I saw the most fantastic advertisment on daytime telly the other day. For those of you who have Cable, daytime telly in the UK on the terrestrial (“free” in that you just pay for your TV licence) channels is the closest you get to the general crap informercialness of normal Cable channels all the time. The best thing on was this fantastic ad for an idiot-proof video recorder. It was about a minute long, describing how with this fantastic piece of equipment you could be guaranteed to record what you wanted, when you wanted it.

Sounds good, right? Well, yes and no. See the instructions were very very simplistic. The remote consisted of three dials — the top dial for setting the day (Mon – Sun), the second for the start-time, the third for the end-time (or number of hours to record for, or something). Each about 5 cm in diameter, so the remote itself is massive. The voice-over also explained that you have to put the video in and set the right channel on the video recorder itself. So this video can’t even record on BBC 1 at 8pm for an hour, then Channel 5 at 11pm for an hour to get this week’s episode of Lexx. It’s the most simplistic video-recorder I’ve seen in my entire life … and I am old enough to remember some fairly basic ones.

What concerns me is that there is evidently this opportunity in the market. Some people are so over-faced by their complicated video recorders that they feel the need to go back to absolute basics. The usability of their sophisticated modern technology has failed them so absolutely that they are willing to pay more money for far far fewer features, just so they can rely that it will do what they want it to do, rather than what their 2 year old has programmed it to do. This I can understand … if all I had was a house full of taped Teletubbies episodes, I’d be a little closer to the edge too.

But what does this say about the industry? This has happened in the arena of electronics although perhaps it is a doomed attempt to corner a market that isn’t really that big. My interactions with various relatives, however, lead me to suspect that maybe there really is a massive market for this type of thing. Nobody wants to have to rely on their kids to get their stuff video’d. In a way this is the appeal of the Sky Plus boxes, which are Tivo-like, but apparently more idiot-proof. Are we going to see a similar trend in computing?

Or has this trend already started? For reasons best not explained here, I had to do an install of Win XP Pro this weekend. Whilst it was doing it’s thing and throwing up propaganda onto the screen, I glanced at what it was trying to get across. A lot of it revolved around only the options you needed being on the screen … about simplifying the interface. This is presumably what that horrible green-blue creation is all about .. making your PC “friendlier”. It’s definitely what that saccharine little paper-clip is all about. Is the next phase of software development not going to be about functionality, but about usability taken to an extreme? Are we just going to make things dumb and dumber from now on?