The year in review: the state of (explaining) technology

As Explain Technology turns one year old, I thought it a great time to give a “State of Explaining Technology” address. What has changed in the technology space that affects the understanding of technology? How can those of us who seek to explain it learn how our models need to change? Where has there been improvement in technology design, allowing for easier adoption? Here’s a look back at several key areas…

Convergence and mobility

Rapid adoption of mini-PCs (or “netbooks”), and much more powerful cell phones. They’re obviously going to converge. What we saw this last year was phones becoming more like portable computers than ever, while computers became smaller, cheaper, and simpler (like cell phones).

Conclusions & Implications: While it’s obvious that at some point they will become one — we will simply carry the ultimate portable computer/communicator device — what isn’t so obvious is exactly how many pains it will take to get to the place where this is the norm, and not just novelty. It’s always challenging heading into into a situation where lines between formerly separate technologies will be blurring. Much explaining still lies ahead in this space.

Device Interfaces

Perhaps one of the largest changes in the last year has been the explosion of touch-sensing interfaces. Smart phones, especially the iPhone, and all forms of media devices are paving the way toward a button-free world. Gestural interfaces are starting to make a serious (though, perhaps not yet totally useful, entrance). The Siftables demo at TED, among others, shows interface is still being heavily researched and re-engineered.

Conclusions & Implications: when I began writing The Ultimate PC Primer, part of the core message was that, despite how many varieties of PCs there are, their interfaces were essentially based on the exact same concepts. Now I feel this may be starting to shift… and perhaps significantly, primarily due to touch-interfaces. Touch screens have available for some time, and so in some ways the iPhone’s interface is only novel because it is on a sleek mobile, multi-function device. Most single-finger touch interfaces just replaced the mouse as a way to identify an interface point on the screen. But the increase of new interfaces billed as “more organic,” including multi-finger interfaces,  may create a truly new way to interface with electronics. Add to this that the time-to-market for new interface technologies is getting better, and we may rapidly find ourselves in a place where a mix of classic and revolutionary interfaces both require different forms of explanation.

Conclusions & Implications: our ability to rely on long-standing interface concepts may soon vanish, causing us to re-think how we explain one of the most crucial aspects of modern technology.

PCs, OSes, & network service solutions

Most of the last year’s growth seems to have been in the electronics/mobile space. PCs, overall, haven’t seen as dramatic a shift. But there have been subtle shifts in “behind the scenes” technologies. Operating systems don’t draw as much fanfare as they used to, even though Windows Vista was much trumpteded. The truth is, there are more operating systems in use now than ever before. At the same time, this isn’t as big of a deal as it used to be… for most of the technology literate. Apparently, the OS isn’t something to get excited about anymore. It’s just a backbone. We’re on to “services” as the latest, greatest thing. Remote storage, remote backup, media and even software on-demand (web apps) are the deal of the day. If you would have shown me the present fifteen years ago my jaw would have been on my desk. An impressive amount of capability now exists in the PC space, but we don’t see it billed as revolutionary. Partially this is due to the current focus/hype on portability, but part of it is simply due to our desensitization to evolving computing capability. For several years, rapid change with greater capability at lower cost has been the norm. That trend is now old. We expect it. But what about those who haven’t been along for the ride the entire time?

Conclusions & Implications: The digital space simply isn’t as easy to explain as before. Traditionally, we used to be able to focus on explaining operating systems and individual software packages. The new route to explaining technology may require more serious thought. Hopefully, new network-based services and software will bear some resemblance to the former products, but innovation is rarely clean and vendors rushing to market often put clear explanation and training last on their agendas. It will behoove us to think harder than ever about how we’re framing our explanations of new technologies. Heavier use of analogies may be ahead. However, as technologies are often refined over time, the long term picture may be more positive. If the network-based computing model becomes standard, eventually we might no longer have to explain things like installing software and hard drive failures. Just this past week I helped a family member restore his computer after a virus gained complete control, requiring a full system “wipe.” If the future of PCs and OSes eliminates some of that hassle (and subsequently some of the explanation), then it may a slightly rosier future.

Explanation awareness

So how has explaining technology gone over the last year? In the rush toward the “shiny new” technologies, it seems more than ever explanation is being left out. Perhaps the one exception to this is those devices with new interfaces. Unfortunately, most explanations draw upon the assumption that the user understood the previous generation of devices.

On the bookshelves, I see even less material for newcomers than ever. On the web, however, I’m starting to notice more and more videos designed to explain various aspects of technology. This is a two-edged sword. I’m glad more people are realizing that adequate explanation is missing, and bravo for them joining in the battle to provide the missing pieces. However, again, these videos generally serve those already modestly technology-literate. You can’t teach someone to use their cell phone by telling them to call you for help. And you can’t teach someone how to use their PC by having them view web-based content.

Conclusions & Implications: It would appear that the community of existing users and “understanders” are now the expected training and support mechanism for newcomers. Vendors don’t seem inclined to provide much in this space. It also appears that web “sense” has become a core skill for achieving everything else. Service, support, and training, if they are to be handled exclusively via the web (by the vendor or the community), is now assumed to be a basic “life skill” for all wishing to engage new technologies.

The world is more on-line than ever. On-line used to be an option. Now it is a necessity as off-line options are starting to vanish. Understanding of the network-based world will be key to survival in the digital future. It’s a new “core concept,” so to speak, and those who don’t posses understanding of the concept will be left behind at a faster rate than ever before. For us who explain technology, don’t forget this core concept when explaining… and watch yourself that you don’t assume all already posses understanding of the Web and network-centric technologies.

The Ultimate PC Primer

The book was one project I started to help raise awareness of those who still don’t understand technology. I used to think getting the book published would be a key success. Now, I’m considering that the book’s contents may simply be a springboard to other opportunities. As such, I have committed to having the book done and available before the end of the year, either via a formal publisher or simply available for download on-line, perhaps even for free. I have always believed having it in the hands of those who need it is more important than making money. It is my hope that many who fancy themselves tutors of newcomers will at least skim it and say, “Wow. I never thought this much about why core concepts have to be explained. This makes sense. I need to rethink how I’ve been attempting to explain PCs.” We’ll see.

The future of Explain Technology

This blog started as a one-year experiment. I’ll be re-assessing how I can continue to use it to promote the need to always consider how we explain technology to those who don’t understand. You may have already noticed a shift in the type of postings as I have been realizing (though my consulting) a lot of technology understanding is lacking not only in those retired but also many still in the workforce. Look for more corporate focus in the future. And while postings will likely be less frequent until the book is finished, your suggestions are always welcome.

Here’s to year 2!

So there’s the year in review. And here’s to what is sure to be another interesting year ahead. If you think I’ve missed something, feel free to chime in. As always, comments are enabled.

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