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Talking Usability: My Father’s Typewriter

150 150 David Dick

My father typed all his correspondence on a manual (non-electric) typewriter. The ink on the typewriter ribbon was so worn out that the text on the paper was barely legible. Office supply stores stopped selling manual typewriter ribbon because electric typewriters were replacing manual typewriters. My father refused to buy an electric typewriter because he was satisfied with his manual.

When the company my father was working for replaced its typewriters with personal computers (PC), my father was concerned about what would happen if the computers broke down. “Nonsense,” his manager said. “Computers don’t break down.” Of course, those computers did break down and management didn’t have a backup plan on how to continue working.

You and I know that PCs can break down because the circuitry on the motherboard stops working. Sometimes it’s cheaper to buy a new PC than replace the motherboard. That’s why most PCs have a lifespan of three to five years—when the warranty expires, so does the PC. Nevertheless, many companies are reluctant to replace PCs on a regular basis because they are costly investment. Then again, so is sitting idle while the technicians at IT support try to determine what’s wrong with our PCs. If IT support has a replacement PC, then we are back to work the same day. If not, we wait patiently for management to approve the purchase of a new PC.

The lesson I learned about my father’s typewriter is that if we are to be dependent on technology for our livelihood, then we must keep pace with innovation. That means if we connect PCs to networks, then we must upgrade those networks before they reach capacity. If we rely on software applications to run our business, then we must ensure that we are running the latest software updates and security patches.  As the saying goes, “Failure is not an option.”

One day, I found my father’s typewriter in a closet. The ribbon was well worn, but still capable of creating a letter. His typewriter reminded me of a time when a manual typewriter was modern technology.