David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

Ten Things Computers Should All Do Flawlessly, But Generally Don’t

I’ve been using computers since the mid ’80s. I remember tackling CP/M and Peachtree word processing back in the day, and I remember upgrading my computer to MS-DOS 3.3. I went to college in 1989 with a no-name PC clone sporting an 8086 processor that ran at something like 4 MHz. It had an amber monitor that would have looked at home in that VW Bus they drove around in Scooby-Doo.

Banana Jr. ComputerA lot has changed since then. But sometimes I wonder if the computing industry — all of it, from software to hardware to web services — really has the right priorities in mind. So here’s my list of the things that I hope to hell are working flawlessly by 2018. The frustrating thing is that every single one of these things can be done with today’s technology (except possibly for #7).

  1. Automatic file syncing. It’s astounding how badly computers do this. Every operating system on every computer sucks at syncing files; it’s only a matter of degree. I should be able to turn on any device I own and access any file I own, and it should all happen transparently. I don’t want to have to think about where I put a particular file, or whether I can access it from my iPhone. My calendar events should automatically sync between my Blackberry, my desktop, my Google Calendar, and my websites. Perhaps the key is to have everything save to “the cloud” and sync locally for offline access; I don’t know. I just want it to work.
  2. Automatic configuration syncing. The younger, hotter sister of automatic file syncing. Now that we’re all starting to use web applications for everything instead of sending files around, these web applications all need to be able to talk to each other. My bookmarks should follow me from machine to machine, and from browser to browser. Every time I configure my Firefox or my Windows Media Player just the way I like it, I shouldn’t have to go through the same painstaking customization process on every machine I touch.
  3. Automatic backups. Macs now do this as a matter of course with Time Machine software. But Windows doesn’t. Well, let me qualify that — Windows will back up important system files as a matter of course, and create confusing “shadow copies” of documents in the background that you can roll back to. But it’s confusing as hell and inefficient to boot. What’s more, I want my computer to back up to an online storage facility, not some clunky piece of crap that’s hogging space on my desk.
  4. Automatic upgrades. I’m not just talking about the operating system software here — I’m talking about every piece of software and hardware should automatically check for upgrades on a regular basis from a single, unified interface. And then give me the option to install or not install. Linux does this, and Microsoft has made efforts towards this with their Windows Update facility. But right now I have separate programs on my desktop working in the background to check for updates from Java, Logitech, Apple, Adobe, ESET, Mozilla, and Dell. And that doesn’t include all of the programs that check for updates when you fire them up.
  5. Integrated security. This whole system of remembering a million different passwords in a million different places is unworkable. Not only that, but it’s not secure, because everyone on Earth except for Bruce Schneier either a) has their passwords written down on a Post-It note, b) uses ridiculously insecure passwords like their dog’s name, or c) has a handful of relatively secure passwords that they use over and over again, because we can only remember so many garbled strings of letters and numbers. I’m not a security expert, but it seems to me that biometric security would be a step up from where we are today.
  6. HAL 9000 ComputerCentralized identity management. Why do I have to constantly retype the same address information, the same email address, the same websites? Why is it that when I update my official bio to reflect a new book release, I have to log in to 4000 different websites and manually change my bios one by one? I understand the need to respect privacy — but if I want to share my information with a particular website, application, or company, shouldn’t I be able to do that with a click or two? We need trusted, universal services that can verify your identity wherever you are online.
  7. Useful battery life. I am sick to death of power cords. If I never saw another power cord in my life, it would be too soon. But I could deal with power cords if they only led to docking stations that charged up my appliances enough to make them usable for an entire day. But right now, my laptop barely survives three or four hours untethered; my Blackberry struggles to get through the day with the WiFi switched on all the time. Fer the love o’ Christ, people, I need at least a day’s worth of juice for every machine I own. Please.
  8. Everything wireless. I’ve got connecting cables for my BlackBerry and my iPod. The printer’s wired to the desktop, as are the quad speakers and the subwoofer. The keyboard and mouse aren’t wired anymore — but the wireless transmitter for the keyboard and mouse is wired. I want, at most, one power cable snaking from the back of my computer to the wall. Apple is leading the way on this one, as usual. But with Bluetooth moving onto more and more devices, we’re getting close to achieving this one on all platforms.
  9. True, modular upgrades. For years, I’ve had the dream of having a single system that could be upgraded in a modular fashion. I’ll snap in the newest processor every couple of years. I’ll beef up my sound card on alternate years. I’ll upgrade the video card as circumstances warrant. But it seems that no matter how hard I try, I have to scrap everything and start from scratch after a few seasons. Is it really that difficult to future-proof hardware so I can upgrade my systems one piece at a time?
  10. True plug and play. Let’s say it together: every piece of equipment I buy should be able to interface with every other piece of equipment I own. I should never be in the position of having to struggle to get photographs from the camera to the printer, or having to figure out whether the DVDs I burned on one computer can be read on another — much less have trouble networking my Linux, Mac, and Windows boxes together.

