I welcomed the Macintosh in 1984 because it functioned better than any personal computer around at the time. It took Bill Gates an incredibly long time to come round to Windows, Icons, Mice and Pulldown menus, but come round he did. Believe me, when we championed that WIMPs user interface back in the mid-80s, we were regularly accused of, yes, championing style over substance, of being pretentious and arty about machines that were just supposed to “function”. So you can guess that I certainly do think design is important. But it doesn’t have to come from Apple. In fact, I wish to goodness it came from everywhere. I hope you’ll believe I’m not an unthinking slave to Cupertino. Apple gets plenty of small things wrong, but one big thing it gets right: when you use a device every day, you cannot help, as a human being, but have an emotional relationship with it. It’s true of cars and cookers, and it’s true of computers. It’s true of office blocks and houses, and it’s true of mobiles and satnavs. A grey box is not good enough, clunky and ugly is not good enough. Sick building syndrome exists, and so does sick hand-held device syndrome. Fiddly buttons, blocky icons, sickeningly stupid nested menus – these are the enemy. They waste time, militate against function and lower the spirits. They make the user feel frustrated and (quite wrongly) dense. Mechanisms so devilishly, stunningly, jaw-dropping clever as the kind our world can now furnish us with are No Good Whatsoever if they don’t also bring a smile to our face, if they don’t make us want to stroke, touch, fondle, fiddle, gurgle, purr and coo. Interacting with a digital device should be like interacting with a baby.
So, yes, beauty matters. Boy, does it matter. It is not surface, it is not an extra, it is the thing itself. Le style, c’est le truc, as De Buffon would have written today.
If you are an IT or telecoms professional, you will probably find me lax, obvious and distressingly untechnical. If you are new and nervous in the field, you may think the opposite: indeed, the talk of red hats and yellow dogs may already have you all of a doodah. I want to reassure you on this head. I have no intention of littering my copy with unexplained acronyms, references to protocols, coding language or other recondite arcana. While I love jargon as much as any proud techie dweeb, I think it right to avoid that sort of talk when chatting to those who don’t share my passion. None the less, I am going to assume that anyone reading my column has access to an online computer and can therefore, if so minded, check up on what I mean by “le style, c’est le truc” or “De Buffon” by undertaking a little search. And there’s a subject I might write about one day. How to use a search engine. You’d be amazed (well, you wouldn’t, because you’re an intelligent Guardian reader, but some people would) by how often friends of mine say they can’t find something on the net, simply because they haven’t stopped and thought about how to frame or phrase input search terms. Hold that thought …
Anyway, what kind of devices might I be discussing over the coming weeks? Including, but not confined to: mobile phones, smartphones, music players, media players, cameras, electronic books, satnavs, computers, peripherals, TVs, games machines and any digital device or grown-up toy that may take my fancy. And not necessarily all that grown-up, either.
I won’t be writing about hand-helds and hardware only, however. I have to confess that while gaming as such is not my first interest, and I don’t spend much time in World of Warcraft, Halo or Manhunt, I do have a Second Life existence (you’ll never find me, so don’t look. Lord, there’s a thought: “celebrity avatars exposed” – fair chills the blood). I have a secret presence on Facebook and a public one, too, which I don’t have the time to pay much attention to. So, yes, I’ll undoubtedly have a look at Web 2.0, social networking and other contentious and contemporary digital issues. If I had a grain of rice for every minute I have spent watching a progress bar over the years, I would be able to make you all a bowl of kedgeree. As it is, I shall cook you all up a weekly article instead. I do hope you’ll be able to join me. See you next Saturday.