Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Invisible Computer

I've commented before about a book, The Invisible Computer by Donald A. Norman, that I forced myself to read about 10 years ago.  It discusses the unnecessary complexity of computers and their software, at the time, and the opportunity to embed computing in smart appliances, where the "computer" was invisible.  It would seem, at least in hindsight, that companies like Apple and Google had learned similar lessons with the advent of iPhone and Android smartphones, but one could say that, as an industry, we are still nascent in our progress.

Newer appliances, like the Nest Learning Thermostat, are excellent examples of what Mr. Norman was forecasting.  What once constituted a computer, it's memory and processing power can be found in extremely miniaturized and inexpensive silicon that are economical to integrate into consumer electronics.  Additionally interesting, that the Nest takes advantage of, is the ubiquity of connectivity in the home, via Wi-Fi, and the value that connectivity adds to a consumer device.  Controlling your thermometer from your smartphone, making it ice cold in the dead of winter for a friend or loved-one, when you are warm and cozy in a hotel room traveling for work, for example.

But for every Nest, there are 10s of examples of connected refrigerators, smart washers and connected televisions that have not found the right formula.  The idea of a connected television sounds like a slam dunk, but the video world is so complex in terms of rights and legacy, the obstacles are challenging.  What is the magic, then?  If I knew, I would be retired on the beach, so take this with a grain of salt, but in hindsight, the final answer is always: how did I do this before?  That is, these great technological advances make something so easy, that you look back at the way you did it previously, and it makes you wince.  How did I do this before?

I don't think the majority of the potential innovations that are hanging before our minds are complex.  Simplicity is key, both for the actual advancement and the user experience of the result.  Simplicity usually indicates a focus on what is most important, keeps costs down, allows for easy investor and consumer messaging, and means a normal human, like my mom, actually might understand it and be able to use it without calling her IT department: me.

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