Agree? Disagree? And what have I missed?

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  1. Skott Klebe on August 25, 2008 at 11:29 am  Chain link

    I’ve been reading Geekonomics lately, and I’m struck by how modest your requests are for the next ten years. How about software that doesn’t need to be upgraded every month? How about software license terms that oblige the vendor to give you a working product for your money, that oblige the vendor not to cause you physical or financial harm through its product’s faults?

    I’m not too charmed by the idea of a centralized universal identity store. One Big Target. It would wind up getting run by organized crime out of Eastern Europe.
    Wish for some sort of OpenID-like thing that allows you to choose your identity host, where your ID was stored at your site, or your bank’s, or Amazon, and you could supply a pointer to it instead of retyping it. There’s a decent possibility that will emerge in 3-5 years. You know what would speed that up?

    New law that would force liability onto software vendors, so that it’s cheaper for new services to offload the identity piece onto people who knew what they were doing. Innovation might slow (I could argue either way) but your safety would increase, and I’ll bet you get your hosted identity along the way.
    SK

  2. Skott Klebe on August 25, 2008 at 11:31 am  Chain link

    Sorry about the italics mess above. How about,

    10. Markup that doesn’t suck?

  3. David Louis Edelman on August 25, 2008 at 11:37 am  Chain link

    Skott: Good points. Let me be clear that I don’t think these are the only ten things that I want to see accomplished in ten years. These are more like the ten things that we really should already be taking for granted, but can’t, because they’re still not entirely here yet.

    Yes, you’re right, an OpenID-like thing is what I was thinking. Not really “centralized” at all. I misspoke, probably should have said “standardized” instead.

    And I’ve fixed your italics mess. :-)

  4. brian t on August 25, 2008 at 11:47 am  Chain link

    Re # 1, 3, I’m currently in the beta trials for a service called Dropbox (getdropbox.com) which does a lot of that. Currently PC and Mac only, with Linux coming, smaller devices some way off I think. All files dropped in a certain folder are synced to their servers, then back out to all attached devices. Only changes are synced. It works as a backup service, and also keeps older versions of files so you can back out changes if necessary.

    David – I have a couple of beta invites going spare, send me an email if you’d like one. (It’s one of those GMail type systems where I pass them the address to send the invite to.) They will eventually charge for space usage over 1GB (2GB for beta testers).

    re #2: Well, Firefox bookmarks can be synced easily enough: install the Foxmarks extension.

    re # 5-6 – isn’t that what Microsoft tried to do with Passport? Be careful what you wish for..!

    re #7: we’re getting there. I got an Asus eee PC 1000 a couple of days ago, and am getting 5+ hours of non-stop usage, which I could easily extend by switching off wireless etc. or using standby more.

