Toaster or Lathe?

I keep hearing people complain about the usability of Linux as it compares to the usability of Windows or MacOS. The common complaint is that computers should be easy – even windows users complain that computers should “just work”. In response to this, I am asking my own question – do you want your computer to be a toaster or a lathe?

Toasters are easy. They do one thing – heat up slices of bread that you stick into them when you push the button. All you have to do is decide how much to heat things up, load your bread, push the button and wait. Very simple, very easy, and very limited. You can’t do much with a toaster other than what its designers anticipated. Ease of use — 10, Flexibility — 1.

A modern metal cutting lathe is an entirely different matter. It takes a great deal of training to accomplish anything but the simplest tasks, and even simple work requires understanding the work, the machine, and the underlying process on a fairly deep level. It takes years to learn to use one well. Even after a great deal of training, some users are still far more capable than others. Ease of use — 1 Flexibility — 10.

Modern computers are diverging right now. One one end, products like Amazon’s Kindle, Apple’s IPad and Barnes and Noble’s Nook are heading in the direction of toasters. They’re simpler and easier to use. They are also locked down and limited. One the other end are netbooks, Google’s Android platform and other similar tools. These are unlocked, a bit more difficult to use, and endlessly flexible.

Underneath the skin, these are all “general purpose computers”. Some say that locking something like the IPad down as much as it is is a bad decision. I disagree. Today’s computing ecosystem has room for both lathes and toasters. I think it always will. There will always be a group of people who are more comfortable with single use devices for some jobs. There will always be others who find them too limited and/or confining. This is officially OK. There’s more than one way to be human.

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