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Norman, D.A. The invisible computer. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998 and Gates, Bill. Business @ the speed of thought: using a digital nervous system. New York, NY: Warner Books, 1999.

I doubt whether Bill Gates has read Donald Norman's book, although I suspect that the reverse is quite likely. The two books make a very interesting contrast in styles and intention: one is the gung-ho, 'computers are good for you' (and Microsoft is bringing you the best software); the other is a cool examination of where computers go wrong and (indirectly) why Bill Gates's future scenario is unlikely to evolve exactly as Bill sees it. I recommend that you read both, and make up your mind about who is right.

First, Donald Norman's book has a long subtitle, which defines the scope pretty well exactly: 'Why good products can fail, the personal computer is so complex, and information appliances are the solution.' Good products can fail, according to Norman, for a variety of reasons, and, in relation to computers, particularly because they are ahead of the market and ahead of the technology. He cites the Xerox Star and the Apple Lisa as cases in point. They were very sophisticated machines but the technology available made them slow and they were marketed as whiz-bang technological devices, rather than as something that would do a job for the user. To be user-friendly, technological consumer products need human-centred product development, which has three 'legs': technology, marketing, and user experience. When one of these legs is missing, the product fails, and computer products have failed because they are generally marketed to the technologically aware, rather than the general consumer, and because the user base of experience is low or non-existent.

The computer is complex because it is digital and mechanical, whereas the human being is analog and organic - the basic mis-match is evident. The PC is also a do-everything machine - and, virtually by design, it cannot perform any of the user-centred tasks as well as a special-purpose machine. Those special purpose machines are what Norman calls, information appliances, which he defines as:

An appliance specializing in information: knowledge, facts, graphics, images, video, or sound. An information appliance is designed to perform a specific activity, such as music, photography, or writing. A distinguishing feature of information appliances is the ability to share information among themselves.

Three axioms are offered for the design of information appliances: that they should have simplicity, versatility, and pleasurability - in other words they will be like other consumer products, rather than technology products; the buyers will be everyone, rather than the technology buffs. They will be sold to do a specific job, simply, and the user will require as much knowledge of how the appliance functions as the user of a vacuum cleaner knows about its innards.

There is much more in this (sometimes repetitive) book: ideas of 'disruptive technologies', the nature and principles of human-centred design, and many stories of both successful and failed products. I can only urge everyone interested in computers to buy or borrow it and read it thoroughly.

Coming to Bill Gates's offering after reading Norman is rather like stepping back into the past. Gates is the technology buff par excellence and, although he would no doubt claim that Microsoft has a strong interest in human-centred design, it seems to me that he is still focussed on how humans use Windows, rather than what functions humans need to perform to produce documents, etc.

The central message of Gates's book is that business needs to regard computer applications as the 'digital nervous system' of the firm, bringing essential information to everyone in the firm, through 'powerful computing solutions available inexpensively to companies of all sizes'. I think that many company MDs and Chairmen might well blench at the idea that the systems they have been sold are 'inexpensive'. In other words, the message is one of technological utopianism, where the problems fade into the background because the technology is so perfect. I paticularly liked one of the 'twelve key steps': '1. Insist that communication flow through the organization over e-mail so that you can act on news with reflexlike speed.' It is difficult to take a 'key step' like this seriously. Does Gates actually use e-mail? Is the ability to act with 'reflexlike speed' really a function of the communication medium, or does it depend on such factors as experience, intelligence, etc.? Is there no downside to e-mail? What of the lack of truly human communication, that is, fact-to-face, if e-mail is used for all communication? Is it surprising that chief executives fly around the world almost continuously to talk face-to-face? Do they use e-mail, or do they prefer to see the whites of the potential partner's eyes?

This lack of attention to social and psychological issues surrounding the use of technology in organizations is the deepest flaw in the book and the major reason why I for one, cannot take it seriously. This said, there is however, much of interest in the book - the case studies, while no doubt carefully selected, provide food for thought, although there are times when one suspects that a degree of journalistic licence has entered into the account. It is difficult to believe that the German bankers were quite as portrayed in the account of how Bill won their hearts and minds for Microsoft (p. 63-69)

Bill also gets into the 'knowledge management' morass - but rather usefully, since he cuts away the nonsense, pointing out that:

If reporters talk to a database company, they find that knowledge management is the newest thing in databases. If reporters talk to a groupware company, the find that knowledge management means the next generation of groupware.


Knowledge management is nothing more than managing information flow, getting the right information to the people who need it so that they can act on it quickly.

In other words, KM is what many have been defining as information management for the past twenty years - the difference is that the management consultancies and the software houses mentioned by Gates have hyped up the concept as their next 'big thing' following the pricking of the business process re-engineering bubble.

Not that Gates's has rejected BPR - in Chapter 17, Information technology enables reengineering Gates describes a couple of BPR initiatives within Microsoft itself - a personnel tracking system and the financial management system. The interesting question, however, is whether either of these things involved BPR, which is widely believed to be effective only if it encompasses the totality of operations within an organization. The efforts Gates describes appear to be no more that a fairly straightforward systems analysis of existing procedures and finding them wanting. The general message that Gates learned from Hammer and Champy, as he says himself, was the 'need to step back periodically to take a hard look at your processes.' Well - if that is BPR, fair enough, and it is certainly what more organizations ought to be doing.

The overall impression of this book is that Bill is desperately seeking the role of business guru, but even aided by his Director of Executive Communications at Microsoft, he doesn't actually write in a sufficiently interesting way to hide the fundamental fact that the whole business of technology application in organizations is pretty boring stuff. Perhaps those German bankers were actually more like real people when they complained about the previous Microsoft presentations being too technical. Bill tries to enthuse us, but ultimately fails.

Prof. Tom Wilson
12 July 1999