I was helping my father to get online just a few days ago – I helped him buy a wireless USB stick so that he could use his neighbour’s wifi signal (with her permission, I must add).
I’d forgotten just how much of a pain it was to deal with a Windows PC when installing a new device. (Before you ask, I did advise him to get a Mac, but there was a good offer at the time). Following the instructions, and using the manufacturers software, this new device just did not work – no connection could be made at all. Using my own hard-won knowledge of Windows, which I have used from version 1.0 up to XP Pro, but given up on at Vista, I disabled some software, had to restart a few times, and then got it all working in about half an hour.
Then I planned to install free anti-virus software, make sure the firewall was configured and working, and change the browser to one I can set up to open with the key pages he needs, and with the defaults for legibility that help him to see what’s going on. I also was going to set up his email account for him, setting up a new mailbox on one of the domains I own.
Pause for 200+ downloads
But I couldn’t do any of that, as there were about 270 different software updates trying to download and install themselves, as the machine had not been online since it was bought. I realised it would take about 2 hours for all of this to download and install, and only then could I make the computer secure against viruses and attack, and get the preferred browser installed. So I said I’d come back to do this when I had more time.
My father, who is an intelligent and intellectually curious man, watched some of this process in silent perplexion, and then asked me whether he should just take the new hardware back to where I got it, and perhaps consider getting a better, more modern computer. (It’s a year old roughly). He knew it was fairly inexpensive, but if it was a TV or a Car, he said, he wouldn’t put up with this sort of pointless time-wasting and unreliability.
And why should he put up with these sorts of problems? If the web is going to engage and excite people, getting online and getting things done needs to be simple, safe, and reliable.
I remember setting up my new cable broadband at home a few years ago – it was pretty easy, and it works really well, but the email account I was given (which I never intended to use, as I know how to set up my own domain and email) managed amazingly to get over 80 really nasty spam emails within a day of it being activated. Had I not had better knowledge, I’d probably still be resigned to deleting dozens of offensive messages every day, and I’d be paying £49 a year or more just to keep malicious viruses from trashing the data on my computer or allowing someone to go on a spending spree with my card or bank details.
How can we expect people to trust, use, contribute to, and enjoy using the internet if it is still so damn difficult to get started with it, and keeping going with it involves endless seemingly pointless downloads, updates, and restarts – never mind getting a whole inbox full of worrying hoaxes and offensive and potentially dangerous payloads?
Is this too much to ask?
It’s a question that hardware and software makers, as well as internet service providers, really need to address, because there is a huge potential audience out there that will use more, buy more, share more and get more fun and enjoyment from the online world – if only they could simply understand how to get it into their lives simply, reliably, and safely.
At the moment, that seems near to impossible, and I think there are huge numbers of people simply giving up on accessing the internet, because no matter who they turn to for help, it’s confusing, unreliable, costly, and therefore, just a waste of their time.
They will stick with the cost and inefficiency of 35mm film, ordering by telephone, printed mail order catalogues and walking to the bank to pay in and withdraw money for all the right reasons – because it’s clear, and it works, and they can trust it.
I think we have a long way to go before those words can be used to describe getting online for someone doing it for the first time – and that’s not fair, not good business, and the absence of those many millions of people is a loss to everyone who is online.