… but you can't make heads or tails of them, so go get a 4-year-old

Computers are still too complicated — and I thought so even before Bill Gates made the point in a recent interview.

Not long ago, Brother Mark and I were returning a van to a local couple, Nancy and Roland, friends of the monastery. We had borrowed the vehicle to haul samples from our Cloister Shop for sale at a local parish. Nancy greeted us at the door and invited us in for some refreshing, just-squeezed Florida orange juice.

Nancy does a lot of pro-life work for her parish. She recently acquired a new HP computer to help with her tasks. Their son set it up. Along with the computer came an all-in-one printer/fax/scanner/ copy machine. Nancy, not being very computer-savvy, had yet to set up the device. I told her I would take a look at it.

I turned on the computer and many screens popped up to greet me, some asking me to set up various software programs — Norton Antivirus, spam-blocking, Windows XP Updater, some type of specialized HP organizational window. Since I was here to install the multi-function printing device, I canceled and closed all those open dialog boxes. Then I settled in to take care of business.

Long story short: What looked and sounded so simple on the box turned into an ordeal of befuddling, hard-to-follow commands in real life. Turn this off. Turn that on. Plug in this and unplug that. This, I said, is a far cry from the “plug-and-play” setup Windows promised in its promotional copy. It was more like “plug-and-stay” — as in, stay around while you try to figure out what to do next.

Worse still, by the time I finished all that heavy lifting, I realized that poor Nancy would have to read through a thick and imposing user's manual just to print — let alone fax, scan or copy.

And, to top it all off, I felt sorry knowing that Nancy would have to deal with all those pop-up dialog boxes every time she turned on her computer. Famous “last” words: As long as I'm here …

I'm not sure how long I worked on Nancy's computer that day, but it took a lot of blood, sweat and tears to get it and the multi-function printer device ready for daily life. Much more than anyone would have guessed just by reading the information on the outside of the box.

Computers today are more user-friendly than ever before. And yet, as Bill Gates said, they're still too complicated.

Help!

Another issue that I thought about when working on Nancy's computer was how anyone can survive using a dialup Internet connection these days. So many programs want to connect to the Internet for updates. Norton Anti-virus alone needs to download new virus definitions at least once a week.

Then, too, Windows XP (the operating system, which runs the computer) constantly has critical patches that need to be downloaded. Some of these “patches” are, in fact, very large files. And almost every other program wants to connect to the Internet to look for updates. Sometimes even logging off AOL doesn't work. Why? Because a screen comes up saying something about updating AOL files on your computer. If you are using a dialup, you may have to walk away while AOL does its thing before letting you sign off.

Microsoft is trying to make computers a little easier for nontechies like most of us. For example, Microsoft Office Assistant automatically provides help topics and tips on tasks you perform as you work before you even ask a question. For example, when you write a letter in Microsoft Word, the assistant can automatically display prompts that help you draft and format a letter.

Microsoft's idea is to allow people to work with a more intelligent computer, one that can guess what they are trying to do and help them do it.

Another avenue of help is remote assistance: A separate computer can be used to access and service yours without you doing a thing.

Until the day when computers really are smart and intuitive, people like Nancy (and those who help, like me) will face bewildering problems in setting up, maintaining and upgrading their computers.

Of course, there are companies that are glad to take your money to talk you through various procedures over the phone. If you're open to that, PC magazine highlights some of the help-desk options at pcmag. com/article2/0,1759,1544192,00. asp.

I'm looking at Microsoft Word Assistant as I write this column. I just changed my animated “assistant” from a talking paper clip to a dog. Although the dog isn't helping me get much done, his expressions amuse me. If only I could get him to write all my Register material for me. Maybe some day!

Brother John Raymond, co-founder of the Monks of Adoration, writes from Venice, Florida.