Kenneth Friedman
March 23, 2016

With the debut of the new 21” Retina iMacs a few months ago, Apple published “Then and Now,” a page dedicated to showing the progress of the iMac, from 1998 to the latest model. In it, it shows the incredible advances of desktop computers. While some may see this as progress, I see stagnation.

I see Moore’s law at work. I see faster processors, better screens, and nicer graphics — all in a thinner case. But I also see very few improvements in the human computer interaction. I see us using the same software and methods of interactions we have been for decades.

Take a look at the this description of Johnny Appleseed using an iMac:

Now, think: is Johnny Appleseed using his iMac in 1998 or 2015? Of course, it could be either.

We are primarily using the same methods of input and the same applications for “productivity” as we did 20 years ago. What I see here is a fundamental failure of the Human-Computer Interaction field to get ideas into the general public.

So what needs improvement? Well, everything. But, to name a few: better ways to analyze complex problems visually, more direct manipulation of information, better ways for multiple people to collaborate: not on the same text in a Google Doc, but on multiple subparts of a complex problem. Better ways to create interactive and dynamic content without having to program it in text form. And much more.

The clear counter-example is the touchscreen. There is a touchscreen on just about every smartphone out there, and people use them to communicate quick thoughts very well. But ask anyone how they do “serious work:” it’s on a desktop or laptop computer. The smartphone screen is just too small.

So the next logical option is the tablet. iPads are awesome — and they have a ton of potential. But the software isn’t there yet. Many people consider iPads to be “consumption” devices (instead of a “creation” device). But there’s nothing inherent about the precision of a mouse that makes it better for content creation.

The problem is that the productivity suites started with mice & keyboards, and were then ported to the iPad. The term “touch optimized” is a lie* — the buttons are bigger, but the entire interface has not been rethought. The desktop paradigm has been around in the 1984 Mac — it’s time to re-think interfaces at just about every level.

Let’s look at word processors as an example. People have been using Microsoft Word for decades. Word mimics paper. It allows people to create single document (that can’t connect to other documents). The documents must be static, you can’t have any data-driven content (see Bret Victor’s 10 Brighter Ideas), or any interactive content. It can’t reference other documents or convey connections between concepts. But computer screens can do so much more than paper. There are demonstrations of many of these possible concepts. Why haven’t any of them taken off? Sure, there’s Google Docs — but that only solves one small part of one of Word’s limitations: collaboration on a single document of text. That’s not even close to the type of collaboration you can imagine.

And that’s just one, very small example. There are a million more.

Touchscreens aren’t even the only option. There’s virtual reality, augmented reality, projected interfaces, and more.

Lots of people have ideas about how things could be better: Ted Nelson, Alan Kay, Bret Victor, and many more. There are also tons of conferences about new HCI research: CHI, UIST, and more. One of the most popular TED talk of all time is from the MIT Media Lab’s Fluid Interfaces group.

It’s clear: people see the need for new interfaces, and lots of research is being done. Why isn’t any of it hitting the mainstream? I have no idea. Let’s find out, let’s make it happen.