September/October 2000 // Letters to the Editor
The Delicate Balance of Technology Production
by Mary Harrsch
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Mary Harrsch "The Delicate Balance of Technology Production" The Technology Source, September/October 2000. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

In the July-August edition of The Technology Source, Stephen Downes (2000) makes several comments about existing products that he terms "bad technology." These points deserve response from someone with an alternate point of view.

Stephen criticizes word processing software (and Microsoft Word in particular) for not offering an all-inclusive dictionary for all of the world's languages and dialects; he uses Word's supposed failure to offer a Canadian English dictionary as an example. This is not a matter of good technology or bad technology but the affordability of incorporating a given language set. Many languages have unique dialects, but a software manufacturer must evaluate the cost of developing separate language sets and decide which sets to include. The expense is not simply the cost of including a "complete" dictionary (a fantasy since hundreds of new words are coined each year), but also of modifying all user-interface objects to properly reflect the selected language choice—no small task. It is also unreasonable to expect a software company to include all of the specialized jargon of particular professional groups like architects, physicians, and psychologists, at least as part of the base product. All technology is developed at a cost. Often it is a delicate balance to produce a technology product with as many features as possible and still make it affordable to the vast majority of people.

Stephen also alludes to Microsoft's Office Assistant, the paperclip, as "bad technology." To the contrary, the Office Assistant is Microsoft's commendable effort to offer users a natural language help system. Increasingly, people are using artificial intelligence and intelligent agents to help find and manage the information flooding their workspaces each day. The Office Assistant was one of the first attempts to incorporate some of this artificial intelligence into a mainstream work environment. Many large Web sites, including the popular "Ask Jeeves" search portal, are now using similar technology to develop virtual customer service representatives. It is certainly easier to ask for help by typing (or asking with speech recognition software) your question than by scanning an index of key words, hoping you'll stumble across the section of the help index you need. And if you don't like the paperclip character, there are others available. Personally, I like "Rocky." His friendly nature and wagging tail help brighten an otherwise stressful day.


Downes, S. (2000, July/August). Nine rules for good technology. The Technology Source. Retrieved 9 July 2000 from the World Wide Web:

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