How to make computing more pleasant

How to make computing more pleasant
Richard Cobbett is a regular contributor to TechRadar

While I doubt it's actually true, I was amused by the story about Google's plans to remove the Caps Lock keys from its Chrome branded laptops.

The idea isn't to save a millionth of a penny, but to try to change the world a little bit for the better - making it harder for people to SHOUT LIKE THIS all the time.

It's a silly idea, not least because I just typed that by holding down the Shift key, but an interesting one, if only because petty annoyances and computers go together like chalk and a substance that looks like chalk but is actually the ground-up remnants of engineers' souls. Possibly with some rat poison thrown in for good measure.

It doesn't matter how infuriating something is. As long as everyone does it, complaining about it isn't just pointless, but counter-productive, because everyone thinks that's how it's meant to be done.

It takes a rare company like Apple or Google to have the guts to go ahead and change it anyway, not least because the only way to make it work is to take away the alternative.

Doing it differently

The iPad, for instance, only works because Steve Jobs and his engineers had the guts to ditch a physical keyboard. Google Mail offered a gigabyte of free space when everyone else was offering 25MB or so, because it was willing to sacrifice offering a Mail Plus option in the name of how it thought email should be done. In both cases, of course, the rest of the industry followed suit.

I want to see more such cases. In fact, I'll offer a few for some heroic company out there to get the ball rolling.

Let's start with serial numbers. I'm sick of typing serial numbers. Sick of it. The only reason to have a 26-character number is if you one day hope to sell a copy to every single atom in the galaxy. Unless you're World of Warcraft, which appears to be getting close, it's just not going to happen.

Props go to BitDefender for only having a seven-character one to enter, but I want to see more. Or is that fewer? Either way, I never want to type another one ever again.

This goes double for products that don't even do an online check in the first place. Pointless! Die! (I'm reminded of the copy protection systems found on many old adventure games, in which company after company failed to spot the amusing irony of putting some trivial lock in front of an audience who wanted to spend their evenings solving problems.)

Age gates and error messages

Next on my hitlist: age gates. You'll have seen these. You head to a website for a game or film, but before you can go in, you're stopped by a screen asking you to tell it when you were born.

Not only is there never, ever anything particularly exciting behind them, who exactly is this trying to stop? Only teenagers who can't count.

Perhaps we could solve that problem by making the entry question a bit of trivia instead. The teenagers will still be able to get through and be disappointed by the lack of blood, sex and naughty language, but at least they'll do it knowing that the plastic things on the ends of shoelaces are called aglets.

Third up, error messages. If they don't make sense, I don't want to see them. Error Code -51? No. If you know the code, you can tell me the error and tell me how to fix it. "Oops, something went wrong" is not an acceptable answer. At the very least, a program should be able to tell me whether or not it's my fault.

Please try again

Fourth, passwords. Nobody is looking over my shoulder. Stop replacing what I type with '*******'. That goes double for phones, where the chances of hitting the wrong key are so much higher, but triple - no, quadruple with whipped cream and a cherry on top - for anything that wants me to enter it twice in case I made a mistake.

In a similar vein, any website that deletes so much as a single field after rejecting a login attempt is officially on the list, along with the indecipherable CAPTCHAs that usually cause that to happen. (CAPTCHAs incidentally need a new name. I suggest "Useless Humanity Checks That Don't Actually Work", but I'm open to suggestions.)

The irony of almost everything like this is that it only takes one company to take the plunge, and the rest can fall into line with a sigh of genuine relief. It's the other side of doing something because everyone else does, and why we no longer have to worry about things like dongles and CD checks and using specific browsers.

For that reason, if Google's Caps Lock crusade doesn't turn out to be utter nonsense - and I suspect that it will - it'll be something to shout about. Except we won't be able to then, will we? Damn you, Google. Damn you quietly to heck.


First published in PC Plus Issue 304

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