Mar 012007

The user interfaces on computers have not really gone through that many revisions. I’m certainly not a historian of all computer systems, but the basic idea is that computer use became much easier as the interface became more graphical and ‘user friendly’. I still must question how effective modern interfaces are, though.

Suppose you have a certain phone manufactured by Samsung with awful software that supposedly combines the functionality of an iPod and a cell phone. Although this phone will play MP3 songs, it will only play them if they are a very specific type of MP3, the filename doesn’t contain any special characters and the filename is 32 characters or shorter. How do you copy your music collection onto this phone?

Most normal users would be forced to manually select each file and rename it. If the MP3 isn’t in the right format, they’ll have to go find some application that does what they need and manually re-encode the song. It certainly isn’t an impossible task – the computer has no trouble doing this – but the user has to spend an incredible amount of time telling the computer exactly what to do. There is an enormous gap between the user’s wishes and the computer’s functions. Are current user interfaces really friendly if you drive yourself mad instructing the computer as to what it must do?

Of course, the original computer interface – a textual command line – is still available for those users who know how to work it. In fact, if the user is trained this interface is much more friendly than an ‘easy’ graphical interface. I was able to easily re-encode and rename all the songs:

for i in `ls`; do mplayer $i -ao pcm:file=$i.wav -vc null -vo null; lame --cbr -b 192 $i.wav ../PhoneMusicSync/$i.mp3; rm $i.wav; done

cd ../PhoneMusicSync/

for i in `ls`; do mv $i `echo $i | sed -r 's/(.{27}).*.(mp3)/1.2/'`; done

Furthermore, I could just as easily have done this work from the other side of the planet. Most users are still stuck on the idea that they can only work on the computer sitting in front of them.

The problem is that normal users do not have any way to interface their desires with the control of their computer. They can’t be expected to learn anything too new or complicated, so the computer must learn to interface with them. I think this will require the computer to comprehend and interpret human language, which is not something I expect to see soon.

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