Device death and human-centred technology

DevicesWhy do we sometimes occasionally see articles on “the death of”, referring to tablets or PCs? If you look at the data from the KPCB Internet Trends slides about sales of devices, sales of laptops and PCs aren’t doing well, and tablet ownership is still low compared to smartphones. But why do some people think such articles should be written?

A story in TechCentral about PCs noted that modern users:

switch seamlessly between work mode on a laptop, to social mode on a smartphone, without ever slowing to adapt to a different device or operating system between tasks.
Life has more than one mode and technology should, too.

What we are now starting to do is use different devices for different purposes and in different contexts. That is what the “death of” writers seem to miss; just because a device isn’t growing significantly does not mean it is dying.

Unless all you do is read documents, no one would suggest it is easier to write and edit a document, or code a program, on a tablet compared to a PC. PCs are just better suited to some activities, especially for work.

It seems we are in a period of changing form factors and usage models. No one wants an old-fashioned PC in their home, or think that it should control and monitor their home. But people are quite prepared to have a specialized device to do that – as long as it’s connected to their smartphone, of course.

In 1999 a book forecasted that computers would move from being technology-centred to human-centred. One reason that tablets and smartphones have become popular is that they are usable by the average person – you are not expected to be tech savvy to use them. In the old PC days, it was a sign of proficiency that you could use a PC.

The book points out that tech companies tried to make the PC generic, and thus it became not specific for anything. When Microsoft wanted to to turn the PC into the home entertainment controller, the Windows Media Centre, it failed because it was trying to make the ‘reluctant masses’ adopt the attitudes of engineers and early adopters.

What Steve Jobs realized, and the engineering brains at Microsoft didn’t, was that for a technology device to be adopted by the majority of society, you have to understand two things, as a review of the book discusses:

  1. The user needs to educate or inform the design process from the beginning.
  2. The designers must ensure that the technology is not part of the difficulty.

Essentially, a technology device needs to become an appliance before general society will use it. That means the task, and learning to use it, have to be the same. As an appliance is designed for one thing, expect to see more devices as specialization increases.

Currently, Google, and recently Microsoft, are investing in different technologies for different applications, not trying to shoehorn one technology into a variety of roles.

I wonder what next device will have it’s death written about?

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