All technology should take a lesson from cars

25 Mar

tron-carIf someone were to say that we’re living inside a giant computer, many people would probably think they were talking about The Matrix. While we may yet end up inside a big virtual world, the reality is we’re actually already living in a computer – or, more correctly, the computer is all around us.

The computer, or computing machine, has gone through a dramatic evolution over the past 30 years. At first, it shrank from room-filling mainframes into desktops, then it got even smaller to fit into the palms of our hands. The next epoch – the one just beginning – is seeing that computing power flow into everything, from the walls around us to the clothes we wear and even into our own bodies. With wireless networks now connecting anything and everything, the era of ubiquitous computing is upon us.

There are still a few steps to go, and the effects will be huge. I looked at some of these issues in a recent feature for The Globe and Mail. Check it out.

One of the ubiquitous computing gurus I spoke to for the story was actually one of the researchers who coined the term in the first place back in the 1980s. Along with Mark Weiser (who passed away in 1999), computer scientist John Seely Brown wrote some of the earliest papers on the subject while working at Xeroc PARC. The duo envisioned a future in which technology would float all around us, yet we wouldn’t really recognize it as such because it had managed to blend into the background

We’re not quite there, but almost. We have the capability to do or track just about anything thanks to computers spreading into everything and connecting to each other wirelessly. The only thing missing is making them invisible.

Seely Brown brought up the car as the best example – it’s a piece of technology into which we stick a key, and it works. It was perfected decades ago, and even though we’ve added a whole host of technologies to it since – anti-lock brakes, navigation systems, lane sensors and so on – it’s managed to retain that invisible simplicity.

If you ask the average person how many computers a typical car has, they’d probably guess one. The reality is, they have hundreds, all of which of invisibly work with each other to create a unified user experience.

“It perfectly matches your work practices so that you’re not even aware that they came in to help,” said Seely Brown. “They’re finally able to talk well with each other and create this web of help that you’re not aware of.”

Bill Buxton, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research, also worked in the ubiquitous computing group at Xerox PARC in the 1980s. He also brought up the car as the perfect example of invisible computing, since it’s the antithesis of so much other flawed technology out there.

“If you’re aware of how it’s being delivered, what’s beyond the surface skin, then it’s probably a failure of design,” he said. “The only time you [should be] forced to know is when something’s broken and everything’s a mess. Computing hasn’t reached that state. It’s on the path, but we still think about apps and new gadgets.”

I was in that frame of mind a few months back when I wrote about how video game consoles were just one example of technological regression. In this particular example, game console technologies have become overly complex by requiring continuous inputs from the user in the form of logins, updates and patches. So, rather than making our lives easier by hiding away their technology, they’re doing the reverse.

Sony, at least, has recognized the issue and is promising that the upcoming Playstation 4 will update itself and boot games in a matter of seconds. Let’s hope so.

As for the apps and gadgets Buxton mentioned, that too is a mindset we’ll need to move away from to really melt computing power into the environment around us. While devices such as the iPhone are individually simple to use, they’re creating what he calls “aggregate complexity” by not working together seemlessly. And with so many competing companies serving up their own proprietary products, we’re creating a world of technological clutter.

“All we’re doing is getting a variation of the same 10 remote controls on your coffee table to operate your living room,” he said. “It’s beyond the threshold of frustration, or the complexity barrier for most people.”


Posted by on March 25, 2013 in computers


3 responses to “All technology should take a lesson from cars

  1. Jean-François Mezei

    March 25, 2013 at 1:02 am

    “While devices such as the iPhone are individually simple to use, they’re creating what he calls “aggregate complexity” by not working together seemlessly”

    Like VHS vs Beta for tapes, like X.400 vs RFC 822 for emails,
    Like DECNET, OSI, SNA, Appletalk vs IP,

    things generally evolve beyond proprietary nature of separate protocols and eventually do become compatible with each other once one protocol comes to dominate and proprietary ones fade away.

    So yes, one day, your iWatch and iBriefs should be able to communicate with your Samsung phone and your Google Glasses.

    If you consider payments, the standards established by Mastercard’s PayPass system are pretty much industry standards, and it is too late for Apple to try to push its own proprietary protocol to “swipe your credit card” (contained in the phone) over already deployed NFC terminals all over the place.

    Also, while it is easy to focus on inoperable aspects, there is a core foundation that is quite established (photo, audio formats, the IP protocols, GSM stack for cellular, Wi-Fi for wireless etc). There is actally quite a lot of technologies which are compatible between devices already. But while the foundations may be compatible, there remains the top layers (such as exchanging business cards via NFC) which remain proprietary even though there is an established vCard format for business cards.

  2. Marc Venot

    March 25, 2013 at 2:42 am

    I can rant about my personal troubles but let take the example of toll on infrastructure like bridge. Even if it’s a French company that have installed the system on the Port Mann bridge on the lower mainland (BC) able to read the licence plates it’s not allowed in France because the CNIL do not allow communication between the government managing them. So a transponder (or badge) have to be installed on the vehicle to allow its identification.

  3. russellmcormond

    March 26, 2013 at 3:40 pm

    I don’t think these are comparable technologies.

    While computer hardware might be comparable to a car, computer software is far more comparable to the driver. Part of what makes computer technology more “visible” is that a far smaller percentage of people know how to drive a computer, and we have fear of this technology driving politicians to discourage (or in some cases outlaw) owners from even choosing their own drivers (even if they don’t want to drive themselves).

    I think the last thing we need as a species is for the policy of choosing who drives our computers to be even more hidden than it is today. Like transportation was the infrastructure upon which the previous economy was built, ICT is driving the new economy : and few even have a clue who is in control.

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