RETURN ON TECHNOLOGY: Big screen? Two screens? Productivity debate goes on

November 13, 2006

Apple computer recently announced the results of a study by Paris-based Andreas Pfeiffer, which said buying one of Apple's $1,999, 30-inch displays would increase productivity of one lucky employee 50 percent to 65 percent, enough to earn back the cost of the monitor before it dies or is supplanted by one with more pizazz a few years from now.

Pfeiffer argues that it takes a lot of time to switch between windows on a smaller monitor, time that isn't taken up doing anything worthwhile, like entering data or writing text. Instead, you can open windows sideby-side on Apple's monster monitor.

The research company even offers numerical results. You gain 14 seconds moving files from folder to folder, for a 46-percent boost. Excel spreadsheets can be manipulated in half the time. Dragging and dropping has an even more striking 65-percent improvement.

Of course, other experts disagree with Pfeiffer, but, remarkably, most of them don't question productivity improvements of huge monitor real estate, merely how it's

supplied; most of them argue for two smaller monitors instead of one big one.

I've used two monitors, and they're nice, but they take getting used to. I replaced the keyboard shortcut Alt+Tab when switching between windows, with much longer mouse movement as I pushed windows from one monitor to another. It's a little eerie at first seeing a window vanishing bit by bit from one monitor, then appearing on the adjoining one, as if it had somehow disassembled itself and flown through the intervening air. It looked disconcertingly like a conjurer's trick.

But emotional reactions aside, are these productivity numbers real? In the laboratory, I have no doubt they're real, and I have no doubt Andreas Pfeiffer was stating the truth. But I also have no doubt Andreas Pfeiffer wasn't looking over the shoulder of the typical brain worker in the Hoosier state, either.

Those remarkable productivity numbers might accrue over much time, but most employees don't spend days on end doing the kinds of repetitive tasks Pfeiffer tested. Most of us, for example, don't move files from folder to folder all day long. We open browsers, look around for data, wait for the network to catch up, and double-check our figures, none of which can be helped along with a bigger monitor. In some cases, we're doing all those things at once.

Perhaps a graphics designer who sits chained to a computer 7-1/2 out of eight hours a day might get a significantly greater amount of work done over months or years, but nobody else would. How many drag-and-drop operations do most of us do in a day? Half a dozen? If we did 100 such operations a day, with Pfeiffer's 30-inch desk-groaner we would theoretically save just shy of 20 minutes a day. Multiply that number by, say, 250 days a year, and the 83 hours you'd supposedly save sounds impressive. If the employee has a total burden of $50,000 per year, it would amount to $25 per hour, and you'd be saving $2,075, enough by itself to buy the monitor.

But the fact is these numbers work only in Pfeiffer's lab, because real people don't work like that, computing away for hours a day. Most of us answer the phone, type for a bit, answer somebody's question, search for a pen, input some numbers into a spreadsheet, go on break, and so on through the day. Even though we multitask, most of us don't keep a large number of applications open at one time, and we have little need to switch between them, and almost no need to switch rapidly. Peek into any office or cubicle, and you'll see the monitor idle much of the time. Apple's massive monitor might indeed be a big productivity enhancer, but its benefits will accrue so slowly that only your grandchildren will see them.

This reliance on dubious performance numbers isn't unique to Apple or to monitors. Printer and copier companies thump their chests about page-per-minute figures, for example. But this game of numerical one-upmanship ignores the really big timewasters most offices harbor.

The biggest losses don't occur during computer operation, but between operations. A decision-maker is out of pocket, on vacation or in a meeting. Data is inaccessible. Signatures haven't been affixed to documents on time. Paperwork is lost. Nobody can find files on the network. E-mails get lost in the shuffle. The printer is out of paper. Tasks are reprioritized.

Technology can help efficiency only to a point, after which the surrounding area has to be streamlined, too.

Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at timaltom@sbcglobal.net.
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