What Steve Jobs saw in Siri (and why I’m glad he lived to see it)

October 10, 2011

I was truly speechless the moment I found out Steve Jobs passed away — so suddenly, only a day after Apple’s first big announcement without him at the helm. I wonder if he held on, wanting to see the transition to Tim Cook. Perhaps that was pure coincidence. Or maybe he held on for another reason: to see Siri announced to the world.

Siri was Apple’s largest news on October 4th, but many consumers shrugged it off, saying, “It’s cool, but it’s not an iPhone 5, like we expected. And this voice-driven technology has been creeping forward for some time. It’s hardly big news.”  After recovering from the shock and taking time to reflect on what Jobs really did during his lifetime — making computer-driven technology usable for the everyday person — I’m thinking that, for Jobs, Siri might have been the beginning of something much greater that Apple has been dreaming about for a long time — something significant that would eventually, once again, lead to a dramatic shift in personal computing.

Interfaces

Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak changed computing to be personal foremost by changing the interface. My lifespan happens to coincide with their work, so I can attest to the effect of their genius on ordinary individuals like me. I grew up on the Apple II in grade school, my family owned an Apple IIGS (limited edition, bearing Woz’s signature!), and I eventually moved on to use the Macintosh interface and the subsequent Windows graphical interfaces based on it.

The Apple IIGS had the first primitive GUI operated by mouse. The introduction of the graphical operating system was the pivotal shift in computing that added the “personal” to computer. Everything hinged on this until Apple redefined elegant human-to-computer interface again with the iPhone and iPad, leveraging touch and gestures to make the device even more natural and personal.

Now, a great many people are claiming that touch and gestures are the way we’ll all interface with computers in the future and that the mouse as we know it is dead. (Here’s one example: The Mouse Dies. Touch and Gesture Take Center Stage) And while I don’t deny the usefulness of touch screens to simplify interface, I’ve said before they aren’t a magic bullet. They actually intimidate some newcomers. (Don Norman, the great design guru, also highlights some issues in Gesture Wars.) Though the harmony between hand and screen has been streamlined, users still must understand graphical conventions. That’s why I’ve been posting for some time that core computing concepts still need to be taught to newcomers. And that’s also why I’m pretty excited about Apple with Siri, because I think Jobs saw it as the way to reinvent the human-to-computer interface once again…

Your voice is the next interface

Back in 1987, Apple released this futuristic video showcasing a voice-commanded personal assistant. (Note also that the implied date in the video is either September of 2010 or 2011, very close to the actual Siri announcement.)

Though the depiction above feels a little more like the ship’s computer from Star Trek: The Next Generation, Siri is likely not (yet) as advanced as the personal assistant in the Knowledge Navigator video. But it’s not hard to see the connection. And I’m by no means the first one who has drawn comparisons between Siri and Knowledge Navigator (and Star Trek for that matter). Just do a web search and you’ll find plenty of hits. But here’s the salient point…

If you could reliably control your computer by taking to it — like Star Trek — then the need for understanding graphical UI elements and gestures is significantly reduced and the barrier to computing (for newcomers) becomes virtually non-existent. Your voice doesn’t need to be taught. The interface is built-in and the conventions are only limited to what the computer can understand.

As the person who wrote the primer for newcomers learning to understand desktop PC interfaces, the prospect of using one’s voice as the primary interface absolutely thrills me. Think of this: no need to teach someone how to relate to the computer. No need to explain icons and procedures. The teaching of the “interface” is essentially offloaded to whomever teaches the individual to speak. No longer would computer vendors be burdened with GUI usability; they would only focus on voice command recognition. This would truly be a revolution in computer interface, and it’s only a matter of time before the technology is powerful and adaptive enough to provide this capability. Apple may simply be, as usual, taking a vision to market first.

The future of interfaces

While the mouse may be history very soon, I don’t think some artists will ever get away from a physical stylus or external device to assist with detailed pixel-resolution work. And touch screens are certainly here to stay. But I believe that Steve Jobs was preparing to take us to a place where both hand-powered interface and icon-based operation as we know it take a backseat. I’d like to know what Ted Nelson thinks of this, since he suggested that any person ought to be able to understand a computer within ten seconds. Ted, maybe the future that Jobs was planning to bring to us was not a world where we understand the computer, but where the computer understands us. If we are able to speak to our computer like we would a fellow human and have it obey us reliably, then anyone who can speak would, regardless of prior “computer experience,” be able to immediately accomplish the most common computing tasks without the overhead of required pre-existing mental models for software operation based on metaphors. And that would mean that, though he didn’t live to see it fulfilled, Steve Jobs would have once again orchestrated the rebirth of personal computing for ordinary people.


A Tale of Two Tablets (and a lesson learned)

September 27, 2011

an iPad and Samsung Galaxy Tab

Having recently had the opportunity to work with both an iPad and Samsung Galaxy Tab, I have the following impressions (which are predicated upon the fact that I am a long time PC user.)

iPad

  • very easy to learn to use
  • easier screen turn on (thanks to physical home button)
  • slightly faster “on” from power off state
  • pretty simple and intuitive operation — launch app from home menu, use app, push single home button to return to app menu
  • pretty good for simple, input only text entry; painful for editing existing text
  • Overall, a very elegant casual consumption device.

