Inspiration for the New Computing

To be successful, technology must be in harmony with the needs of its users. If the user fails to experience a sense of security, mastery, and accomplishment, technology will not be adopted. Hence the challenge to the developer is to understand what the user wants, and creates products that satisfy these desires.

At the present time, there is a schism between computing technology and people: users feel alienated and incompetent, or cannot find a practical use for it (or do not see it as a better alternative to older methods), or cannot afford the cost or time investment. If this continues, technology will fail.

Envisioning the New Computing

The author provides a brief biography of Leonardo Da Vinci, whom he suggests as a muse for the "new computing" in which technology is harnessed to serve mankind. In effect, he put man "at the center of all things" and believed firmly that technology "must commence with the conception of man." It goes on for quite a while, and seems excessive, so I'm skipping it.

He then goes into a wonderland vision of ways in which computing technology could be applied for various purposes: medical research, entertainment, travel planning, the virtual workplace, interpersonal communication, etc. It's a fluffy "wonders of the future world" kind of thing, so I'm skipping it as well.

The Old Computing Gives Birth to the New Computing

In the early days of computers, they were used by scientists and engineers to perform calculations on large amounts of data. In effect, they were very powerful calculators.

In the 1980's, computer games emerged as a popular form of entertainment. Later, personal computers came out, and were popular at first among hobbyists, though later gained acceptance in business for their word processing and accounting capabilities.

In the early 1990's, the Internet arose, enabling the user to communicate with others, to obtain information on a wide array of topics, and to purchase merchandise.

Throughout the decade, progress was made in improving the user's "experience" of computing: additional resources to serve their needs, faster connections, better presentation technology.

Even so, it remained in the realm of "old computing" - it was expensive and required effort for the user to find resources he might need and learn to use them.

Developers focused on exploring the capabilities of the technology, and whether it served the needs of a user was incidental. Failure ensued.

The challenge to the developer is to adapt the capabilities of the technology to the needs of the user, and a transformation is taking place in the concept of "e-" (e-learning, e-commerce, e-healthcare, e-everything) - in that electronics (computers actually) are being used to enhance tasks that fill existing needs.

The first step to the new computing is supporting human needs and aspirations. Faster processors and higher bandwidth networks will not save the day, when the designs are "unusable at any bandwidth." Technology must enable the user to accomplish something, and to accomplish it with as much ease and little frustration as possible,

A second step toward new computing is inclusiveness - "universal usability" in the author's parlance. Specifically, that technology should not be restricted to the intellectual and economic elite, but made available to all.

EN: He doesn't explain the rationale for the latter, but I suspect his motives are political ... I tend to agree, for other reasons (size-of-market), but the point is largely moot. In the present day, access is ubiquitous in industrialized nations.

The author looks specifically at four "likely directions" for the near term:

A myriad of other applications exist, but the author will focus on these four as examples. He them promptly waltzes off into another field of poppies, so I'll stop annotating until it wears off again.

The Skeptic's Corner

EN: At the end of each chapter, the user provides a section that dismisses contrary opinions. There are sometimes interesting insights, but it's often more in the nature of misrepresenting or attempting to lampoon those who disagree rather than a fair representation of opposing viewpoints.

There are "unhappy realities" of communication technology: that it can be used for sinister purposes, and that it falls short of promises for its capabilities, features, and qualities. Some of these shortcomings are merely manifestations of existing social problems in a new medium; still others are the shortcomings of a still-evolving medium.

The skeptics claim this will undermine the use of technology, or that they will overwhelm it, such that the Internet becomes a dark and foreboding place and users become victims of the machine. It is a potential future, if the technology is misused, but it is not a guaranteed outcome, nor a reason to abandon the medium.

In a less dramatic sense, there are skeptics who argue that the values of technology developers will continue to prevent the medium from becoming useful to many or accessible to all. But the trend of recent years indicates that the medium is evolving toward a more user-centric design.

The author also backs away from the "technology is the answer to everything" stereotype. There are some experiences that technology is inadequate to replace, or even augment. But there are many experiences to which it can be applied.