21st Century Human Interface Design

Modularity, not convergence, is the future. There’s not going to be any other foreseeable way, short of magic, to approach the ideal state of computing hardware design, in which the use case alone determines the form factor. If you have the money to acquire its full arsenal of devices, Apple currently comes closer to this ideal than anyone else, Microsoft included.

In this future, it’s not going to matter where data is stored. So long as every device granted access to a unit of data is seeing the same instance of it, with both security and synchronization routinely embedded in every transaction, and therefore rendered trivial to the user, it won’t matter at any given moment where it is stored. Again, Apple gets this better than anyone else, even when its execution has been less than ideal. That’s why its somewhat premature effort to do away with files and file systems on the iPad will ultimately prove to be the right way to go. Files as a concept are obsolete. Computing devices understand this. Human beings do not. Handicapped by our reliance on the conceptual commonplaces of the past, we haven’t yet figured out what the ideal relationship should be between the tangible and the virtual, but we will. We’ll have to.

Ambidexterity is the new black. Trackpad, touchscreen, or mouse? Keyboard, pencil, or voice? Why not all at once? An embarrassment of riches ought to be the goal here. On our most treasured devices, there’ll always be at least three or four ways of doing anything, no matter where our hands are, or our eyes. We should be thinking musical instruments, not typewriters; collages, not spreadsheets, and we should try to keep in mind that whatever advances are made in the underlying technologies, imagination is still the most formidable aspect of the human side of the human/computer interface. Steve Jobs understood this, which is undoubtedly why Apple still understands it today, and why I think they are very likely to remain the most reliable overall steward of human interface design and development as the 21st Century progresses.

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