Andy Rooney, Force for Technological Innovation

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Andy Rooney will retire this Sunday at the age of 92. His 60 Minutes-ending rants will be no more. He won't be targeting the post office or modern art or music or Bill Gates ever again. Rooney's personality is as easy to caricature as Ross Perot's face and perhaps for that reason and his congenital crankism, it's easy to write him off. It is not for nothing that the villain of Ferris Bueller's Day Off is named Mr. Rooney. Our own Andrew Cohen has an eloquent defense of Rooney the Man, but I'd like to commend Rooney the Methodology. I mean this seriously: he is the beginning of a road that leads through Steve Jobs to new products. He is a fine observer of the failures of user interfaces of all types.

You see, failure is the key to invention. Listen to Henry Petroski, a Duke engineer who has devoted his life to understanding how products get better. "New things and and the ideas for things come from our dissatisfaction with what there is," Petroski opened his book Success Through Failure, "and from want of a satisfactory thing for doing what we want done."

In other words, it is the stuff about a thing that bothers us that causes us to improve it. We hack what we hate about what we love.

Step one in improving a product is to detail precisely what is wrong with it, that is to say, to go Rooney. Take his rant about computers (and Bill Gates specifically) from 2009. His critique of the technology is more sophisticated and interesting than his voice might indicate.

  • One, Rooney points out that computers' planned obsolescence cycle is ridiculous. "They make computers so you have to buy a new one whenever there's a full moon," Rooney said. "If my Underwood had been a computer, I'd have had to buy a new one every time I needed a new ribbon because Bill Gates would have designed new ribbons so they didn't fit last year's typewriter." Good point, Andy!
  • Two, Rooney takes issue with the design of the user interface for performing the most basic of procedures like turning it off. The buttons can be located anywhere on the machine and the software side of the procedure is stupid, too. "Do you simply press a button that says OFF when you want to turn it off? You do not. The first thing he has us do to stop is to press START." Which is true for PCs and totally bizarre when you think about it. 
  • Three, Rooney satirizes the lack of human language in computer error messages, the infamous "illegal operation" of the Windows days, specifically. "My typewriter never threatened me with a prison sentence by saying I have performed an illegal operation." He's pointing out the mismatch in user and programmer language. To a person, the law is what the government does. To a programmer, the illegal operation comes when the boundaries of the computer code are broken. These mean different things and Microsoft made no effort to translate from the programmer words to the user words.
  • Fourth, Rooney goes after the need for passwords on computers. In a sense, this is his lamest attack as anything with memory might need to be protected. But given the prevalence of cybersecurity issues these days, the fact that typewriters were not charged with storing sensitive information does seem increasingly like a feature. "In all the years I wrote on my typewriter, it never asked for a password, and no one ever stole anything I wrote either."
  • Fifth, Rooney derides how long it takes for computers to boot up, which is still annoying. "All I can say is it's a good thing Bill Gates didn't invent television. If it took as long to start up a television set as it takes to start up a computer, you'd need two hours to watch 60 Minutes."

I don't want to push this too far, but this entire Rooney highlights real problems with computing. Problems, in fact, that Steve Jobs himself has addressed in various ways.

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