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Facebook's one small step for mankind

commentary The announcement of Facebook Home may not signal the end of the infuriating relationship people have with the technology they use. But it's a move in the right direction.

Facebook Home "Chat Head" thread. Facebook

Whether Zuckerberg and team accomplished that flip is unclear. In her firsthand look at the product, my CNET colleague Jessica Dolcourt described Home as "a collection of apps acting as one organism to deliver a full-skin Facebook experience for your Android phone, putting your Facebook contacts' photos, status updates, and chat icons front and center." The product also does away with traditional smartphone home screens, and offers a new sort of messaging with icons of friends' profile pictures.

But at least Zuckerberg was sounding the right notes about the infuriating relationship people still have with the technology they use. He isn't bringing out a product that will usher in the tech second coming, but the sentiment behind it teases at a larger ambition, one that goes back to the dawn of the personal computing era.

When he matriculated at Harvard in 2002, Zuckerberg doubtless knew about the computer science work going on a few miles away at MIT. That's where the great computer scientist Michael Dertouzos was writing eloquently and prolifically about the need to rethink how we interact with information technology. Dertouzos's primary assertion was that we'd reached the absurd point where people were trapped in an insufferable relationship with technology -- machines had been given primacy, and people had essentially been reduced to slaves of computer masters. As Dertouzos was wont to say, the point was to get our machines to serve humans, not the other way around.

Unfortunately, Dertouzos died in 2001 and his vision remains unfulfilled. The powers that be say all the right things, but the technology industry hasn't been particularly interested in making radical changes from business as usual.

In order for things to be different by now, software makers would have had to stop larding their products with useless features and instead rethink the way they turned out applications. Hardware makers would have had to place a priority on making devices that were more intuitive. Instead, three decades following the 1981 debut of IBM's PC, computing devices are primarily oriented around handling business and productivity tasks. They're better than they were, but humancentric, people first? Not on your life.

For a while, MIT tried to play midwife for new proof-of-concept technologies and concepts with a (now defunct) project it called the Oxygen Alliance. The description of the mission would warm the cockles of anyone who's ever had to use a computer:

In the future, computation will be human-centered. It will be freely available everywhere, like batteries and power sockets, or oxygen in the air we breathe. It will enter the human world, handling our goals and needs and helping us to do more while doing less. We will not need to carry our own devices around with us. Instead, configurable generic devices, either handheld or embedded in the environment, will bring computation to us, whenever we need it and wherever we might be. As we interact with these "anonymous" devices, they will adopt our information personalities. They will respect our desires for privacy and security. We won't have to type, click, or learn new computer jargon. Instead, we'll communicate naturally, using speech and gestures that describe our intent ("send this to Hari" or "print that picture on the nearest color printer"), and leave it to the computer to carry out our will.

"Hari" won't see that note until the modern computing device assumes a very different place in our lives. As Zuckerberg noted, the devices that people use nowadays may be a lot nicer, but the interface is relatively the same. To wit: "Open an app, do a task. Close it down."

Now we're heading for a world where most smartphone users have never seen what you and I know of as a computer. "The very definition of what a computer is and what our relationship should be hasn't been set for the majority of the world.... When it is, I think a lot of that definition will be around people first," Zuckerberg said during the launch of Facebook Home this week.

These types of platform transitions forever redefine the tech world: Mainframes to minicomputers; minicomputers to workstations and servers; workstations and servers to PCs and laptops. And now smartphones and tablets take their turn (while we wait for the eventual arrival of "wearable computing").

This isn't about a horse race, as it's unimportant whose vision wins out as long as modern computing keeps pushing in the direction of empowering people. Apple inspired a host of successful imitators, including Google and Microsoft, with the iPhone and iPad. If Zuckerberg's plan to embed a "people" layer at the core of the smartdevice experience resonates with users, other tech companies will try to do the same -- and maybe even better. For now, it's half a loaf, but that's something Dertouzos would have appreciated. It's a step forward in an unfinished revolution.