Shortly after the dawn of time, after mankind first discovered basic tools and how to apply them, the process of innovation has rolled onwards, not just to improve the tools and the machines made out of them, but to improve how we interact with those tools.
The earliest tools, crude flint stones being used to cut, were hard to hold and cut the fingers – and were attached to sticks to form knives and later axes – there’s probably the first of what we could now call the Human/Machine Interface evolution… and I think another’s coming.
We have thousands of years of human/machine interfacing evolution behind us. From the very simplest stones, through flint stone evolving into flint knives, through the through the bronze and iron ages, and into the current climate, we find ourselves taking the tools we have and making better tools with them.
Each generation, we create better, more precise, or more powerful, or more capable tools – and no small part of that is the fact that we also refine how we use them, how we interact with them. And I firmly believe we stand on the threshold of a revolution in how we interact with our machines.
Last year, Apple introduced their iPad device; a device that is comfortably sized to sit and use as a form of electronic book, portable video player, Internet browser and even for creating content on. While the iPad clearly reused and refined Apple’s existing technology for touch screens and so on, Apple saw fit to label it ‘magical and revolutionary’ on its debut.
With the recent launch of the iPad 2, the same phrase has come back, though there’s not a great deal of revolution in the second incarnation. There is, naturally, a refinement of the technology, innovation upon innovation to pack more power into a smaller space and weight, but nothing that could be badged as revolutionary.
Then it struck me: Jobs is far more astute than the tech press gave him credit for when he brought the iPad to life.
In the talk of the iPad 2, he mentions the ‘post-PC landscape’, he’s envisaging a time beyond the classical computer. Some colleagues of mine have speculated that he is hyping up what is really the post-keyboard landscape, having successfully proved that a keyboard and mouse isn’t necessarily the ideal interface for a device.
I think it’s more than that though. I can do the vast bulk of what I do online without either a full keyboard or a mouse – the tools of the iPad are more than adequate for browsing, for video watching. It’s only large scale content creation that I can’t yet do on the iPad, such as writing this blog; well, I can do it on the iPad already, but it would be far less efficient than typing on a full size keyboard – but again, there’s the decades of keyboard use and mentality catching up with us.
Yes, I think we’re at the brink of moving beyond the keyboard landscape to something else, but I think with that is coming the notion of moving beyond the classical desktop/PC scenario too; that we’re looking to make more use of ‘the cloud’, so physical location becomes less and less relevant, that we’re looking to become freed from desks and offices and do our business on the move.
All this, because our interfaces become more powerful, more portable, and that we can do far more ‘out and about’ than we could even a decade ago – imagine showing an iPad to a computer user of a decade ago and telling them it does full motion video, high speed internet access without any wires and has up to 10 hours battery life, and you’ll get looks of astonishment.
Not just because of the technical accomplishments, but because the interface between human and machine has come much further in that time – the iPad would not look out of place in Star Trek, it looks and feels much like the sorts of console device that the crews of 24th Century starships were using. I’m not sure if that’s life imitating art, but it certainly indicates that we feel more comfortable interacting with a machine without clumsy tools of keyboard and mouse.
Part of the debut of the iPad 2 seemed geared towards the tools to come for the new device, such as bringing GarageBand to the portable platform. This intrigues me, because it’s taking something traditionally manipulated with keyboard and mouse, and putting it literally at your fingertips.
And so, I’m left wondering how long it will be before we evolve beyond mice and keyboards, and onto something more natural, more personal and responsive. Touch screen’s a start, but it’s just the start – we stand on the edge of not just innovation but the next iteration of the information revolution, and it will change everything. Again.