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TECH TALK: The Best of 2004: Simplicity

January 20th, 2005 · No Comments

The Economist survey and David Gelernters article capture what is the single biggest challenge facing the computer industry how to make things simpler. This is especially important for what we are doing because we want to target the next set of users. This is where I believe we have a lot to learn from the telecom industry both in its devices and the way it offers the services.

11. Economist Survey on IT, focusing on conquering complexity (October)

Steven Milunovich, an analyst at Merrill Lynch, offers a further reason why simplicity is only now becoming a big issue. He argues that the IT industry progresses in 15-year waves. In the first wave, during the 1970s and early 1980s, companies installed big mainframe computers; in the second wave, they put in PCs that were hooked up to server computers in the basement; and in the third wave, which is breaking now, they are beginning to connect every gadget that employees might use, from hand-held computers to mobile phones, to the internet.

The mainframe era, says Mr Milunovich, was dominated by proprietary technology (above all, IBM’s), used mostly to automate the back offices of companies, so the number of people actually working with it was small. In the PC era, de facto standards (ie, Microsoft’s) ruled, and technology was used for word processors and spreadsheets to make companies’ front offices more productive, so the number of people using technology multiplied tenfold. And in the internet era, Mr Milunovich says, de jure standards (those agreed on by industry consortia) are taking over, and every single employee will be expected to use technology, resulting in another tenfold increase in numbers.

Moreover, the boundaries between office, car and home will become increasingly blurred and will eventually disappear altogether. In rich countries, virtually the entire population will be expected to be permanently connected to the internet, both as employees and as consumers. This will at last make IT pervasive and ubiquitous, like electricity or telephones before it, so the emphasis will shift towards making gadgets and networks simple to use.

UBS’s Mr [Pip] Coburn adds a demographic observation. Today, he says, some 70% of the world’s population are analogues, who are terrified by technology, and for whom the pain of technology is not just the time it takes to figure out new gadgets but the pain of feeling stupid at each moment along the way. Another 15% are digital immigrants, typically thirty-somethings who adopted technology as young adults; and the other 15% are digital natives, teenagers and young adults who have never known and cannot imagine life without IM (instant messaging, in case you are an analogue). But a decade from now, Mr Coburn says, virtually the entire population will be digital natives or immigrants, as the ageing analogues convert to avoid social isolation. Once again, the needs of these converts point to a hugely increased demand for simplicity.

12. Gelernter on how to build a better PC (December)

What’s wrong with today’s PC? Plenty. All sorts of functions that ought to be built-in are available only as add-ons or not at all.

Like many people, I have several PCs in my life–and I constantly need to ask such ridiculous questions as, “Where did I leave the latest version of that file? By what clumsy method should I move it from where it is to where it’s needed?” Such questions are like asking “Where did I leave the starter crank for my Huppmobile?” If you have to ask, your (formerly) hot-shot machine is ready for the folk-art museum.

IBM might have done well selling PCs with built-in “transparent information sharing.” As soon as you connected such a machine to the Internet, all your electronic documents would immediately be available–no matter where you created or last worked on them. If all your computers had transparent information-sharing, you could start composing an e-mail at work, touch it up during your drive home (using a–theoretical–in-car, audio-interface IBM PC) and finish it up on a laptop in your backyard. Lots of businesses and people would have shelled out for such PCs.

Many computer users are overwhelmed by e-mail. Whenever you start work on a computer, you ought to find a one-page e-mail summary ready and waiting. It would tell you at a glance (even if you haven’t touched a computer in weeks) which new e-mails look important, which look like junk, and which have been acknowledged but not yet answered.

There are dozens more possibilities. Why should anyone waste time throwing out e-mail (or any electronic document) when data storage is dirt cheap? Why are we wedded to a windows-menus-mouse interface that is flat, as if it were stuck to the back of the screen, when computers are easily powerful enough to turn the screen into a viewport that lets us “peer through it” into an imaginary 3-D landscape? (Information can be more clearly and effectively arranged in a 3-D space than on a restricted flat surface.) Large-screen and projection technology is cheaper all the time; why aren’t large-screen computers (and living-room computers) a growing (high profit!) segment of the industry? Why doesn’t every computer I use show me the exact same desktop, with the same layout of the same icons?–or (at any rate) the same picture, no matter what interface I use? I could go on.

Know this for sure: Some company will build all this and more into a radically more powerful, radically simpler PC.

Tomorrow: Entrepreneur Q&A


TECH TALK The Best of 2004+T

Tags: Tech Talk

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