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A case of operating system overload

Wednesday, Amazon.com announced its new mobile phone, the Fire. Just in case the phones that run on Apple’s IOS or Google’s Android or BlackBerry or Windows don’t do it for you. The phone has some sort of a 3D holographic imaging, for whatever that’s worth. Also, you can take a picture of some product, and if Amazon has it in stock, they will send you one (for a price, of course). I’m sure there are other features as well that will create a compelling reason to switch from your favorite phone to this one.

And there’s the rub. I can’t speak for the rest of the technology-consuming public, but the last thing in the world I need to think about is learning yet another operating system. As is, I already suffer from a bad case of interface confusion.

These days, everything has an operating system, aka OS. Throughout most of human history, our creations didn’t require an operating manual to understand how to use them. The operating system for a knife or a spear is pretty self-explanatory: Hmmm, sharp point. Got it. No 64-page PDF required.

This was true for many millennia. Even more recent technology, such as radios and televisions, were easy to understand. Two knobs, one for on-off and volume, one for channel selection. If you had to, you could move the metal antenna around via trial and error. Who couldn’t handle that?

Also self-explanatory was the rotary phone. Indeed, most household appliances required no operating manual. By the time automobiles went mass market, they too were point and shoot.

This all began to change on Nov. 18, 1963. That was when the push-button phone was introduced. Thus began the dividing line between operating systems that needed no explanation, and the world we live in today.

I blame the octothorpe — also known as the “number sign,” pound key” or “hashtag.” Since that push-button phone was introduced a half-century ago, the pound key along with the star key has allowed unintuitive programming to dominate our world. The concept of symbology — code that represents something else — has come to dominate our world and thus our need to constantly learn new operating systems.

Whether it’s your car, your computer, your thermostat or your phone, everything has an OS. They all come from different design perspectives. The concept of human-interface design guidelines was unimaginable 50 years ago; today it’s a college class.

The inscrutability of operating systems reached a peak in the Microsoft DOS era. It was an entirely new language, based on a form of line code that was foreign to humans and invading aliens alike. Windows was only marginally better.

Apple invented the better mousetrap — much easier to use, more intuitive. If you didn’t know what to do, a guess more often than not landed you at the right place. But Microsoft had enough marketing clout (and anticompetitive monopolistic contracts) that Apple never gained more than a marginal presence on the desktop in the 1980s and ’90s.

In the 2000s, the Apple troika of products — iPod, iPhone and iPad — changed the way people interacted with computers. The learning curve was shallower, and one could almost get by without RTFM. The public approved en masse, rewarding Apple by making it the world’s most highly valued company.

Lots of others companies followed suit, often staffed with former Apple engineers. TiVo, Nest, Square, Pinterest and much of Silicon Valley is littered with them. The Apple design ethos is finding its way into lots of products, even ones without the Apple logo on them.

These innovative companies produce products that are somewhat different from one another. And that’s my problem. I suffer from interface confusion. This is happening more and more.

I tried to rewind the radio the other day in the car, as if it were a TiVo. I have also tried to fast forward live TV, something that turns out not to work. Have you ever tried to swipe a laptop screen like an iPad? (Ooops). All of the bathroom fixtures in the modern high-rise office building where I work are driven by motion detectors. It’s confusing to me when I’m in a men’s room that requires me to turn on a faucet, or heaven forbid, flush by myself. If you have ever expected specific behaviors from technologies, only to be stymied by a different OS, then congratulations, you suffer from interface confusion.

What is interface confusion? It is simply the mistaken expectation of one type of technological interaction instead of another. It is becoming increasingly common, and shows no signs of ending anytime soon. Indeed, the competition among companies for your dollars makes it unlikely this will ever end.

I love the fact that I am lucky enough to live in an era of tremendous technological advances. Interface confusion is simply part of the complex, technologically interrelated world we live in.

That brings me back not just to Amazon’s Fire phone, and the hurdle that any innovative company or start-up must overcome if it wants its product adopted by the masses. We have achieved OS saturation. The last thing anyone really wants is to have to learn a new operating system.

Barry Ritholtz is a Bloomberg View columnist writing about finance, the economy and the business world.

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