May 26, 2003

YourSymbian Issue 7 Backstop - No User Maintainable Parts Inside

With the current issue of Your Symbian e-zine I am bringing a new element of interaction to the magazine. The backstop itself is reprinted here if anyone wants to re-read it. This allows you to comment on the article as you feel, and allow any other interested readers the chance to read your comments.

No user maintainable parts inside

A common site on most electrical and mechanical products available today, a notice to point out that you shouldn't play with what you don't understand. Unfortunately with the increasing amount of non-user-maintainable products about there is more wastage where people dispose of things because it works out cheaper to get another than to get the old one repaired. Take cars for instance, years ago you were expected to perform some maintenance on them yourself, on modern cars checking the oil and water levels is almost a job for the mechanic. I've read an article on this in Land Rover Enthusiast magazine recently and it got me thinking, not only has this happened to cars, but to computers too.

Rewind 18 years or so, the average home computer was an 8bit, which came with manuals detailing almost everything you'd need to know, including pin-outs of all the ports, and how to use the bundled software. This bundled software almost always included at least 1 game, some kind of productivity app like a word processor, and 1 programming language. In these now rather distant days, it was common place to go round a friends house and find them copying code out of magazines onto their computer to get games, and in a sense get more from their computer. One such electronically minded friend of mine would be found with various wires and components on a bread-board hanging out of the back of his computers, while making some software to control this device.

Roll forward 3 to 5 years where the 16bit computers grabbed the home market. More advanced machinery but again with the same basics of enough manuals to get the most hardened insomniac to sleep and the ubiquitous programming language and pin outs. Again my friend from above could be found exibiting the same behaviour on this kit, and to an extent so could I.

Now look a few years later to when the IBM compatible pc hit the mainstream home computer market, computers soon lacked manuals, there were no pin-outs, as the majority shipped with MS-DOS and Windows installed you still got a programming language, Q-basic, or GWbasic, although you didn't have any information on how to use them. For all but the experienced home programmer, and the few people willing to take on the challenge, home programming for the computer started to decline about here.

Now a Windoze pc ships with almost no documentation and no programming languages, leaving programming firmly in the laps of those who know what they are doing and know they want to do it. Fiddling with eletronics and code to make your computer change the channel on your telly, while not entirely useful, was a part of having a computer that has since been lost. Sure installing Linux or BeOS on your computer brings you dev tools, and the docs you need to carry on as before, but unfortunately these are tools for the more experienced user.

The ability to program and in a way control what your computer did was a kind of user satisfying pasttime that at the time could take the least experienced person and teach and help them. While some people are willing to just use the computer and ignore the rest, there are the serial fiddlers, who like to feel a deeper involvement. Similar to the people who spend money buying kits to do up their car as they can't play with the important bits under the bonnet they upgrade what they can on the outside, which I'm afraid I must admit to doing too.

I'm not talking full return to the old days where magazines could be known to print plans of the circuit boards and give advice on modifications, but the release of pin-outs and manuals expalining how to use the supplied programming tools that would be supplied with the machine. Until recently the Psion had OPL installed on it and came with instructions of it's use, with the Psion's demise, there is currently no PDA that you can code for on the device itself out of the box, and even worse no devie that I know of that you can code for out of the box on a computer either. The pin-outs are not documented and there is none of the ability to "fiddle" with the device.

Most people reading this are probably thinking that I'm going mad and that no-one could be expected pick up one of these devices and code for it. Step back and think for a minute, are there any apps that you could think of that would make your life easier, or you would find handy on your device? 9 times out of 10 these apps are small and simple but are only really attractive to so few people that programmers will not think of them or if they do they'll feel the market is too small to produce for. This is where there is a need and a use for programming tools to be distributed.

Use is made more fulfilling and gives a greater sense of achievement if you have the chance to have a deeper involvement of the device. This is how you create a larger userbase of people who will stick with a device. This will also lead to a fuller software selection for the device both for those who like to "lift the lid" and for those who prefer just to use. The ability to get a device and instantly develop for it has been slowly vanishing over recent years, lets hope that the errors of this can be seen before we are all left to forking out £xxxxs for software to do something we used to be able to do for free.

Posted by Switchblade at May 26, 2003 12:07 AM
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