The beauty of simple technology

Back in the 1970s, when mainframe was king and mini computers were the new rage, a kid named Bill Gates and his buddies spent hours in the school computer lab hacking away at large, paper-based computer terminals, writing simple pieces of code that later became the foundation of the Microsoft Disk Operating System, now known as MS-DOS.

In the world of computers, that’s ancient history. MS-DOS became one of the most widely used operating systems for personal computers. These computers – with their simple, powerful Intel-based processors replaced the mini computers that Bill and his buddies used. The next thing Bill did after he started Microsoft was to develop a cool user interface for its next operating system, which we all now know as Windows. Windows was one of the first commercially successful graphics-oriented interfaces for computers, and it was a major leap forward over text-based computing. With the introduction of Windows, paper-based terminals were replaced and the mouse and keyboard became the new method for interfacing with computers.

Microsoft’s Windows operating system ruled the world for more than two decades. In school, kids in computer classes no longer needed to memorize complex text based commands. Instead, students could simply point and click their way onto the Internet to watch videos, do research and surf online. The PC and the Internet together enabled students to reach out and touch the whole world with a simple click of the mouse. The new improved interface was simpler as there was no longer any need to memorize cryptic commands, which made the jobs of students and teachers a little bit easier too.

The next advance was the laptop computer. Although the laptop computer used a similar interface as the desktop PC, the mouse was built in and the system was mobile. Laptops made it easier for students to use their computers to take notes in class or even to do homework while relaxing in the park.

Woman using laptop in a park.

The PC was an awesome tool in the hands of someone who was properly trained and knew how to use it; however, the problem persisted that although the PC was simpler than older mini computers, a PC was still quite hard to master. For many who were untrained, especially the very old and very young, simple computing was still out of reach.

All of this history is important if we are to analyze the opportunity and impact of today’s new technology on our lives. The once hard-to-remember esoteric command, like the one below, has disappeared with the graphical interface taking its place.

Remember commands like this?

C:> CD c:\windows\system32\drivers\etc

C:> Attrib *.* -S –H –R

C:> DIR

C:> Copy Hosts c:\ Hosts.bak

The benefits of these advances in user interfaces were tremendous, as the world of computing opened up to almost everyone. Now, let’s take a look at what has happened since then, and examine recent technical innovations and how the current drive towards simplicity in computing is changing our everyday lives.

Although both Microsoft and Apple have been around for a while now, it seems most of the commercially successful game changing advances in the computer interface have come from Steve Jobs and company over at Apple. Their Industrial design and interface engineers understood that computers, music devices (such as Apple’s MP3 players), and even mobile phones needed a more intuitive interface that was simpler to use and easier to learn. The innovation was combining touch technology for all their new devices with simple gestures. With just a flick of your finger, their screens will now scroll to show you more apps. No more commands or clicks. To search for contacts or music, just flick your finger and a list of songs or contacts will scroll by in that direction. Flick your finger slowly, and the screen contents will also move slowly. Flick fast, and the names will zoom by. You can navigate and do all sorts of things simply by using intuitive gestures with your fingers.

This one simple concept made devices like the iPod and iPhone more intuitive, easier to learn, and more fun to use. The user experience was simplified, the interface was cleaner and all the confusing buttons were gone. The end result was more people bought these simpler devices and Apple gained huge market share. Then Apple went one step further when it came out with the iPad. The iPad user interface is so intuitive and simple to use that it is revolutionizing the computer industry. Other companies are trying to catch up with their own tablet computing devices.

Let me share with you an example of how fast things are changing. I was recently at a cloud computing meeting in Washington, D.C. with some of the top executives from more than seventy (70) of the largest technology companies in the world. We were all gathered in a massive conference room around a huge table. At that table, there was not one laptop computer to be seen. Everyone was using a tablet computer – every single executive.

That scene made it abundantly clear to me that simple is not only in, it is the new cool. The same is true at educational institutions. Just drive around any college campus, and I bet you see a lot more people using tablet computers or other gesture technology devices, such as smart phones. I recently changed from my trusted BlackBerry to an Android smart phone running the latest Ice Cream Sandwich operating system, and the difference to me was truly startling! I can use a variety of apps including email, movies, music, GPS navigation, games, books, shopping, and thousands of other apps all in the palm of my hand, with just the swipe of a finger across that beautiful screen.

Navigating a phone with just the touch of a finger.

Even children are now able to learn from an early age how to use these devices, demonstrating the simplicity and intuitiveness of tablets and other touchscreen devices. Recently, I took an iPad with me to pass the time while my wife and I babysat for our church nursery. As I was sitting there, a three-year-old child came up to me and asked to see my iPad. I was amazed as he swiped his little fingers across the glass to find the Angry Birds game, started up the application by pointing to it, and began using his index finger to pull back on the slingshot to shoot the little birds at the targets. It quickly became apparent to me that the computer interface has finally become so intuitive and systems so small and mobile that small children can actually navigate and use applications with absolutely no help. In fact, I bet he is more adept at playing Angry Birds than I am!

Utilizing touch technology on a tablet.

I believe both educational institutions and businesses will be key beneficiaries of the move to simplify how we interface with our computers. Older adults who did not have the advantage of growing up around computers can take a class or two and easily become self-sufficient on navigating the internet and communicating with their loved ones and peers using a smart phone or tablet. Classes are starting up at the nursery school level so even kids in diapers can learn how to use the iPad. Computer programming students will no longer need to remember clunky programming code as they migrate to HTML5 technology to create mobile applications. Even large enterprise data centers are moving towards simplicity and automation in order to reduce the costs and complexity of day to day operations. An example would be cloud based appliances which virtualize and automate data services and operations. Simple is in, and its here to stay. The simpler the device, the more people like it and want it. I hear that Apples next iPhone will have a more advanced version of the SIRI voice interface technology, which will simplify our lives more. If you have an Android phone, you need to download the “Assistant” app. Pretty cool stuff, and getting very close to the HAL computer in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001 A Space Odyssey”.

The beautiful thing about simplicity is it can work across all aspects of our lives. Clean, intuitive technology interfaces let us leverage our devices to enhance our lives and communicate to share our ideas for a better tomorrow. Who knows? Now that the voice-based interface is gaining traction and Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect motion control technology is taking off, perhaps in the not too distant future the next big thing will be having deep conversations while walking along with our new humanoid iRobots. Hey, maybe those machines will finally be able to take our computer lab for us too.

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