06/05/2013 01:45 pm ET Updated Aug 05, 2013

Why Doesn't This Stuff Work Right?

It's been more than thirty years since IBM introduced its first personal computer. When I got my first PC, I experienced a sense of joy. That was followed very shortly with growing frustration when I was faced with the challenges of installing new software running under DOS, or installing new hardware (remember the days of opening up your PC and looking for vacant slots?). For many of us technology has been a double-edged sword. When it works it makes our lives easier, connects us with our information and the world around us. But when it doesn't work it makes us crazy. We put the question to Justin Rattner, the Chief Technology Officer of Intel, the company that makes most of the world's computer brains. Here's his answer: 2013-06-04-JR1.jpg

There are many dimensions to this problem, but most importantly there is the notion of open systems. Consumers and businesses don't like having to buy everything from one vendor. They clamor for what in the industry is known as an "open systems" approach where a camera from Nikon will transmit its photos to a notebook from Apple or a TV from Samsung will take a high definition audio/video signal from a Blu-Ray player from Panasonic. Since there is no way for any one manufacturer to test all possible combinations of devices and despite best efforts to correctly implement published specifications, some combinations do not work at all or will work sometimes, but not others.

The computer and personal device industry is, in comparison to most any other industry, much better at letting our various devices connect to one another. Every serious camera maker has its own lens mount which precludes you from mixing your Nikon lenses with your Canon lenses. The consumer electronics industry is just as bad. Each one works hard to lock you into its remote control architecture. Mix a Sony component with a Pioneer component and the control architecture falls apart. Similarly, the automobile business has never attempted to provide anything like the compatibility that is commonplace in the computer industry. As automotive electronics grows in sophistication, it has become harder and harder to replace or upgrade a sound system or a navigation systems to newer technology. If you want the latest tech in the car, you have to buy a new car or stick something ugly on the inside of your windshield. You'll find that is true for just about every other product at home or at work. Only products and accessories specifically engineered to be compatible are guaranteed to work.

Windows-compatible PCs are often criticized for being slow to boot, but most people don't know why that is. One major factor is a process called "device discovery" that requires the PC's operating system to scan for the connection of new devices since the machine was last restarted. Compare that to a smartphone OS that only allows USB-connected devices to be added. It boots very quickly because it knows that it only has one display, one touch screen, one headphone output, one cellular radio, and so on. It's all locked down during product design and never changes over the life of the product. The result is a machine that boots quickly, but should you want more memory, a better display or a faster cellular radio, the manufacturer would be only so delighted to sell you a new phone. It's one of the reasons people get a new smartphone every few years, but keep a PC for much longer as just about everything in it can be upgraded.

There are many standards in the personal device industry, but adherence to the standard doesn't guarantee devices will talk to one another. Take the WiFi standard as developed and approved by the IEEE some years ago. The actual standard is so broad that it is possible for no two implementations to interoperate. The computer industry realized that was almost certain to happen if something wasn't done. That something was the creation of the WiFi Alliance, an industry group that agreed to implement the same subset of the WiFi standard. Despite the Alliance, WiFi isn't perfect. We all know the frustration of being unable to get a WiFi connection at an airport, a hotel, or even at home. Surely, if the WiFi Alliance was doing its job, this shouldn't happen, but it does happen and far too often. The reason is that WiFi was designed as a wireless version of a wired network standard known as Ethernet. The wired standard and the network protocols that run on top of it allow the Internet Protocol to route a packet from your PC or smartphone to another computer halfway around the world. All sorts of complications result from that generality, but no one is willing to give up Internet compatibility to get simplicity.

Help at Hand

So what's a consumer to do? For a different perspective we turned to Garth Stone who, as Operations Manager for Norton Live Services, has to deal with the problems faced by end-users every day. Norton Live Services runs the Norton Ultimate HelpDesk, a 24/7 remote diagnostic and troubleshooting service. Stone says, "I guess technology is a lot more complicated than it was even 5 or 10 years ago, I know my parents growing up would never have had a smart phone with them 24 hours a day. With all these new devices and technologies that do get introduced, it also introduces the issues of getting them to talk to one another.

Stone says often the calls he gets are from consumers who have trouble understanding the interfaces for their new devices. But there are others that involve real technical issues that are well beyond the expertise of any end user, including those with years of experience. Says Stone, "Those kinds of issues are why people are calling the Ultimate Helpdesk. Every time you install something on your machine, it's vying for a place on your machine with 40 or 50 different applications, so there's overlap between them and sometimes a real conflict, so you can face issues there." Stone admits that even they can't resolve every issue, "Sometimes, if we've done absolutely all we can and we still come up short , at that point we will reach out to the manufacturer or the maker of the devices involved and getting them involved as well."

There are improvements though. Companies like Sony, Samsung, and Apple have developed ecosystems in which all their devices are designed to be compatible from the outset. Stone looks at how much easier this has made things for his own parents:

Five years ago they just had a PC and now they are using tablets and smartphones and for the most part they've required very little setup to get them working together. It's allowed my parents and grandparents to make more use of that technology without having to come to their children or grandchildren every couple of days for some kind of support. And we definitely see the same kind of take up of these devices from our customers as well.... Despite the increase in complexity, these companies are taking steps to make the conversation and the connection easier.

Stone says there are things consumers can do to protect themselves even before making a purchase or adding a piece of software to their PC. For starters, go on the Internet to check out reviews of that software, "there's a lot of reputable software manufacturers out there whose software works without any issues whatsoever and you can install dozens of their applications and not run into any issues. But there is other software out there that is more likely to cause disruptions to your computer in general."

But shouldn't all of this be getting easier?

For that answer we went back to Intel CTO Justin Rattner,

It may sound like fighting fire with fire, but the most likely solution is more technology. The next generation of systems will feature entirely new levels of machine intelligence. These so-called 'contextually-aware' systems will understand who you are, where you are, and what you are trying to do. Instead of having you having to "know" you need to 'clear the DNS cache' as you move from WiFi network to WiFi network, contextual computing technology will know that you've changed networks because you've changed locations, and do what needs to be done to get you connected. At Intel we have an active research project called 'Free Me' which has the goal of freeing to users from much if not all of this complexity.

An End to Passwords?

Another aspect of 'Free Me' is getting rid of passwords once and for all. Instead of a password for every web service, you are authenticated once to your device using several biometric factors such as putting a smile on your face and the pattern of the blood vessels in your hand. You might find it interesting to know that putting on a smile is better than a frown because it uses almost all the muscles in your face. A frown uses just a few muscles and thus isn't nearly as good as when you smile. Once you are personally authenticated to your personal device, it becomes responsible for authenticating you to all those web sites and services out on the Internet. One of the best things about client-based authentication is that you never have to enter a password ever again. You'll be pleasantly frustrated trying to tell your grandchildren that in the 'good old days' you had to remember all these passwords and that they were frequently stolen and sold to the highest bidder which meant you had to change all of them. They'll look at you the way the same way they do when you tell them about the 8-track tape deck in your Chevy Nova.

If you've been frustrated by dealing with technology, you can share your war stories with us. Send your story to: For more tech stories for Boomers and Seniors visit In The Boombox