OS News

3 Nov 1997

The Computer My Mom Needs

By Joanne Rodgers

The kind of computer my mom is looking for is more in the line of toaster oven technology  
Remember, computers age faster
than dogs
The closest system with the level of complexity I'm looking for is is Web TV or another so-called set top appliance, but it does not have the functionality  

My mom called me the other day to ask for help in getting her 1985 Epson green screen PC set up for word processing and email. Having no idea myself how to get an old DOS computer hooked up to the internet at all, it was clear to me that she needed a new computer. And when you say new computer, you usually mean a shiny new Windows 95 PC.

My Mom
My mom, circa 1968

With all the media hype, Bill Gates' photo emblazoned on every imaginable magazine, little clouds everywhere and ads at the local area office super store saying, "Get more done easily with Windows '95," for the low low price of $99.99, the world's most popular operating system sure is high profile. But is a new Windows 95 PC right for my mom?

I asked my mom if she had heard of Windows 95. Her first response: "No." Let me give you a background on her answer. I grew up in a home that in the mid 1980's had three computers and a laser printer. Computers are not a new thing to my mom. After some Pictionary type hints, she said that Windows 95 must have something to do with computers.

After her vacant reply I wondered, what is it that my mom really needs? Throwing the Microsoft media blitz to the wind I was faced with the question, "Why would she or the millions of people her age even need a complicated OS?" Answer: they don't.

Green Screen
Green screen PC, circa 1985

If there is a system to penetrate the 50 - 70% of households who either don't have a personal computer or have a computer that could be placed in Obsolete Computer Museum, it would need to be absolutely fail safe and crash proof, powerful enough to browse the web and capable of running on inexpensive hardware. If it needs complicated configuration, it should be done at the factory, needing only to be turned on by the user and perhaps "repaired" by a professional or small child every few years.

Despite the millions of dollars spent advertising bloated systems, the kind of computer my mom is looking for is more in the line of toaster oven technology: you plug it in, turn it on, if the toast gets too dark, you turn the heat down, a buzzer goes off, and voila, the toast is done. It is an issue of maintenance. My Mom does genealogy and wants to email her children and maybe play an occasional game of solitaire. Nothing fancy. She would like to have the uncomplicated software installed, take her computer home, plug it in, turn it on, and get to work.

But I fear the day she goes to her local office supply superstore to purchase her new computer. Actually the McDonald's-esque concept of "supersizing" is what scares me the most. She walks in to purchase a simple system and is told for just $2,000 more she can have a nine gig hard drive with that 21" monitor. "Only 36 easy payments of $100.00." (We all know that computers depreciate. My friend is still paying on his Mac II that he just sold for $200.00.) Remember, computers age faster than dogs, but I want one that will last as long as the toaster oven and still cook the toast.

Case to back up my fears: My co-worker's mother-in-law, who is a travel agent and does her travel plans in DOS had been using a 386 with an 80 meg hard drive for the last five years. She stepped into one of those stores, and walked out with a Pentium 200 MMX and a three gig hard drive. She turns her computer on, boots it up, and puts it into DOS mode. The only thing that has changed is she has a faster modem.

Even an "easy to use" Macintosh is subject to misconfiguration, crashes, and little sad faces on startup. The closest system with the level of complexity I'm looking for is is Web TV or another so-called set top appliance, but it does not have the functionality. If the industry is moving anywhere, it's toward more power. More power sells. It's sexy. But the people who want more complexity are the ones who already have computers. They like computers. The rest of the people on this planet want tools. They can be complex, but they need to also be consistent and dependable. UNIX is consistent and dependable. Maybe I could get my mom a Solaris workstation.

Joanne Rodgers is a self-proclaimed "no bells and whistles" computer user. Suggestions for her mom can be sent via email.

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