Sang-Jin Bae thinks something is amiss with computers. He should know. He's used them for decades as a technical director for Disney's Little Einsteins and as an animation production supervisor for shows at places such as Nickelodeon. He even teaches. His animation classes are some of the most popular at New York University's ritzy Tisch School of the Arts.
To Mr. Bae, the problem is not the computer. It's the people using them.
"When kids come into my class they divide into three groups," he says. There are the pure geeks who love technology. There are those trying to understand. And then there is the biggest group: "Those who couldn't care less."
As remarkable as it is to consider, this hip, articulate 36-year old computer whiz makes a heck of an argument that the computer age is entering a dark new era: the age of the digital illiterate.
Today's teens grew up on SMS and Facebook. Everything is being presented to them all the time. Web companies love it, since kids are addicted to their products. But, he says, "They expect less and less from the Web and the software they use."
Mr. Bae is not just talking about obscure, high-end animation tools. Instead, he sees an essential dumbing down of bedrock computing skills.
"The kids I have, and that is roughly two dozen of the brightest young digital artists a semester, often have no idea what Microsoft Word is. They can't tell a Mac from a PC. And forget Excel," he says. He struggles to get his students to use basic computing etiquette.
"They will not use e-mail," he says. They can't manage a crowded inbox. "It's a constant struggle to have them simply stop SMSing me."
And investors face a whole world of hurt as they consider the new world of digital illiteracy.
If you view the software biz through Mr. Bae's eyes, it's clear "simple is the new black" in the world code.
The biggest software simpleton of all, of course, is Microsoft. Its latest OS, Windows 8, jettisons the most profitable and complex user interface of all time – the desktop and pull-down windows – for the stripped-down tile-based "Metro" interface. Simplicity seems to also now define the Microsoft culture. The word "simple" appears no less than nine times in a single blog post by Steven Sinofsky, president of the Windows and Windows Live division.
Serious visual-effects packages are stepping down the simpleton software highway as well. Take San Rafael, Calif.-based Autodesk.
"They make a visual manipulation tool called Maya," Mr. Bae says. "And the new package has automatic features for animating hair. That used to be a specialist's job. But nobody wanted to deal with it. The idea was to make it easy enough for a nontechie to use."
Dozens of photo apps also vie to be the super-simplest. The most impressive, to me, is Trey Ratcliff's 100 Cameras In 1. This smartphone photo tool boils photography down into anybody-can-chew bites. According to Ratcliff's travel site, StuckinCustoms.com, this app was recently downloaded 1 million times.
And let's not forget the most lucrative app – not photo app, but app – of all time: Instagram. This photo-tweaking tool, which does little more than share a picture made from a few preset image setups, fetched close to $1-billion from Facebook earlier this year.
"All Instagram does is replicate what photographers already do," Mr. Bae says. "And make it so simple anybody can use it."
The investor pain looming with the breaking wave of digital illiteracy is significant. First, this new generation of low-functioning computer users will almost certainly require near full-time handholding from software vendors – which will not be cheap.
"It has gotten to the point now that if it takes something basic like a password, they can't figure it out," Mr. Bae said of his students. How will the average Macbook user deal with a problem? Go down to the Genius Bar and stand in line for two hours?
You can just hear the margin being ground from software vendors' bottom line.
Next, as this new software generation loses touch with basics such as spreadsheets, the products based on those virtual experiences will lose touch with customers. Meaning at great expense. Google Apps, Microsoft Office, Zoho and dozens of others will have little choice but to eat the stiff capital cost of rebuilding their software to stay relevant with the newly ascendant digital illiterate.
But finally – and most ominously of all – it will become increasingly difficult for app makers to strike the right balance demanded by today's computer-challenged.
Says Mr. Bae, "It's going to get harder and harder to find that next Instagram."
Somehow, the once all-powerful, software industry will have to strike the impossible balance of finding an experience simple enough that billions of digital dummies will be able to use it yet compelling enough that the same said illiterate masses will want to use it.
"Application developers," he says "are in a race to the bottom."
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