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Build My Mom A Computer

Friday, December 9, 1994 by Dave Winer.

Good morning!

It's cool when a group-of-eight takes off from a topic, a discussion builds and a great passionate essay comes out of it.

One of those essays was the result of a dialog between Jeff Braun (CEO of Maxis and the author of the SimPlatformVendor piece, released on Sunday December 4) and John R. Sumser, jrsumser@well.sf.ca.us.

The subject of this thread is "My Mom's Computer," written by John. He has already written two essays, and promises a third.

Here's the first essay, entitled "Build My Mom A Computer."



I'm going to take you up on your challenge to define a set of features for MMC (My Mother's Computer). I really like your idea of posing a grand challenge to the platform vendors. I passionately believe in accelerating the rate of diffusion in our culture.

On the way to a features spec, I'm going to take an important detour.

MMC would compete in a market that provides extraordinary goods. For $350, you can get a machine that will reliably and easily clean all of your clothes for ten to fifteen years. For the same money, you can get a device that will preserve your food. For $700, you can transport the greatest musicians of the world into your living room. These are incredible improvements in life quality and set the 'value' standards.

Benefits, not features, drive purchasing behavior. "What does this thing do for me?", not, "What does this thing do?" In my years of managing design processes, this distinction always seems to get lost in the excitement. When I look at a troubled design team, this is the first area that I diagnose. It's what I meant when I said that the engineers and managers have siezed complete control of the industry. The current focus is on features, not benefits.

Features are best described in quantifiable performance terms. Benefits are values. I've found that they are best described the way that value is always transmitted: stories, examples, visions and scenarios. I'd propose describing the MMC's benefits and then mapping features on to them.

So, with your indulgence, I'd like to tell you three or four stories over the next day or so. I know that you're busy, so I'll make every effort to keep them compact.

Story 1: My Family's Learning Curve Permalink to Story 1:  My Family's Learning Curve

Kate, my four year old, has been using a Macintosh since well before she could speak. She's learned some spanish, counting, the alphabet and pattern matching.

Raymond, my nine year old, has been using a Macintosh since he was 6. He delights in the ability to create, pixel by pixel, original art. [Nintendo and Sega, though, have taught him to think in levels.]

Bridget, my eleven year old, is a writer and email junkie. The Mac has removed any sense of the fear of adults from her life. If she wants to know something from you, and she gets your email address, she'll send you a note. Email gave her the skills to march into Stewart Brand's boat-office and declare "I hear you're a writer. Tell me what I need to do."

Colleen, my wife, was a complete technophobe during most of the decade she spent at home raising the kids. This morning, she told me that she was going to get a copy of the database used in her new office. One of her great accomplishments this past year was developing her organization's budget, from scratch, in Excel.

Each of them has more self confidence and an increased ability to think independently because of their self-directed learnings on their Macs. Each member of my family is the most computer literate person in their daily worlds.

Colleen credits this transformation to my oft repeated insistences that "there's nothing you can break on a Mac". She marvels at the parents who invest $2K in a machine for their kids and then protectively hover. The learning curve is so mistake-intensive that they prevent learning by trying to protect their investment.

Game machines are a good example of the opposite of this dynamic. For the most part, kids are given game machines. The only parental involvement is a very straightforward set up. Quickly, the kid becomes the expert. Any parental worry about breakage is eliminated the first several times the machine crashes to the floor because the cables are too short.

I'm reminded of the technical evolution of cameras over the past 20 years. Camera stores make their money on photofinishing which costs a half penny per picture and sells for 6 or seven cents. To get people interested in the hobby, they used to guarantee that if you broke the camera, they'd replace it for free. Decades of this practice have resulted in unbreakable high quality cameras. The entire industry takes for granted the idea that "more pictures taken equals more cameras sold".

So, the first benefits that need to be a part of MMC are:


I asked John to write a brief bio for this piece. Here's what he came up with:

"I probably qualify as an Itinerant Visionary. I've variously: taught frigate design to the Chinese and automotive manufacturing in Jordan; built cross-disciplinary design teams; designed and sold databases to NATO; and managed large complex electronics development projects. My most recent "job" was editing and redesigning both Whole Earth Review and the organization that creates it. Currently, I'm directing a proposal for a major environmental remediation project and writing about technology and strategy. I like to chew on and simplify intractable problems."

Thanks John!

Dave Winer

© Copyright 1994-2004 Dave Winer. Last update: 2/5/07; 10:50:05 AM Pacific. "There's no time like now."