Point. Click. Profit. (As published in The Business Journal)

Interfacing in the Future

Future Interface

Walter Isaacson’s recently released book on the late Apple founder Steve Jobs is one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read. Jobs was a notoriously difficult and prickly figure to deal with. Yet collaborators repeatedly credited his vision and relentlessness as having helped them to grow. With each page turn, I kept asking myself how I can have more drive and focus while still treating those around me with respect.

But the full impact of what I had absorbed from Jobs’s story finally hit me while watching television. An Apple commercial aired, showing how documents saved on one device would be automagically available on other devices via iCloud. You can buy a music track on your desktop and have it ready on your portable next time you’re out for a run (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DCjeSNomXrU).

Our devices are now so connected and interoperable. No matter where we are, there is a device with a corresponding form factor to let us be productive. We’ve seen computers, once the size of homes, shrunk down to fit in our pockets. So, what’s next?

In addition to what has been coming from Apple, Microsoft’s Windows 8 is providing a vista to our digital future. One day, as I was reviewing the latest updates from Twitter, I came across a link to a video that promised a peek behind the curtain at the next version of Windows. Anxious for a look, I clicked over and played the video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-vY_k-L5j3I). To my surprise, giving the demo was Jensen Harris, who lived across the hall from me in our school dorm. He rose through the ranks at Microsoft and is now Director of Program Management for the Windows User Experience Team.

What he showed on this video was a completely reimagined operating system. And for Microsoft, who has consistently clung to the same computing paradigm, this is a really big change. Most remarkably, the interface is designed to work as well with touch as it does with the mouse. What could be more intuitive than using the same interface with the same gestures and menus across all your devices?

Apple has realized the same end goal. Its OS X Lion software introduces features like Launchpad, which displays a home screen of application icons, very like the home screen on its portable devices, such as the iPad. But this portable revolution goes further than having your information available on all the devices you own. How about the ability to use any device?

My new MacBook Air, because it uses relatively expensive solid-state drive (SSD) storage (instead of a traditional hard drive with a spinning disc, the data is read off a chip, much like that found on a USB memory stick you might attach to a keychain), the available disk space is smaller, and I now store all my files in the cloud. No matter what device I use, my files are stored on a secure server that I can access from anywhere at any time.

Hard-core DIY users are taking this to an extreme and even storing their entire operating system (typically Linux) on their USB keychain, allowing them to plug in to any computer to have their whole computing ecosystem with them at all times.

Extrapolating further, this means that we’re not far from the experience promised by Hollywood sci-fi flicks, where we can simply walk up to a display monitor (which could just appear to be a piece of glass) and, with a simple touch or gesture, bring our ultra-personal computer to life. It might be on a chip in our pocket, or perhaps even embedded subcutaneously behind an ear or in the neck. We will reach out and touch applications on the screen, or thanks to advances like the Siri personal assistant (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8uS6d7fsPnM) just speak our commands.

Alas, Steve Jobs won’t be around to see this revolution through to that ultimate destination. Who’s going to be personal computing’s next standard bearer?


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