Long before Steve Jobs founded Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL), and even before Bill Gates turned MS-DOS into the Operating System That Ate Everybody's Brain, Gene Roddenberry and William Shatner planted in my mind a vision of personal computing so sublime that no real-life advance in this technology has given me the slightest thrill.
I can't identify the episode of Star Trek in which this magic moment occurred, but it stirred my imagination like few things I've seen on TV. It was a simple scene, really. Captain James T. Kirk needed something done. I don't recall what he wanted. Maybe it was a communications link to Earth, a gazillion light years away. Maybe it was a sociological profile of planet Golan-Globus 91, or a DNA map of the common short-eared tribble. Perhaps Kirk was just hungry and he wanted a sandwich.
Doesn't matter. All he had to do was sit down in front of a basic CRT monitor and say, "Computer?" That's all. Suddenly, in a voice seductively reminiscent of Miss Peggy Lee, the computer sprang to subservient life, eager, desperate, aching in her loins to fulfill Capt. Kirk's tiniest whim. And she was fully capable of doing it -- doing anything -- in the blink of an eye.
She could even spit out a perfect, mouth-watering, three-dimensional, 2,000-calorie Kosher pastrami sandwich on pumpernickel, with lettuce, Russian dressing, and a slice of baby Swiss.
Kirk didn't have to hit the power switch. His computer had none. She was always turned on, always at his beck and call. Nor did he have to touch a keyboard. There was none. Kirk didn't care whether the user interface was key-activated, touch-sensitive, word- or icon-based, tile-formatted or menu-directed, or equipped with any of a thousand navigation devices, because he didn't have to navigate anywhere. The computer's job was to do that, exactly the way a starship trooper under her captain's command would do it -- immediately and properly, without pumping the boss for directions, instructions, options, repetitions, or superfluous keystrokes.
Jim Kirk said "Jump." The computer knew how high.
I mention all this because Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT) has just birthed its latest succubus -- Windows 8. According to early reviews, Microsoft is once again nakedly mimicking Apple in a reluctant effort to enhance the user-friendliness of its new devices.
Windows 8 reportedly depends far more heavily on touch, tiles, and icons than on words, menus, and keyboards. This makes its adoption a natural fit for a youthful demographic whose post-literate habits derive from iPods, iPhones, and iPads. Of course, for older PC users who wasted the best years of their lives learning how to write in "Word," and double-click through mazes of drop-down menus on "desktops" strewn with 15 apps at once, Windows 8 means a twelfth or thirteenth trip back to the drawing board.
Everyone required -- by his corporation, her boss, or their clients -- to "get up to speed" on Windows 8 (or its eventual de-bugged version, due out in six months and subtly re-named, say, "Windows Super-8") will have to learn a whole new set of thumb-and-finger skills, and a fresh re-structuring of work habits that will barely have time to imprint on his or her psyche before, oops! Windows 9.
Neither this nor the next Mac, nor even the neato-keenest new Samsung tablet device, suggests, even vaguely, that we are making progress toward Capt. Kirk's lovely, whiskey-voiced digital slave girl. Every electronic gewgaw we make -- whether phone, computer, camera, or music-player -- still has no idea how to speak English, or French, Spanish, Farsi, or Klingon. It still requires its human servants to not only learn its idiot digitese, but to soon re-learn an equally witless and literal new dialect -- with new terminology, commands, vernacular, accents, inflections, even new physical skills and gestures -- with every generation of new devices.
These generations keep getting shorter. Today's twenty-somethings, with a pre-programmed affinity for the screen topography of Windows 8, are probably destined, five or six years from now, to find themselves clinging (like us) to "outdated" technology because they know how it works, and cursing the stylish but confusing newfangledness of Windows the Thirteenth.
The one constant in this moonwalk march of progress is that our machines -- as much as ever -- continue to bend human users to a mindless tyranny built into them by designers who seem to have little more human feeling than your average Vulcan. Beyond such ancient and intuitive inventions as the wheel, the fork, and the Linotype, there are precious few machines in current vogue that respond intuitively to human purposes in human terms.
For that sort of sophisticated intellectual breakthrough, we still have to take flights of pure fancy on the starship Enterprise.