New User Interface enabling Next Generation innovation

Patrick collects ‘old geeky things’ - calculators, computer bits, cameras, etc. He thinks it’s important to capture a piece of technology history so that when our kids are older, we can show them what was the ‘yester year of computing’.

Amongst his collections, is a rotary dial telephone. This evening, I was showing my 11 months old how to turn those dial, and fondly remembered how I used to have a plastic toy rotary dial telephone as a little girl. Nowadays, it’s impossible to find such a toy, but toy mobile/cordless phones with touch buttons are everywhere, just like the real thing.

The rotary dial was specifically designed to enter telephone numbers. It was not to do anything else. The interface design of the analog phone obviously is also tied to the way telephones work. When the touch button phones appeared on the market, most people didn’t think too much of that change in interface, after all the touch buttons did exactly what the rotary dial can do anyway – i.e. Make phone calls, and sure some people liked the speed of the buttons compared to the dial, and some also preferred the new ‘modern’ look, but it was no big deal. Soon after that though, the touch button interface also allowed us to enter in different information, in addition to just numbers – we could have the letters of the alphabet coded into those buttons too, and such simple interface now can do much more powerful things that drives the powerful mobile devices, way beyond a simple telephone. Now, two innovations happened in lockstep – the innovation with the ‘device’ and the ‘network’, but also the interface design improvement enabled the dramatic different usage of the device.

The windows metaphor was an important user interface innovation that unlocked the potential of the personal computer. Widgets like menu bars, dialogue boxes, dramatically changed the way users would interact with the computer compared to the command line prompt interface. It remains to be seen whether Vista’s user interface innovations such as sidebar, gadgets, instant search, live icons, preview pane, etc, are simply ‘eye candies’, or whether these user interface innovations today will also in turn fuel the next generation computing innovation.