Galaxy

  • harder to learn to use
  • slightly slower and slight less convenient screen turn on
  • longer initial startup from power off state
  • once acclimating, felt more sophisticated, akin to my desktop PC experience, especially with web browsing and office-like tasks
  • great for simple, input only text entry; painful for editing existing text
  • Overall, seems more powerful in the traditional computing sense.

Which did I like better? Honestly, I liked both, but for different reasons. It would be difficult to pick between the two. But here’s the ironic twist to this tale… Read the rest of this entry »


Prepare to disown your PC: a prediction on the future of personal computing

August 24, 2011

The introduction of the iPhone changed the destiny of your desktop PC. You probably just didn’t know it at the time.

Clearly, the iPhone was more than just another digital cell phone. It was primarily a computer that happened to include voice calling capabilities. It was a mini-PC in your pocket, like one of my close friends predicted over 15 years ago. But that’s not all. The “computer’s” operating system was different. The app store model for acquiring and installing “software” was drastically different as well. But in hindsight, though those were what got a lot of press at the time, there’s something else that the iPhone did to set the stage for the iPad and the next generation of personal computers: Read the rest of this entry »


Why the iPad isn’t a desktop PC killer (yet)

August 20, 2011

A question to ponder: with the introduction of the iPad, is there a need to own a PC? In other words, does the iPad mean death for the traditional PC for most consumers? After all, it has that slick touch screen and doesn’t require keyboard, mouse, and most other bulky peripheral components that traditional PCs do. Plus, with that slim form factor, you can take it nearly anywhere. And thanks to dual WIFI and cell network compatibility, it can be connected to the internet almost continuously. What more could a user want?

But is it enough to completely replace a PC? Well, in my evaluation, yes…but no. Here’s why… Read the rest of this entry »


How will you be served? A map of modern computing devices

August 17, 2011

My friend who got me into computing made a prediction almost 20 years ago. He was holding a calculator in his hand and said something to the effect of, “Our kids will walk around with something smaller than this that will be far more powerful than what’s on our desks today.” Now back then, powerful was a 486 or early Pentium class machine. But it wasn’t until the advent of the smartphone with the cell data network did his prediction come true. Smartphones are more computer than phone.

And yet, we still have desktop PCs. They’re tremendously more powerful and capable than smartphones (for now) — perhaps even more powerful than we should have imagined 20 years ago. So we find ourselves in a world with a variety of computing devices where no one “uber computing device” rules. I thought I’d perform a somewhat academic exercise and map these devices on a type of “infographic,” to help pinpoint where the gaps are as well as where each type of device excels. It’s a first draft, so feel free to comment. (Click below to get the full size version.)

A Comparison Map/Infographic of Modern Personal Computing Devices

A Comparison Map/Infographic of Modern Personal Computing Devices (Click to view full size image.)

(Note: I realize there certainly could be more spectra added to the map. For instance, I didn’t attempt to include Cost (both purchase price and on-going maintenance costs), User Skill Required for operation, options for Peripherals, etc. It’s not intended to be exhaustive.)

After completing the map, one thing stands out: there is no perfect device yet — no one personal computer option that is at the “best end” of all spectra nor one which falls solidly in the middle of all of them as a perfect balance. What do you think will fill the gap? How will you be served in the future?


Fast vs. Intuitive: a challenge in interface design and why the iPad is only the first step

August 10, 2011

Computer interface designers of the world, I lay a quandary at your feet: in the same interface,  is it possible to provide newcomers with intuitive operation while not hindering experienced users’ desire for speed and rapid productivity? It seems like most commonly, with existing computing interfaces, we find the following at play:

I’d argue that today these two continua seem linked. Intuitive devices — devices targeting the general populace — and are likely optimized for those with fewer existing (computing) mental models. Those wanting extremely fast usage are likely the power users, having more robust mental models built from years of existing computing experience. So the big dilemma is: Read the rest of this entry »


Good or Bad: Windows 8 for newcomers

June 7, 2011

Colleagues John and Ryan were discussing these early videos showing off Windows 8 features. Specifically, in Building “Windows 8,” by Microsoft’s own admission, their upcoming OS sports a major UI change, drawing inspiration from touch-devices (both phones and tablets). My thoughts:

First, as a long-time PC user myself, having a multitasking, highly powerful PC with a visual contextual “heads-up display” interface to programs/apps is exciting. It’s the stuff power users and PC enthusiasts drool over. I can immediately think, “Wow. Fast, visual access to information like never before.” As an existing user and student of interface concepts, I can quickly adapt my mental model to make sense of the “status” and “access” conventions employed by Microsoft’s “tiles” interface concept.

Second, it occurs to me that as an observer of technology on the behalf of new and confused users, Microsoft has clearly followed Apple into the “new mainstream,” focusing on serving existing users more than newcomers. This partially leaves me wondering who now thinks of the unskilled users and newer adopters. (See Mac vs. Windows for newcomer usability for my historical opinion.) Yet, I certainly won’t be a doomsayer about this. I’m going to hope that some of the trade-offs for easy information access and one-touch selection overcome the additional evolutionary stair steps Microsoft is adding that might otherwise hamper those who haven’t been along for the entire PC ride.

But third, and most importantly, Read the rest of this entry »