The visible problems of the invisible computer: A skeptical look at information appliances


  • Andrew Odlyzko



The future is said to belong to information appliances, specialized and easy to use devices that will have the car tell the coffee pot to brew a cup of coffee just in time for our arrival home. These gadgets are supposed to eliminate the complexity and resulting frustrations of the PC. The thesis of this essay is that while information appliances will proliferate, they will not lessen the perception of an exasperating electronic environment. The interaction of the coffee pot, the car, the smart fridge, and the networked camera will create a new layer of complexity. In the rush towards the digital era, we will continue to live right on the edge of intolerable frustration. The paradox of information appliances is that while they are presented as products for a mature market, their main effect will be to unleash a tidal wave of innovation. When technology changes rapidly, greater ease of use serves to attract more users and developers, creating new frustrations. The most we can do is ameliorate the spread of the information appliance products and services. To do this, it appears necessary to recognize that flexibility and ease of use are in an unavoidable conflict, and that the optimal balance between those two factors differs among users. Therefore systems should be designed to have degrees of flexibility that can be customized for different people. It will also be essential to provide for remote administration of home computing and networking.




How to Cite

Odlyzko, A. (1999). The visible problems of the invisible computer: A skeptical look at information appliances. First Monday, 4(9).