Information appliances, which provide simplified, easy access to specific information such as e-mail and Web sites, promise to bring the benefits of computing to a wide customer base, including some computer-averse people who have hitherto avoided buying a computer. Internet appliances are evolving from personal computers, game stations, digital mobile phones, and server technologies. While this allows us to apply well-known quality assurance techniques, including testing techniques, the software quality professional must remember that the risks to product quality are different; the quality bar is higher, especially in terms of usability, robustness, and harmonizing the appliance with the dynamic Internet. Customers will assess the quality of information appliances by the degree to which the appliance reliably, quickly, transparently, and intuitively provides them with access to the desired information, and we expect them to be much less understanding of glitches than the current PC user. Information appliances are gaining wide acceptance—millions will hit the market in the next few years—so many of us who practice software quality professions will spend time working on projects to develop them. Indeed, we expect that information appliances will present tremendous opportunities to those who seek to bring quality to software in the new millenium. This paper presents the test team’s findings on one such project.
Recently, a new breed of computer—and the software that animates it—has captured the attention of computer professionals, computer users, and the computer-averse as well: the information appliance. One can define an information appliance as a limited-feature computer with a simplified, intuitive user interface designed to handle particular nuggets of information conveniently. One type, the Internet appliance, promises to bring people the benefits of the Internet without the difficulties of a general-purpose computer. In this paper, we offer the test team's perspective on a successful project to bring the Internet appliance to the customer with a positive experience of quality.
2. The Information Appliance: Revolution or Evolution?
Twenty-five years ago the personal computer era began as hobbyists and entrepreneurs built small computers around an exciting new technology, the microprocessor. The personal computer revolution released software from the control of centralized IS organizations and sophisticated technicians, and brought with it the promise of universally accessible computing. Xerox PARC’s advances in the graphic user interface, marketed so successfully first by Apple and now by Microsoft, seemed to adumbrate effortless, ubiquitous computers penetrating every nook and cranny of society.
This technological utopia may yet come, but the general-purpose computer is not the vehicle for delivering on that promise. As one computer usability consultant, Jakob Nielsen, observed at the Twelfth International Software Quality Week conference, computer acceptance has stalled. The PC, with its power and flexibility, is too complicated for most people, and reliability problems can stymie even computer sophisticates. Another human factors expert, Donald Norman, argues that we need a "new paradigm": information appliances that will be "the natural successor to today's [complex computers]" (Norman, 1998).
The information appliance is an evolutionary means to a revolutionary end. The devices themselves, and the software in them, have evolved from personal computers, game stations, and digital mobile telephones. They connect with typical servers for e-mail, content, and Web access. Despite the technological similarities, though, successful information appliances must be more than just stripped-model personal computers or overgrown games stations or phones. Like toasters, ovens, and refrigerators, information appliances perform simple tasks, but must do them in a trivially obvious and totally foolproof fashion. It is the simplicity of function and use, the transparency of the technology—and the new celebrants such easy to-use appliances will bring to the computer party—that will deliver a great leap