Learning by Breaking

I learned about computers by breaking them.

Not intentionally. But by experimenting. Which lead to breaking them.

I bought my first computer in 1993 from a mail order business called Zeos. It didn’t come with a soundcard. So I bought one and tried to install it. I did the same with a CD ROM. Neither installation went well. Luckily I have an uncle who is a computer whiz.

Have you ever disassembled a washing machine or another appliance and you get to that point where you’re less concerned in fixing the problem as much as you are about getting it back together?

I was well past that point with my computer. I had wires and cables and cards littering my PC case. I didn’t dare plug it in because I figured there was a high probability it would explode.

My uncle is very methodical. He’d place my computer on the table. Then he’d begin removing those parts that were not in the right place. Once that was done, he’d read the directions for the items I was attempting to install. I know that sound crazy but it always worked. He never made me feel stupid. Maybe he enjoyed the company. But I always come away from those visits with a lot of newfound computer knowledge.

Over time and after many mistakes, I could repair most problems my computer tossed at me. I enjoyed building a new system every few years. From picking the motherboard to researching which chips I could overclock, it was not just fun but educational. Even today, when I interview a candidate for a technical position, I ask, “Have you built your own computer?” That often leads to an interesting discussion. If you’re a nerd.

But things have changed, and I blame the iPhone.

Well, maybe age has something to do with it. Or having four children and less free time on the weekends.  But the iPhone shoulders some of the blame.

Let me explain.

Until I owned an iPhone, a day didn’t go by when I felt like tossing my phone against the wall. I’ve owned phones from all the major brands, and they made a day at the dentist feel like a vacation in comparison to using even the phone’s most basic features.

I’ve never owned a Mac. I was a iPod laggard who finally jumped on the bandwagon when the fifth generation iPod arrived. But out of sheer desperation, I bought an iPhone before giving up on all phones.

And that’s when things changed. I no longer had to tinker with dozens of complicated geeky settings to get it working. I wasn’t looking back to the manual to see how to retrieve my voicemail. I just plugged it in, and it WORKED. And not only did it work but it was fun to use. It had personality. It had flair. It didn’t require me to reset it every 30 minutes. What do you mean all the available applications are neatly housed under the iTunes umbrella? Get outta here.

My problem is now I expect other gadgets to “just work”. As much as I learned by installing my own soundcard, I’d rather spend time watching my daughter kick my butt in a game of Boggle or Angry Birds. I understand that Apple is a “closed system” but I don’t care. If the end result is my device works, then that’s a trade-off I’m willing to make.

Apple’s success with the iPhone has encouraged competitors  to pick up their game and offer comparable devices. Google’s Android phones are selling like crazy. RIM devices are still loved by those who compose a lot of email, and Microsoft is on the verge of launching Windows Phone 7 which looks great and has been garnering good reviews. The smartphone market is still young with fewer than 20% penetration in the US.

With a number of high quality phones being offered today or around the corner, we as consumers are the big winners.

4 thoughts on “Learning by Breaking

  1. There’s no other way to learn. Fortunately, I was able to learn a lot about technology by getting to play with new stuff at Church (still do, newer/cooler stuff every year) and by pulling geeky pranks in school (the devious things one can do with automatic word replacement in Word). Ultimately though, I expect my devices to work, and Apple has never let me down.


  2. Mark just installed 2 solid state laptop hard drives (Raided together) into our desktop. It worked great!


  3. The learning by breaking philosophy is part of why I use Linux on both of my computers. Even though Linux is a solid operating system, sometimes it takes that slight niggling to get things to work, and nearly a year later, I still don’t have everything worked out perfectly on my older computer. I’m in a constant state of learning, but immersion is much better than saying, “Eh, I’ll do it one day.”


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