Invisible Computing / Putting information processing in its place

With each passing year, computers become faster and more powerful, not to mention smaller, cheaper, and more stylish. But whether they are becoming easier to use is a matter of considerable debate. On the one hand you have technology pundits who point out that Mac OS X is a great leap forward in usability from Mac OS 9 or that Windows XP makes computing a lot simpler than Windows 2000 did. I don’t dispute those claims, as far as they go. But on the other side of the debate you have people complaining—rightly so—that improvements in computers have not resulted in shorter work weeks or reduced stress. We spend more time per day in front of our computers now than ever before, and on the whole, this time is not relaxing or fulfilling. And although operating systems have matured and improved, the range of activities we’re expected to be able to perform using computers, and the complexity of individual tasks, have increased tremendously. The net result is that computers require an increasing amount of our time, money, and attention—valuable resources most of us would like to use elsewhere.

It’s Not the Mousetrap, It’s the Mouse
In the world of computer software, in which I’ve worked for many years, the solution to the problem of computer complexity is always assumed to be improving the user interface. If an activity currently requires three mouse clicks, change it so that it only takes one. If text on the screen is too confusing, replace it with a picture. If a menu contains too many commands, group them into smaller lists. And so on. These are all important and worthwhile steps, and I’ve spent a lot of time and effort learning about the principles of good user interface design. But when all is said and done, this is an inadequate solution to the problem. You may have, for example, the slickest and easiest-to-use disk repair utility in the world, but a more fundamental problem is that you need to use such a tool in the first place.

This is one of the arguments that forms the basis of Donald Norman’s 1998 book The Invisible Computer. Norman has some serious technology credentials, particularly in the area of human interface design. He was an executive at both Apple Computer and Hewlett Packard, taught cognitive science and psychology at the University of California, San Diego and computer science at Northwestern University, and wrote several books on design. In The Invisible Computer Norman says what many technologists believe deep inside but are ashamed to admit: “I don’t want to use a computer,” he says, “I want to accomplish something. I want to do something meaningful to me.” (p. 75) In other words, he doesn’t want to use “applications” or “utilities,” he doesn’t want to worry about file formats, IP addresses, or database structures. He wants to communicate, to play, to learn. He wants the computer and its software to fade into the background, become “invisible”—replaced with simple, task-centered devices.

The Invisible Motor
Norman uses the example of the electric motor to illustrate his point. When motors first became commercially available, they were large, heavy, and expensive. To accomplish different tasks, you’d purchase accessories—a sewing machine, fan, mixer, or whatever—and hook them up to your motor. Nowadays, motors are smaller and cheaper and appear inside devices of all kinds. Most people don’t even think about the fact that there’s a motor in their hair dryer, blender, or heater; it’s become invisible. Now we just buy a device that does whatever task we need instead of having all appliances require a separate motor, which by itself is useless. Norman would like to see the same thing happen with computers.

To some extent, things are already moving in that direction. Devices such as pagers, cell phones, CD players, cameras, and watches already have computers invisibly inside them, and are designed to do just one task in a relatively simple way. You can even buy devices that just send and receive email, or just provide a Web browser. From digital TV recorders to electronic musical keyboards, single-task computing devices are becoming more and more common. Norman calls this whole class of devices “information appliances,” after a term coined by Jef Raskin (another legendary user interface maven).

Building Invisibility
For computers to become entirely invisible, according to Norman, two main things must happen. First, the range of simple, inexpensive information appliances must increase significantly. There are still a number of important tasks I do every day that can only be done with a computer. And second, the infrastructure that allows such devices to communicate with each other seamlessly must exist. At the moment, there are a great many wired and wireless technologies for connecting electronic devices, and an even greater number of protocols, formats, and encodings that make communication challenging. For example, my computer can communicate with my cell phone or with my digital camera, but my camera and my cell phone can’t talk to each other. And none of these can communicate directly with my television or my stereo.

Without a doubt, the infrastructure is improving. More and more digital devices use standardized, open formats and protocols and mutually compatible interfaces, much to the chagrin of a certain large software company. If I had enough money and time, I could probably put together a set of a couple dozen information appliances today that could handle most of my computing tasks, share information with each other, and require me to have only minimal contact with a conventional computer. And that would indeed get partway toward the vision of invisible computing. But there would be little point in attempting such an exercise today, because the total cost would be dramatically higher than the cost of a single computer that can do all those things, and for many daily activities I’d have to switch repeatedly from one specialized device to another. Moreover, even the best of today’s information appliances are sometimes overly complex. You might have to update the software on your pocket music player, whereas you’ll never have to reboot your dishwasher.

Beyond the Personal Computer
What I really want is not a shiny, powerful digital hub on my desk. I’d rather just have an empty desktop. There should be space for a coffee mug, a stack of papers, a couple of books, and a picture frame…without a keyboard and monitor getting in the way. Right now, however, the computer forces itself to be the central focus of my desk (or my lap, as the case may be). I would like all the activities that currently require looking at a computer screen, running applications, and concerning myself with the operation of the machine to be replaced by versions of those activities that require me only to think about the task itself. This will take more than a great set of inexpensive and interconnected devices. It will take a rethinking of how tasks are accomplished.

This is basically Norman’s bottom line. Computer and technology companies, he says, are currently focused on the technology. Norman wants these companies to start thinking about human beings first. By this he doesn’t mean “creating cooler industrial design” or “improving user interface” or “extending battery life.” In the ideal future world of information appliances and invisible computers, the design of every product would start with the real underlying task. What does a person actually want to do? How would someone want to accomplish something? As long as the starting point is “What color or shape shall we make our computer?” or “How many buttons should our remote control have?” technology companies will be missing the point.

Picture some day in the future when you’ve forgotten the last time you had to update software, back up a hard drive, or check for viruses. The word “internet” is strangely familiar, as if it meant something in your childhood. You watch an old movie in which a wife complains that her husband is “always on the computer,” and you don’t understand what that means. You haven’t lost your mind or become a hermit; in fact, you’re much better-connected and culturally sophisticated than you ever were. You haven’t purchased a computer in years, and yet there are dozens in your home. You just don’t think about them being there, because they do what they need to do and stay out of your way. That’s the idea of invisible computing. Speaking as a self-professed computer geek, I can’t think of a more idyllic future than one in which the computers have disappeared. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Invisible Computing…

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The ideas in this article were based on Don Norman’s book The Invisible Computer: Why Good Products Can Fail, the Personal Computer Is So Complex, and Information Appliances Are the Solution. (Alas, the simplification of complex subtitles is an entirely different field of inquiry.) Norman is probably best known for his 1989 book The Design of Everyday Things (the hardcover edition was titled The Psychology of Everyday Things). He also wrote Things That Make Us Smart: Defending Human Attributes in the Age of the Machine (1994). His most recent book is Emotional Design: Why We Love (Or Hate) Everyday Things. Although Norman has written a lot about computers and technology, much of his work involves more basic principles of human-centered design: how to make a door handle, faucet, teapot, or clock that makes sense for ordinary people and is easy to use. Anyone who works in the field of design—whether using computers or not—would do well to pick up his books.

Don Norman’s home page is located at jnd.org.

On Thursday, June 24, 2004, in Irvine, California, Tony Givargis and Cristina Lopes of UC Irvine’s Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences gave a talk on The Age of the Disappearing Computer .

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