  5. Skott Klebe on August 25, 2008 at 11:59 am  Chain link

    5. I might like dongles better than biometric, if people quit implementing them so badly (cf, chip-and-pin, CharlieCard). People know how to carry keys. If you logged into your computer the same way you log into your car – at least old-fashioned cars that need keys – there wouldn’t be be nearly as big a problem. Hotwiring is a lot harder than guessing that your password is on a post-it note under your keyboard, don’t you think?
    There are a lot of issues with biometrics that we don’t know how to make work in society today:
    What if you lose the finger? or eye?
    If cars needed fingerprints to start, car thieves would carry machetes – probably not the outcome you wanted.
    DNA? How about, infectious diseases transmitted by the collection ports? How does the Witness Protection Program work? I think there’s a novel to be written about that!
    Another issue with biometrics is the inevitability of error crossed with the assumption of perfection. Next to DNA, forensic fingerprints are the just about the thing to absolute identification we have (the doohickey on your laptop, that’s another story) — assuming that the database they’re stored in is PERFECT, that is, ENTIRELY FREE FROM ERROR. What do you think – is the FBI’s fingerprint database the only perfect thing ever created by the hand of man? Hmm?
    However, there’s a legal and social presumption of perfect accuracy. If they misfile your fingerprints as those of a felon, you are not going to be able to prove you are not that felon at trial. Do not collect $200.
    The doohickey on your laptop can be fooled by anyone with access to your finger, Knox gelatin, and a little time. Just your finger – the rest of your body isn’t required.

  6. David Louis Edelman on August 25, 2008 at 12:40 pm  Chain link

    brian t: Better than Foxmarks is Mozilla Weave, which will sync your Firefox bookmarks, history, cookies, tabs, passwords, and form data (when it’s working and the server’s not overloaded).

    Skott: As someone who worked at a biometric company for several years, I think the downsides of biometrics, though real, are much overstated. Yes, fingerprints can be duplicated and misfiled. Yes, some idiots are going to try chopping off someone’s finger (though newer fingerprint scanners aren’t fooled by severed fingers). But it’s much, much easier to memorize someone’s 16-digit credit card number, or their seven-digit password. Combine a biometric with a PIN, and you’ve got a much more secure system of authentication.

    But dongles are a very good idea too.

  7. King Rat on August 25, 2008 at 10:07 pm  Chain link

    I keep hoping that OpenID gets enough momentum to be truly universal. However, I think it’s doomed to fail for the same reason that Microsoft’s Passport and similar measures failed. Not because people won’t use it. But instead because web sites won’t. When I worked at Expedia, our discussions a lot of the time revolved around “owning” our customers. When a business adopts a different log in scheme, it no longer owns the information about it’s customers. Every time we used something like Passport, we negotiated some pretty intensive agreements about sharing information. We brought out cruise business in house from a partner partially because then we would control the customer list. Something like OpenID is a hard sell in a big business simply because there isn’t a single company on the other end.

    Nevertheless, I keep my fingers crossed that it will happen. I should look at turning OpenID back on for my site (the plugin was having issues).

    I saw an interesting story (sorry, don’t remember the link) that combines 7 and 8. Basically some university has a prototype that recharges things wirelessly. Put your ipod on a desk and it recharges. We’ve known how to do that for a while, but the new method is pretty efficient, where old methods lost a lot of power for various reasons.

    Oh, and one other promising thing is a combination of OpenID and password management. With a hardware card, some standard software, OpenID and some cooperating web sites, both of these can be done right now. No passwords needed. Of course, without OpenID being universally supported, it’s still a wish.

    It’s a good list though of things that we should have now, but don’t.

  8. Brian Dunbar on August 27, 2008 at 8:13 pm  Chain link

    Hmm.

    1-5 are available now. The downside is that it’s only available to an organization with a clued-in IT staff who have management’s support. And the up-front costs are not cheap.

    Cheaper than going without – but the latter option only shows up as the death of a thousand cuts as people try to work.

    Also – it’s not very flexible. You can’t just drop in a brand new appliance from Best Buy and expect it to work across the work network. The upside is that when you get the bits moving together they work.

    I am not sure Open ID is an answer. Okay, yes, one ID: hooray. Except that we’ve still got the problem of bad passwords and stickies with passwords on them.

    With a hardware card, some standard software, OpenID and some cooperating web sites, both of these can be done right now.

