Evolution Shift
A Future Look at Today
July 2nd, 2007

The iPhone Starts It Up Again

People started using computers outside the corporate research lab in the 1950s.  The early computers created in garages were brought to market in the mid 1970s.  The PC came out in 1981.  The 1990s saw the early explosive growth of the laptop and the current decade is when the PDA and other wireless devices took off.  This 50 year history is punctuated by various breakthroughs in the computer human interface.  Each one of these breakthroughs changed usage, behavior and ultimately society.

Mainframe computing of the 1950s looked like a technological religion.  Well lit, air conditioned rooms housed large computers that were run by systems analysts and operated by trained computer operators.  Access was highly restricted.  It felt like one was entering the church of computer.  The output was printed on reams of computer paper (remember?) that was largely illegible to the average person.  Interpretation was provided by professionals. 

When the Apple, and later the PC came out humans could interact directly with small computers that sat on desktops with keyboards and screens.  The screens were largely monochromatic and filled with alphanumeric language that needed some training to understand.  Later the mouse was added which allowed windows, screens and scrolling.  Color and high resolution screens soon followed.  It was no longer necessary to have training to run a computer.  This increasing ease of use, as much as small size, portability and lowered cost is what drove the incredible explosion in computer sales.  When using a computer became easy and fun, sales took off.  Computer use moved from the technological acolytes to the population as a whole.  Just think how many fewer people would be using computers if there were no mouse attached.

The new iPhone is going to be a seminal product in that it brings an entirely new experience of easy and fun interface to millions of people.  While the verdict on all aspects of the product is still out, it is clear that the touch screen is the most fascinating feature.  It is how the product is being sold.  Of course other phone manufacturers will be forced to keep pace and create touch screens and other cool human/device interfaces.  Because of the high profile hysteria surrounding the release of the iPhone, in addition to any of its unique features, it will serve as a significant marker event in the ongoing history of human and computer interface.

One of the newer developments is something called surface or multi-touch computing.  Heretofore only seen in such science fiction movies like “Minority Report”, surface or multi-touch computing has all the feel of a cool and revolutionary breakthrough.  A very good introduction is this report from PopularMechanics.com.  This technology will be coming to market within the next 12 months.  This means that within 5 years it will be utilized by millions.  As the report suggests, we can be living in homes with touch screen wallpaper in our lifetimes.  An environment of interactive surfaces everywhere we go.  This of course will be transformational in many ways.  Welcome to the fast arriving future.

The beauty of the iPhone is that it will forever change our perception of what is possible in terms of human machine interface.  Who needs levers, buttons or a computer operator when there is an intuitive interactive screen waiting to response to any direction or touch?  Imagine talking with a grandchild in 2020 trying to explain to her that we actually used something called a keyboard when using a computer.

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