Re: Article: Looking for the Eureka Button

Subject: Re: Article: Looking for the Eureka Button
From: Sabahat Ashraf <techwhirling -at- gmail -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Thu, 24 Jun 2004 12:38:07 -0700

On Thu, 24 Jun 2004 15:39:26 -0400, Peter Swisher
<pswisher -at- arisglobal -dot- com> wrote:
> Link from the NY Times. You'll need a free subscription:

I think it would be "Fair Use" to forward this to friends...we're
friends, right?

[Sabahat Iqbal Ashraf]
"...jee chahaatha hai aag lagaa dhooN hijaab maiN!"
[" heart yearns to set fire to the _hijaab_
(the whole scheme of modesty)!"]
Popular Urdu song from Bollywood

June 24, 2004
Looking for the Eureka! Button

OULDN'T it be great if your laptop came with a light-up keyboard? It
would make it much easier to type in a darkened room or airplane

If you own one of eight million I.B.M. laptops of relatively recent
vintage, you have just such a light. You may just not know it: there
is no obvious way to turn it on. The secret is to press two keys -
function and page up - simultaneously.

Some people discover the light by accident; others learn about it from
friends. But many remain, quite literally, in the dark.

"There are all these people walking around with this great feature
they don't know about," said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the
Enderle Group, a research firm in San Jose, Calif.

I.B.M.'s keyboard light is one of the great unknowns of the electronic
world, but there are many others. As printed manuals grow scarcer
while features multiply in computers, electronic gadgets and software,
consumers are increasingly on their own in learning what their devices
can do. Even basic functions can remain hidden from the user forever,
or until some happy accident in which the right buttons are pressed.

Kim Mandala, a homemaker in Flanders, N.J., describes herself as
electronic-phobic. "Everything I discover on these things is totally
by accident," she said.

One such discovery was the repeat function on her Palm- One Zire
organizer. Ms. Mandala had been entering dozens of birthday reminders
from the previous year when she inadvertently touched a button labeled

"It said repeat, so I pressed that, and then it said day, week, month
or year," she recalled. "Now every year it will have everyone's

"The more I discover, the more I love this thing," she said.

Ms. Mandala may have been thrilled, but for many users, the trend is
annoying. "It drives me insane," Mr. Enderle said. "You get these
products filled with compelling features that no one knows about."

For technology-support professionals, the task of teaching people
about what their machines can do can be overwhelming. "Much like we
only use 10 percent of our brains, we only use 5 percent of our
computers," said Steven Scardina, vice president for information
technology at a real estate development firm in Newport Beach, Calif.

Mr. Scardina would know. He provides support to about 300 PC users,
most of whom have learned only the most basic functions of the most
basic software: word processors, Web browsers and spreadsheets. He has
begun publishing tips in the company's internal newsletter, pointing
out software features that are not well known.

Part of the problem is that as gadgets and software become bloated
with features, the only way to use them is through combinations of
keys or buttons that can be described only in a manual. The ThinkPad's
lighted keyboard, for instance, came about in 1998 after I.B.M.
recognized that people often used their computers in the dark. But
there was no place for an on-off switch.

"Not everything can have a button," said David Hill, the director of
design for the personal computing division at I.B.M. "If we didn't
limit them, we'd be looking at products with as many buttons as an

Microsoft's Windows operating system is rife with features most users
don't know about. This becomes apparent in a brief tour of the toolbar
menu. Start with Programs, then go to Accessories, then Accessibility.
There, among other features, are a magnifier and an on-screen

For years Microsoft has been aware of the gap between the abundance of
features in Windows (and in other core programs like Word and Excel)
and how often they are used. The company has devoted millions of
dollars and teams of employees to what it calls discoverability.

Microsoft studies the reluctance of people to explore new features in
its usability labs, which are equipped with computers, cameras and
one-way mirrors that enable employees to watch users as they traverse
Microsoft's vast software terrain.

"We're very sensitive to the notion that software today does more than
it ever has, and we have put a big effort on making everything
usable," said Greg Sullivan, the lead product manager of Windows at
Microsoft. "We also make sure the capability that's there is relevant
and easy to access and discover."

"If it's a feature you can't find," he added, "it might as well not be
a feature."

Mr. Sullivan's words, intended perhaps to comfort the average Windows
user, only frustrate people like Mr. Enderle, who has been following
the computer industry for 20 years.