    A hardware key / open ID would be nice – but a hardware solution isn’t going to work unless the things are as common as house keys. And even then – it feels like a step backward. I’ve got a hardware key for getting to the VPN at work. It’s a pain – to login I gotta find the key. Now, because it’s _work_ it’s always in my laptop bag.

    In theory. Sometimes it’s on my nightstand, where I used it last. The point is that a userid/password pair is a bunch easier to use than a friggin’ key.

    It feels like the way forward is using SSH. I’ve used SSH to encrypt public/private keys for logging in – just GO. But the problem is this is only for terminal sessions on servers. It could probably be extended ….

  9. Alexander Izmukhambetov on September 20, 2008 at 10:25 pm  Chain link

    Dear David,
    I may be wrong on this one, but like to look at this issue from a different perspective. Instead of saying that machines are not smart enough for our society, I think it is the general public, on many occasions, who is not smart enough to operate these machines properly. I am a programmer and a statistician, and I have solved every one on these 10 issues for myself. May be the solutions are not perfect, but they work for me.

    Microsoft has spoiled everybody with their “easy to use” interfaces and software, so people really are starting to forget the fundamentals of information technology, without which it was not possible even to approach a computer 20 years ago. I am not saying that everyone must become a programmer, but, for process’s preservation:), people these days don’t know how many bits there are in a byte. They don’t know what a directory is. When people see a DOS console, they associate it with some kind of malfunction.

    I think the software should continue to develop. But I also think people should do the same!

    However, I do appreciate a well designed, integrated, user friendly system. Valve’s “Steam” Web distribution engine is one example.

    P.S. Thank you very much for you BRILLIANT books. I’ve bought them accidentally in a bookstore. When I started reading, I just couldn’t stop. I’ve finished them both in 3 days. When I read one of the acknowledgments which was comparing these books to Frank Herbert’s Dune, I was skeptical at first. But after I have finished reading the books, this skepticism of mine vanished without a trace. I think Infoquake and Multireal (especially the later) are even better than Dune.

    I’ll be waiting anxiously for the third book.
    THANK YOU!!!

  10. David Louis Edelman on September 21, 2008 at 12:22 pm  Chain link

    Alexander: Honestly, I think the less we have to know about information technology, the better. I’ve driven automobiles hundreds of thousands of miles in my life, and I only have the foggiest idea how cars work. For the folks who have an interest in the mechanics of internal combustion engines, terrific — but I’m content just to stick in the key and use the gas, brake, and steering wheel, because I’m more concerned with where I’m going than how I get there.

    And thanks for the good words about the books. :-)

  11. Alexander Izmukhambetov on September 22, 2008 at 11:14 pm  Chain link

    Hi David,
    Actually, automobiles are great examples of technology progress. I’ve bought a Lexus six months ago and it came with a 300 pages manual:) I am still confused about some functions of its’ navigation system. But I’m getting there:)

    I am sorry, I can’t express my thoughts well in writing. Especially since English is not my first language. But I guess, what I tried to say, is that the solutions are out there. It is just sometimes users are not educated enough about the technology to make the decision of which tools to use. Again, I am not saying that people must be able to program assembler. All I wish for, is that users would take the time to research what is available. And there is alway tools available for almost any purpose. It is just users don’t always know what to look for. And for that purpose, I think, we should take some time to educate ourselves at least to the point of using the tool.

    Back to automobiles. In order to operate a car, it is not only key, gas, break and steering wheel. You also need to know the traffic rules and have a certain amount of skill and knowledge accumulated in order to drive a car. You need to know where the gas tank cap is located and how to operate it at the gas station. Or even how to put a spare tire on. Basic knowledge, I agree. But that is the kind of knowledge I am talking about, that I see missing in many people in regard to computers.

    But I do understand your point as well. Information technology should progress towards integration. Technologies need to be constantly improving. And I think many things should be easier than they currently are.

  12. David Louis Edelman on September 23, 2008 at 7:46 pm  Chain link

    Alexander: Some good points there. My best answer is that I think that most of these skills are things that younger generations who grew up with computers have no problems with. I imagine the first generation or two who grew up with automobiles had pretty lousy driving records too…

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