This is the big one. If I had to name the greatest hurdle tripping up people who don’t “get” computers, it’d be this:

They try to use “the computer”.

Huh? How could that be wrong?

The problem is this: Trying to use “the computer” won’t get you far. Trying to use applications will take you as far as you like.

What’s an application?

An application is software. Software is some set of instructions telling the computer how to do something. Like display and manage spreadsheets that let you calculate budgets. Or display an interface that lets you control the playback of movies on DVD disks. Or display a game with alien robots you can shoot down. Or record and play back your singing. Whatever the computer is capable of doing, it’s really some application that has the computer doing it.

Applications are also called apps or programs. Computer experts can quibble over the nuances of application vs program vs software. For our purposes, they’re the same thing. Your favorite game, your word processor for writing reports, and your web browser for viewing web sites – they are all software, are all applications, and are all programs. All of those words – or combinations of words you might run across, like software applications – refer to one thing: instructions that tell your computer to perform some tasks.

Yes, that’s more confusing than it should be – not for any “technical” reasons, but because humans love to make things more complex than needed. On this site, I’ll generally stick to the word applications; it seems to me the most common choice in how-to discussions.

Applications versus the computer

Think of “the computer” as the machine itself. As far as that machine goes, there really isn’t much to learn! You need to learn where the power switch is, how to plug in devices like the mouse and keyboard (or open up a laptop computer), how to use those plugged-in devices, how to insert a CD or DVD disk (if the machine accepts these), how to adjust the angle of the monitor (the screen), how to swap a laptop computer’s battery (if it has a battery you can take out and swap with a fresh battery), and so on. That’s all physical stuff.

There’ll be some things you do “on screen” that fall under “using the computer” – say, using a menu to eject a DVD disk, or using a menu to put the computer to sleep. But already I’m running out of important things to say about “the computer”. There isn’t much more to know about the machine itself!

So what about the real stuff that you do on the computer – writing email, reading web pages, writing reports, and all that? Each one of those things really isn’t a matter of using “the computer”. Each one is all about using an application.

The kitchen analogy (trust me, it’s a good one)

Think of a mechanic’s workshop. The mechanic might talk of “using the workshop” to fix some gadget, but that’s not what really goes on; after all, “the workshop” is just walls, a floor, and a ceiling. What the mechanic actually uses to fix stuff are the lathe, the power saw, the grinder, and so on. If you want to follow in her footsteps, you’d also ask her to teach you each of those tools. (You probably wouldn’t say “Teach me to use the workshop”; it doesn’t make a lot of sense.)

The same goes for using a kitchen, a workshop for food. “The kitchen” itself isn’t much of a tool. You could look at tasks like learning the kitchen’s layout, or how to turn on the lights and open the door, as “learning the kitchen”. But what you’re actually interested in, of course, are the blender, the refrigerator, the veggie shredder, and the oven; those are the tools that make dinner.

It’s not a bad analogy for computers. Applications are the blender, shredder, oven, sink, and so on; they’re the tools you want to use. They’re the things that do stuff. The computer, like the kitchen, is just the workplace that supports those tools. It’s not so meaningful to talk of using or learning the workplace. Focus instead on working with and learning the tools, and you’ll go far.

A word on words

Incidentally, while “tools” is actually a pretty good descriptive term for “applications”, I’ll avoid using it much. First, with “software”, “applications”, “apps”, and “programs”, we already have too many words. Second, the word “tools” is already used  often for something else: the individual features within an application; for example, the color correction, image cropping, and captioning features you’ll find in a photo editing application are typically called “tools”. So it’d get confusing to call the application itself a tool.

Just keep in mind that, in a generic sense, an application is a tool, like the many tools and appliances in a workshop or kitchen. (If the word “application” reminds you of “appliance”, I guess that’s not a bad thing!)

So, what’s my point?

If you understand that you’re using applications, not “the computer”, I expect you’ll find so many things easier. For example:

  • Right off the bat, you’re free from panic over having to learn “the computer” – because you now know that you don’t have to learn the computer! You only have to learn the applications that you want to use. Each application presents only a limited amount to learn, which you can easily do a little at a time.
  • When you’ve got some new task to perform on the computer, you won’t sit there stuck, wondering how to get “the computer” to do this thing. Rather, you’ll instinctively grasp the best way to start: by asking “What application do I need?” for the task, and then jumping into that application.
  • When some window – an open web page, an email message you’re writing, whatever – gets lost under a mess of other windows, you’ll locate it quickly. Why? Because you’ll be aware of which application the window belongs to, and you’ll simply head to that application. (And then say, “Hey, there’s my AWOL email window!” or whatever.)
  • When an error message pops up or beeps, you won’t curse “the computer” and wonder what to do next. Instead, you’ll quickly confirm which application is reporting a problem. That’ll  help a lot in fixing the problem yourself, or in describing it to someone else.

And so on. To drive the point home, imagine a first-time, would-be cook who wants to prepare an apple pie… and decides that the way to do it is to use “the kitchen”. He figures he’ll want to use some of the “stuff” in the kitchen to do it. So he fumbles through turning a dial here, throwing a switch there, hoping that he’s using “the kitchen” right, all because he has little concept of the individual appliances and their uses. When the inevitable happens – a burning smell and an alarm – he shouts, “The kitchen is smoking and beeping!” and has no idea what to do. “I’m just no good with kitchens”, he sighs as he phones the fire department…

You, instead, know that individual appliances are what you want – specifically, the refrigerator and cupboards for holding ingredients, the mixer for making dough, the oven for baking, and so on. You know where to find each appliance and how to purposefully switch from using one appliance to using another. When you flip a switch on an appliance, you take note of exactly which appliance that is! And, in the event of trouble, you don’t panic over “the kitchen” smoking. You calmly determine that it’s the oven having a problem, and you head to the oven to fix things, or call a chef buddy to ask questions specifically about ovens.

Futzing about with “the kitchen”, versus purposefully using specific appliances. That’s the difference in mindset between using “the computer” and using applications!

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