Connectivity means making the machine disappear

1Executive Summary

The recent GigaOM RoadMap conference in San Francisco featured a number of thought-provoking speakers —  Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, venture investor Mike Moritz and former Sun Microsystems founder Andy Bechtolsheim among them — and their views on technology’s future ranged all over the map. But one thread that ran through many of the different themes, from mobile and design to health and communication, was the idea that in the not-too-distant future, the computer will be less and less visible to us, even as it becomes more powerful.

In other words, as ubiquitous connectivity and bandwidth become more and more the norm, technology holds the ability to be all around us without really making itself visible until we need it. And the implications of that are potentially profound.

Putting the human element first

Dorsey, for example, said that the power of an information network like Twitter doesn’t have anything to do with the technology behind it. It doesn’t matter, for example, that the service is now processing more than 250 million tweets a day. Dorsey said that for him, the most powerful aspect of the service is how it can help connect us to others in far-flung parts of the world, as it did earlier this year during the demonstrations in Iran.

The Twitter co-founder said that he has also tried to make the technology in his other company — mobile payments–processing startup Square, where he is co-founder and CEO — as invisible as possible, so that retailers and other entrepreneurs can use it easily to expand their businesses and make them more efficient. Said Dorsey:

Both [Twitter and Square] are great at encouraging more face-to-face human interactions . . . I believe strongly that this information and these tools help us be better, but we need to be sure, as builders of tools, that it’s not overwhelming, that it’s meaningful, and that it’s not distracting. That it’s not something that puts technology first; it puts humans first.

What’s interesting about Dorsey’s two companies is that both of them have plenty of technology under the hood, but the ease of use involved with the services is what people remember, and that — not the underlying technology — is what makes them so compelling.

Computing behind the scenes

Meanwhile, designer Mark Rolston, from frog design (which famously helped design the original Macintosh), discussed how computers and other advanced technology are already beginning to disappear into our surroundings and devices and that he expects this to accelerate in the future. Rolston said that it doesn’t take much to think about combining voice technology, like the kind Apple has in Siri, with the kind of processing power we have now to create a computer that uses any available surface (a wall, a mirror, etc.) as a screen.

Rolston also imagined an extension of the kind of physical interface that Microsoft’s Kinect uses, where gestures and even facial recognition could be used to control all kinds of processes or devices and where computing power behind the scenes would allow us to interact with our homes in different ways. Computers would become “externalized resources in a room.” In that kind of environment, Rolston said, “I can talk at it and wave at it, and maybe I have a keyboard or maybe there are screens or cameras around, but [the computers] compose in the moment as we need them.”

This is a principle that former Apple iPod designer Tony Fadell also mentioned during a discussion about his latest project: the Nest thermostat. In trying to reimagine a device as simple as a thermostat, Fadell said he tried to design it as simply as possible — it just looks like a large dial — but at the same time he used some fairly advanced technology to allow the device to adapt to its owner. So the dial not only learns as you use it but can also learn about your energy use from the patterns of heating and cooling in your home and thus can self-adjust without your input.

The kind of ubiquity these speakers described at the event can be seen emerging in other areas, too. Health-related devices like the UP from Jawbone, for example, appear to be just fancy jewelry — in the UP’s case, a geeky-looking bracelet — but they contain as much computing power as a desktop probably did a decade ago. The UP tracks your activity and records your steps, just like some other devices, such as the BodyBugg, do, but it can also be programmed to alert you when you have been inactive for a while.

The bracelet also records your sleeping and waking moments, so that you can detect abnormal patterns, and it functions as a silent alarm clock, buzzing you awake at just the right point in your sleep cycle for the optimal amount of rest. Other health-related devices can track the movements of Alzheimer’s patients or the elderly so that they don’t injure themselves, and while they may use advanced technology such as GPS transmitters or mapping and AI functions, they are as simple as a necklace or a pair of shoes.

One of the driving forces behind these developments is embedded systems, or what some call the Internet of things, which involves tiny transmitters and receivers and other data-processing functions built into even the smallest of objects. As these kinds of technologies become more commonplace, companies are working on harnessing the power of those distributed devices to generate all kinds of useful information about the way we live and work.

Adapting to the age of invisible computing

As this phenomenon accelerates, companies of all kinds are going to have to adapt to this ubiquitous computing environment, both by making their products as noncomputerlike as possible (something Apple has always excelled at) and by taking advantage of the intelligence and connectivity being built into even the smallest objects around us. If you or your company want to come to grips with these changes, here are some important questions to consider:

  • Can you make your product or device simpler from a technology standpoint? As Fadell noted at GigaOM RoadMap, the guiding principle at Apple was always to remove features and functions, rather than adding them, to make a device as simple as possible.
  • Are you focusing on the technology instead of the outcome? Rolston’s point was that too many companies are so proud of the technology at the core of their products that they make it obvious. However, the real success lies in making it invisible, because that will make it appeal to a far broader range of users.
  • Is it obvious what your product is designed to do when someone uses it? If you need a complicated manual to educate your customers, then you have already failed. Well-designed products, even technologically complicated ones, should be obvious and intuitive.
  • Does your product or device take advantage of the ways that human beings already communicate and behave? One of the things Rolston focuses on is how to use the way we talk, the way we gesture with our hands and bodies, and other natural movements as input.
  • Can you build parts of your product or service into the world around your users? If it can communicate with and blend in with other devices or common objects they use or see all the time, it will be more likely to fit into customers’ lifestyles.

The bottom line, as echoed by many of the speakers at GigaOM RoadMap, is to get the computer, processing power and “gee-whiz technology” out of the way and allow consumers to use these devices without even realizing that they are doing so. As computer intelligence becomes more and more mainstream, we no longer have to show off how advanced our devices are. Now we can leave all that power under the hood or behind the wall and just use it to make our lives easier and more fulfilling.

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