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2012 – The Year of the Interface

2011 December 14
by Greg Satell

Besides his impressive array of trysts, Captain Kirk had very little on today’s average Joe. Personal communicators are now old hat, tricorders are right around the corner and even teleportation no longer seems completely out of reach.

In fact, in many ways, the technology we carry around today is more impressive than what he had in Star Trek.  After all, he and his crew always seemed to be tapping away at keyboards.
And that, mark my words, will be the big thing for the next year.  We are about to enter a technological lull, with very little happening of note in the way of new standards or breakaway functionality for a while.  In truth, we haven’t really begun to utilize what we already have.  The next wave of innovation will change that.

What Drives Digital Innovation?

If you want to understand where technology is going, you first need to understand what guides it.  In an earlier post, I outlined four forces that drive the digital world today.

The Cloud:  Log-linear growth patterns in bandwidth and storage have been driving functionality in the past few years, allowing us to store massive amounts of information and access it from anywhere.

Client Side Scripting: While the cloud enables us to access data, steady advances in client side scripting let us do more with it on our screens.  PHP made content sites possible and Java related technologies gave us Web 2.0.  Now “apps” are the big thing and the next iteration, HTML5 is scheduled to become operable in 2014.

Linked Data: As early as the late 90’s, Tim Berners-Lee recognized a shortcoming of the Web he created.  While it helped give much greater access to the world’s information, that same information was still trapped inside of incompatible databases.  So he invented a new, semantic web to unify them.

A decade later, linked data is finally gaining traction and is becoming an important technology driver in it’s own right. The web has even begun to transcend the virtual world and enter the physical one. IBM has recently released a protocol specifically dedicated for machine to machine interactions.

Mobile Explosion: As my agency, Moxie, described in a recent report we are increasingly operating in a post-PC computing environment.  We now carry around multiple connected devices, all of which have greater computing power than our office desktops did a decade ago.

What’s interesting is that while those forces drive digital innovation, right now there is very little driving the forces themselves.  Consumers have more storage than they need, 4G has recently been launched and we won’t see a new standard for a decade, we still have a few years to wait for HTML5 and smart phone usage has already entered the late majority.

In other words, the stuff we have is more than good enough  What’s crappy is our ability to use the functionality that we already possess and that’s where we can expect to see some interesting things over the next year.

The Design of Everyday Things

While the idea of usability is fairly standard today and every self respecting digital operation worthy of the name has a functioning “UX” department, the concept is still relatively new.  Until fairly recently, products were engineered for functionality and then designed for aesthetics.

That started to change when Donald Norman published his breakthrough book The Design of Everyday Things.  He emphasized that products need to constructed with the user in mind and introduced concepts like natural mapping, perceived affordances, feedback and constraints to that end.  It became an instant classic and the discipline of usability was born.

However, up to this point, the focus of user experience in digital circles has been primarily on web page design.  As the Internet converges with other technologies we use everyday, that’s beginning to change in a big way.

The Evolving Interface

Probably nobody embraced user-centered design more completely than Steve Jobs and intuitive interfaces have been a big part of Apple’s success.  Pick up an iPod, iPad or iPhone and you almost instantly know how to use it.  That doesn’t just happen, but is the result of an excruciating attention to detail.

However, that takes more than egomaniacal perfectionism, but vision as well.  One story that encapsulates Jobs’ focus was when he attended a dinner with a Microsoft engineer who was developing the tablet computer.  Jobs threw a tantrum when he heard they were planning to use a stylus.  In the wake his fury, the i-Pad was born (with a touchscreen).

And that’s telling.  He understood that to create a new technology experience, you need to create a fundamentally new way of interacting with technology.  As this article explains, much of Apple’s innovation has been, in fact, at the interface level.

As Malcolm Gladwell recently pointed out, Jobs didn’t really invent much in the way of technology, but was, in fact a “tweaker.”  That’s true from a certain perspective, but I fear it misses the point.  Innovation is useless in a vacuum, it only becomes valuable when we use and enjoy it.

The Next Generation

While the mouse, the click wheel and the multi-touch screen each revolutionized how we use devices, those innovation were, as the grapfic above shows, few and far between.  What will make things interesting next year is that we have three important new interfaces all vying for primacy at once:

Voice:  Apple’s i-Phone 4S came loaded with Siri technology, which turns voice into commands.  When Jobs told his biographer Walter Isaacson that he had “cracked” the problem of the TV interface, many believed that he had Siri in mind.

Gesture:  Shortly after Microsoft launched Kinect for it’s X-Box, they also released developer tools.  We can expect gesture based interfaces to be used for a lot more than just games.

The Second Screen:  With tablet and smart phone adoption advancing quickly over the last year, a number of companies have launched companion apps to augment TV experience., Yahoo’s IntoNow and Bob Sillerman’s Viggle and others will be fighting it out in this space next year.

So the technology is in place, the players well financed and the consumer ready to unlock the functionality their already contained in their devices.  There is no doubt, 2012 will be defined by the interface between man and machine.

– Greg

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