"Microsoft's biggest competition is always with its older products
because people don't value the newer features," Mr. Enderle said. "And
people don't value the newer features because they never learned how
to use the old ones."

As features have proliferated, the accompanying printed manuals to
explain them have gradually disappeared. In recent years, mostly to
save money, electronics and software manufacturers have scaled back
the printed documentation they provide. Companies now put their guides
on disks or online.

"It's a snowballing issue because the PC manufacturers and Microsoft,
in order to try to convince people to move up, keep putting more and
more functionality into their packages," said Steve Kleynhans, an
analyst with the Meta Group, a technology market research firm in
Stamford, Conn. "And at the same time, they've taken away manuals and
other things that help people."

This, Mr. Kleynhans and others say, has contributed to the need to
discover features on one's own.

"Putting everything online doesn't necessarily make it easier," said
Aaron Lewis, a neurologist in San Francisco who has only the barest
acquaintance with all the functions of his Dell computer.

Some hidden features, though useful, are too obscure to merit space in
a manual, printed or otherwise. Consider the summarizing service that
is part of the Apple OS X operating system. The program will take any
document and reduce it to a pithy précis. Yet Apple does not advertise
the feature and mentions it only briefly in its online manual.

The summarizing feature is only one of many that are left for the user
to discover. Each new Macintosh comes with what Apple calls an "up and
running" manual, a 30-page booklet that points out basics.

"There are so many hidden gems," said Ken Bereskin, the director of OS
X product marketing at Apple. One such nugget resides on the
calculator that comes with the Macintosh. Not only is the calculator
buried inside the applications folder, but deep within the functions
of the calculator is a currency converter that automatically updates
conversion rates.

Enter the book writers, who make their living off the absence of help.

"It pays the mortgage," said Steve Bass, the author of "PC Annoyances:
How to Fix the Most Annoying Things About Your Personal Computer"
(O'Reilly & Associates, 2003).

Although computer guides like Mr. Bass's, filled with cartoons and
down-home prose, have been around for as long as PC's themselves, they
are selling better than ever. Mr. Bass said his book had sold some
50,000 copies since its publication last October.

His tutorials range from explaining how to embed a photo in an e-mail
message rather than send it as an attachment, to how to charge a
cellphone using a computer.

He recounted a recent meeting at which someone needed to charge his
phone. Mr. Bass produced a simple cable that plugged into his laptop's
U.S.B. port and the phone.

"He not only said, 'Whoa!' " recalled Mr. Bass, "he said he wanted to
buy my book."

The "out-of-box experience" for users of Windows XP, as Microsoft's
Mr. Sullivan puts it, includes a short video that begins when the
computer is first used. Like the Apple "up and running" manual, the
video walks users through the computer's basic capabilities.

But the brief video touches on just a fraction of much of the software
that accounts for the fact that the Windows folder can grow to exceed
2 gigabytes.

Mostly, said Dr. Lewis, the neurologist, he picks up tips about using
his computer from colleagues. "You pass down knowledge," he said.

The education of the computer user is driven more than ever before by
word of mouth. Jenna Lange, a communications consultant in San
Francisco, is proof of this. Ms. Lange, who does not read manuals,
said she had no idea she could use her Zire as an MP3 player until she
saw someone else do it. Now she has 150 songs stored on it.

"I learn lots of these things watching other people," she said.

David A. Karp, the author of "Windows XP Annoyances" (O'Reilly &
Associates, 2002), another popular guide, said the forums at his Web
site,, are filled with news of newly unearthed
features. "It's amazing how many people there are who find pleasure in
sharing the little discoveries they make," he said.

During a telephone interview, Mr. Karp could not resist sharing one of
his favorite examples of a hidden function. He pointed out that people
often hit the insert key by mistake, locking the overwrite function
and losing chunks of text. This common problem appears to have escaped
the notice of Microsoft's usability labs, Mr. Karp said.

"No manual will tell you how to do it, but there's a way to disable
the insert key," he said. Clearly delighted at the prospect of
imparting this hidden knowledge, he ticked off instructions for
creating a simple program, or macro, that keeps the insert key from

Mr. Hill of I.B.M. pointed out that computers and hand-held devices
are not alone when it comes to hidden features. "Even the popcorn
button on my microwave has three different levels, and even that has
some level of hidden functionality," he said. But this was not his
discovery. His 15-year-old son found the popcorn settings.

"Things were much simpler when there were two or three buttons," Mr.
Hill said. "We're just not there any more."


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