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The Disappearing Computer

This is my last weekly column for The Verge and Recode — the last weekly column I plan to write anywhereI’ve been doing these almost every week since 1991, starting at the Wall Street Journaland during that time, I’ve been fortunate enough to get to know the makers of the tech revolution, and to ruminate — and sometimes to fulminate — about their creations.

Now, as I prepare to retire at the end of that very long and world-changing stretch, it seems appropriate to ponder the sweep of consumer technology in that period, and what we can expect next.

Let me start by revising the oft-quoted first line of my first Personal Technology column in the Journal on October 17, 1991: “Personal computers are just too hard to use, and it isn’t your fault.” It was true then, and for many, many years thereafter. Not only were the interfaces confusing, but most tech products demanded frequent tweaking and fixing of a type that required more technical skill than most people had, or cared to acquire. The whole field was new, and engineers weren’t designing products for normal people who had other talents and interests.

Walt Mossberg’s “Personal Technology” debut in 1991 Dow Jones

But, over time, the products have gotten more reliable and easier to use, and the users more sophisticated. You can now hand an iPad to a 6-year-old and, with just a bit of help, she will very likely learn how to operate it quickly. That’s amazing, given that the iPad is far more powerful than any complex PC I was testing in the 1990s. Plus, today’s hardware and software rarely fails catastrophically like PCs did so often in the old days.

So, now, I’d say: “Personal technology is usually pretty easy to use, and, if it’s not, it’s not your fault.” The devices we’ve come to rely on, like PCs and phones, aren’t new anymore. They’re refined, built with regular users in mind, and they get better each year.

Anything really new is still too close to the engineers to be simple or reliable. Many people aren’t going to be able to hook up a dedicated virtual reality system, or want to wear the headset. And most of us can’t yet trust Siri, Alexa or Google Assistant for an accurate, useful answer much of the time. But it’s early days for those technologies.

So: Where are we now, and what’s coming?

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The WebRecital is a dedicated User Interface/User Experience professionals who come together to provide design and research workshops, portfolio reviews, and educational outreach to the greater Seattle area.
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