Thought Leadership

Crystal ball gazing

By Colin Walls

New Year greetings!

As I mentioned in my last post, I am very much of a mind to look forward than back. What is ahead for 2012 and beyond? It is very dangerous to stare into a crystal ball and many people, who were far better informed than I, have looked foolish in hindsight. Having read that a supervolcano in Europe, which is overdue for an eruption, is stirring [which would be an interesting bit of divine lateral thinking to solve the Euro crisis], perhaps I am looking at the future primarily for Asia and the Americas, but I want to ponder how computers will be evolving …

After the sad death of Steve Jobs last year, many people were keen to catalog the list of Apple’s failed products: Lisa and Newton being good examples. As that company is considered to be about as visionary as you can get, and they can get it wrong, I do not stand a chance. But I have been wondering about the “post-PC” era.

Over the holiday, my marketing/visionary skills were put to the test. I was told about a product: someone had the idea that they could make computer mice in the shape of classic cars and sell them to executives. My immediate thought was that this was a non-starter; who would pay good money for a mouse in a silly shape that would be less comfortable to use? The answer was that millions of these things were sold. I guess this explains why I have yet to make my fortune.

When I got over having been shown that I fail at being a visionary, I started thinking about human/computer interaction in the general sense. For most of us, this interaction is a combination of keyboard and mouse for input and screen and speakers for output. Although I am an enthusiastic iPad users, I still feel slightly lost with out a mouse with a “real” computer, as I have had such rodent company for over 20 years. Younger people seem to get along fine with track-pads on laptops, so other options are possible.

There is much talk [mostly from Microsoft] of “surface computing”, where the screen of the computer is a large surface that may be the top of a desk. Interaction with the software is largely by means of [multi-] touch and gestures. You do not have to look far beyond Star Trek [TNG onwards] to get the idea. Most people say that they need a keyboard too. Perhaps they do, but I am sure that much improved voice recognition could change that. Longer term, I am sure some kind of direct brain hook-up will be even better, but I am getting ahead of myself …

To me, there is very little difference – other than size/area – between a surface computer and a tablet [like an iPad]. In fact, Windows 8 seems to be targeted at both, so perhaps that view is common. I think there is an interesting possibility for the interaction between such devices. For example, maybe I am sitting at my desk [i.e. my surface computer] and I want to show a document to a colleague. In the old days, I would simply have taken a paper document over to them to discuss. This seemed a very natural way to interact. So called “modern” ways – emailing a copy to them – do not really feel the same. So, maybe I could simply slide the document off of my surface onto my tablet and carry that to the meeting. That would seem very intuitive. Is anyone doing that? [Other than in the Avatar movie – I knew I had seen it somewhere in the future.]


0 thoughts about “Crystal ball gazing
  • Forget MS Surface – think Kinect! If you look at Sci-Fi movies as a pointer to the future then according to Jake Sully you plug into a tree to learn about the past (my daughter thought I was joking when I showed her a record player with that top arm thing). The key to the information any age is data – a computer’s job will be of course delivering it – but knowing who wants it, who should have it and acting on the intelligence you get from those two things will define 201x It advancements. It was not that long ago I was in the ‘thumb’ generation – a need to intimately know how to overcome the technical limitations of my phone using just a single thumb – now multi-touch means keys are the thing of the past, and my thumb doesn’t just push, it ‘swipes’. Soon gesture will be more important – in the same way intent of a conversion overrules content. The closer we get to real human interaction, and the more human interaction gets more computerised [couldn’t think of an alternative word here] (like I’m doing now on FB) it will be less about the “how”, increasingly less about the “why” and more about the “what”. The iPad is not a technological breakthrough but it’s an Engineering wonder – without Apps it’s a doorstop (for doors with a low ground clearance of course ) . There is no such thing as a post-PC era – that happened several years ago. I just hope there isn’t a post Jobs-Gates-Sinclair-Tuppaware-x vacuum – but of course there never is. I hope we are continually surprised…
    Hopefully that Volcano won’t blow up anytime soon – and even more hopefully it’s in France in case it does.

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at