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Switched On: Jane, Stop This Crazy Thing


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Every Wednesday Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, an opinion column about consumer technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

You don't need to be a user-interface guru like Don Norman to understand that, when dealing with electronic equipment, the user should always be in control. Even the simplest electric appliance, the desk lamp, generally has at least a power switch or chain.

However, in the world of high-tech, the simple On/Off switch is becoming optional or obscure equipment on many devices. Take, for example, the Archos Gmini 400. This fine example of portable multimedia is generally fun to use. This is fortunate since, without a little coaching, chances are you'd be hard-pressed to figure out how to turn it off. The secret lies in holding down the "Escape" button for a few seconds. This may be conceptually sensible, but this button has a circular arrow symbol reminiscent of the "Back" button on a Web browser. That's a bit of a leap for someone who hasn't at least glanced at the documentation.

Notebook computers are other devices for which activation and deactivation would seem laughably complex to consumers 20 years ago � sleep modes, status lights, hibernation, resume sequences. These are classic symptoms of companies stuck in the rut of kludging around technological limitations such as boot-up times. Have you ever accidentally turned off your notebook trying to get it out of standby mode? Intel and to a lesser extent Microsoft have been talking about �instant on� PCs for at least five years, but they�re still not here.

This is becoming a bigger issue as PCs try to masquerade as audiovisual components in the living room. It�s also been a challenge for car computer hobbyists who are drawn to operating systems such as DOS because it doesn�t mind having its juice snatched away from it like a grade school kid being bullied in a cafeteria .

Cable set-top box maker Scientific-Atlanta may be guilty of the most bizarre power button behavior for its digital video recorder distributed by TimeWarner Cable. Turning the unit off will stop television signals from being displayed on your TV, but it won�t stop recordings. In other words, the �off� button really isn�t. Like the wall telephone in the old Saturday Night Live skit in which Dan Aykroyd impersonated a bleeding Julia Child, it�s a prop.

Scientific-Atlanta probably designed this as a safety feature to ensure that the shows you want recorded stay recorded. But this is a DVR, not a heart-lung machine. What if, for example, you discover that some second-tier cable channel is starting one of those infamous �marathons� of a show you haven�t yet designated to record for first-runs or that you�ll be leaving for a week and have a library of stuff on your DVR you don�t want disturbed? The need to foray into the spaghetti factory behind your television is especially unfortunate because, when the box occasionally flakes out, one of the first things customer support will tell you to do is to reset it by unplugging it and plugging it again. What�s next? Making us mangle wire hangers to activate blindly some tiny reset hole in the back?

If companies want to offer �always on� devices, they must live up to staying always on. For other electronic products with more transient use to approach the elegance of appliances, they have to be turned on and off simply.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis at NPD Techworld, a division of market research and analysis provider The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On, however, are his own. Feedback is welcome at
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