ten things and all of those are of equal priority, the product will be complicated. Having said that, I recognize that different people may use the same product in different ways. For example, I talk much more than I text. With my children it is the opposite. See point 3 for a solution to this.
  2. Hide the details. There needs to be more of this in products. Prioritizing the most important functions does not mean other capabilities must be removed. Hide those extra capabilities, but still make them accessible.
  3. Support profiles. Great products allow for creation of profiles or customizations. That way I can make the product work better for me, which is no doubt different from the way my children will use it.

I’ve used smartphones based on each of the main platforms, and in my experience they all demonstrate this problem to a greater or lesser extent.

There you have it. I await better designed devices that will make my life simpler!

Robert O’Hara

One Comment on “Phones, TVs, and Computers”

  1. loriguidos says:

    Thank you Robert!

    I wholeheartedly agree.

    As a nation, Broadband USA (NTIA) is rolling out additional hardware and internet access to the nation’s low income communities made up largely of seniors and people with disabilities.

    Unfortunately, for this community –computers, tv’s and phones are so very complicated and still not secure making many people still intimidated and unable to use them.

    The best ways we can create more supportive environments and help bring people forward is by ease of use and affordability. This requires what we have been avoiding a major legislative push toward standardization.

    I also want to make point of the fear that many users have over identity theft and using computer technology. The best way I can illustrate this is to point to to the notice sent from the State of California recently to 771,000 SSI recipients (read lowest income seniors and people with disabilities) informing them that they needed to flag their credit records because unencrypted data packets containing personal information of the seniors (employers EIN numbers) and personal information of their caregivers (employees)were lost/damaged from delivery from HP Processing Plant and State of California Insurance Program. You can’t imagine the impact both emotionally as well as potentially financially to this group of citizens.

    How do we get those stakeholders and government officials to listen to our plea?

    If you have any suggestions please contact me directly at lori at disabledcommunity dot org.


    Lori B. Guidos
    Executive Director

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