Those people who left PARC, those were the people who went to Apple in its early days?
Yes, some went to Apple and some went to Digital. That lab really needed something new to do. I started the lab on this program of ubiquitous computing and we took a couple of years to evolve it. Ubiquitous computing is the next thing after the personal computer.
Before the personal computer, lots of people shared one computer. That was the mainframe era. Now we're in the personal computer era; it's one person, one computer. In the next era to come, it will be lots of computers sharing each of us, so it will be the inverse of the mainframe. They'll be nice to us [laughs].
Yes. We'll be in charge. I say "sharing us," but right now lots of words share us, if I can make that analogy. There are lots of doorways in houses. Around us, around me in this room, there are lots of words and pieces of paper and information technology of the old style of chopped wood and ink, but it's not overwhelming. In fact, it's kind of comforting to have these words around, especially on the expressway telling me where to get off and so forth.
So the world of ubiquitous computing, where lots of computers share us, I think of it as a similar world, except with the newer technology, not pulped trees, but pulped sand [silicon].
So the Internet is the first indication of ubiquitous computing?
Well, all new technology sort of proceeds by little tentacles that are harbingers of the future. Of course you never know which tentacle is the right tentacle, but when a whole bunch of tentacles are all pushing forward, it's a sign that maybe that's where the future is going. So the Internet is one of the harbingers of ubiquitous computing. Everything is connected together and suddenly there are standards for connecting everything together, which is the real breakthrough: TCP/IP and HTTP. Other harbingers are the fact that every Timex watch has a 6502 computer in it, even the $20 ones. There's Timex watches that download from the screen, PDAs, and little hand-held computers. You just see more and more computers in our lives and they are more and more invisible. I went through my house and I counted 40 microprocessors. Only 4 of them had screens attached, and the other 36 were in the alarm clock, remote control, kids' toys, microwave oven, and so on. So it's happening. The big problem, if we're surrounded by hundreds of computers, is how to not be overwhelmed by them, how to reverse the trend of technology that makes us more frantic and move to a trend of technology that helps make us more calm. These days, I sometimes call ubiquitous computing "calm technology" to give it a different name and really focus on what the key problem is.
But all these processors have separate and cryptic interfaces.
The problem with computers is not the interface. I don't think of it that way. It's just they are so bad that we think of it as an interface problem. The real problem is they have interfaces at all. That's where we need to move to.
Let's take trees and grass and books or other people, things, whatever is important to you, and look at its interface: It doesn't have one. It has just an interaction. It has a "co-dwelling" in the world. You're walking around in the woods, or you're opening the book and you're absorbed in the story, or you're there with another person. You don't think, "What's the user interface of this person? What should I say now to get them to do this?"
Yeah, but that interface has also been millions of years in the making, right?
No time to waste. Let's get started on the process of getting rid of the interface! The whole concept of interface is the problem. As soon as you say "interface" you say there's something here, something there, and something in-between and I have to move the right levers to make it do what I want. But the things that we're really comfortable with are things that come close to us and feel very natural and you don't have the feeling that you're somehow working through an interface to make it work. It's just here with you.
The car interface is very much like that. It doesn't feel like an interface; you turn and the car turns, and with a little practice you can drive a car, eat a cheeseburger, fiddle with the radio, and talk to your partner in the car, all at the same time.
So the best interfaces are the invisible ones, the ones you don't even know are there. The car interface achieves that and you can tell because you can do other things while driving a car. Most people can't do anything else while they're driving their spreadsheet. It takes all your attention. That's how you know it's a bad interface.
How do we get rid of the interface altogether? It reads our thoughts or ...
No, see that's still an interface if it reads our thoughts. Sorry!
The way to get rid of the interface is to fit the information technology into each situation. Part of what creates the interface concept is the general-purpose computer, the one that's supposed to do everything. It has to adapt to all these situations. So when you make an information technology that is built into a room, the walls, a car, or into a notebook so it's specific to a certain situation, you can make progress in having it disappear and be invisible in that situation.
How do we get there?
Ubiquitous computing is happening, so we're going to get there. It is zillions of details, zillions of details not just done by traditional technology people, but also by artists, designers, and people with work to get done, who are too busy to do computing but need a computer to help.
I think it's probably going to sneak up on us. There's a little company north of here called Diba that makes sort of little kitchen appliances with computers in them. Their slogan is, "the plastic is the application," which means that you look at it and you know what kind of information you can get from it. So this looks like a recipe book and that means it's the computer to get your recipes from. There's something right about that. A microwave oven sort of looks like an oven. You know the door's going to open, and you can put something in it. Then you can never figure out how to turn it on.
I think a lot more philosophy in computer design would be helpful; a lot more humanity and humility in computer design would be very helpful. I'm a big proponent of simplicity.
Don't get fancy with artificial intelligence. Like if I drive downtown now, will I be able to find a parking place? That's an information technology issue. It involves remote information, so it's Internet-related; it involves a real problem that everyone has multiple times a week, and it would make all our lives a little bit better. It's these simple things in the future of ubiquitous computing that we will have sort of trivially solved for us, and we'll forget that we even had this problem, just like today it's hard to imagine what it would be like to not know anything about the rest of the world. Today we assume that we'll know what's happening in England, Bosnia, China, etc. We just live in this cool place. We know what's happening in Bosnia, but we don't know whether there's a parking place downtown! The local problems are going to get better with ubiquitous computing.
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