Don't Look Back

Don't Look Back

Summary: How to innovate? That was both the spoken and unspoken question on everyone's minds at the Wall Street Journal's memorable D Conference this week in Carlsbad. How can we radically improve the experience and value of interacting with one's digital device? What is the next chapter in the evolution of information and entertainment technology?


How to innovate? That was both the spoken and unspoken question on everyone's minds at the Wall Street Journal's memorable D Conference last week in Carlsbad. How can we radically improve the experience and value of interacting with one's digital device? What is the next chapter in the evolution of information and entertainment technology? What, if anything, comes after the personal computer and the Internet? What's the next act, the new new big thing?

The great masters of innovation dominated the event, expertly choreographed and prodded by the WSJ's Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher. They were all there (or almost all) at D this week, the legendary figures who have built the industry: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Steve Ballmer, John Chambers, Steve Case and Eric Schmidt. And the captains of traditional media spoke too -- the CEOs of Viacom, Time Inc, CBS and the President of News Corp. And, if that wasn't enough, political innovator John McCain kicked the event off and cinematic innovator George Lucas showed up to remind the audience that there was more than a slight difference between videos of exploding coke bottles on YouTube (which he described as "circus") and Star Wars. D's audience was stuffed with star business, technology and entertainment innovators too, including a few -- like Martha Stewart and Frank Quattrone -- guilty of over-innovation.

So what did these champion innovators tell us about innovation?

Uber-innovator Steve Jobs stole the show on this one -- at least in terms of his advice. Don't look back, Cupertino's great seducer pulled the strings of the D audience. Apple went rotten in the Nineties because the company became fixated with the past rather than the future. So when he came in the second time to repeat his magic, the biblical Jobs confessed, he shifted their gaze, swiveled their heads, and commanded his Apple army to look forward rather than back.

Ironically, at D this year, we had a maturing industry as much focused on the past than the future. The event was dream for technology history mavens. The highpoint was the joint appearance of Gates and Jobs, the two most illustrious figures in contemporary digital pantheon, waxing lyrically about their collective past. It was the Bill and Steve show, compelling stuff for geek nostalgists, but not necessarily helpful for those of who looking forwards rather than backwards. We even got an audible sob and a noticeable tear from Jobs when quoting the lyrics from the Beatles "Two of Us" :

You and I have memories longer than the road that stretches out ahead

But there may be less romantic reasons for technologists to be shedding a tear too. As Walt Mossberg, reminded Jobs and Gates, the personal computer or its operating systems hadn't changed substantially over the last decade. Mossberg made the same point to Eric Schmidt too about Google's search interface. This hadn't changed significantly either over the last five years. Indeed, one of the most eagerly anticipated new company launches at D -- Jason Calacanis' Mahalo -- a search engine that replaces the algorithm with an editorial staff of real human-beings -- is challenging revolutionary digital with the fake-subversion of analog.

So, at an event at which the great digital innovators celebrated innovation, the next big wave of innovation wasn't clear. That's worrying for those of us who value the exceptionalism of the digital business. Without constant innovation, digital will become routinized. Without revolutionary innovation, American personal computers will go the way of the American automobile. Silicon Valley will rust into Detroit. And the real innovators will move onto something else like biotech or green innovation.

Is there anything new out there in the digital universe beyond the absurdly over-hyped iPhone (just another expensive phone with music), inane user-generated-content sites and yet more search engines? Fortunately, there is. If Jobs can quote the Beatles on the past, then I can quote Bob Dylan (from "Ballad of a Thin Man") on the future:

Because something is happening here/But you don't know what it is/Do you, Mister Jones

Actually, Mister Jones, I do know what is happening. If you scraped away the Bill and Steve show at D this year, the future could be seen. Or, more accurately, the future could be felt. The future, I suspect, is touch. The future is the integration of the computer into our physical reality. The dangerously metaphysical Second Lifers have it the wrong way around. The future is not a spiritual immersion into a fake world, but the immersion of the personal computer in our real world. The awkwardly oracular Bill Gates hinted at this when asked about his vision of digital life in five years time.

I don't think you'll have one device. I think you'll have a full-screen device that you can carry around, and you'll do dramatically more reading off of that.... I believe in the tablet form factor. I think you'll have voice. I think you'll have ink. You'll have some way of having a hardware keyboard and some settings for that. .... You'll have your living room, which is your 10-foot experience, and that's connected up to the Internet, and there you'll have gaming and entertainment, and there's a lot of experimentation in terms of what content looks like in that world. And then in your den, you'll have something a lot like you have at your desk at work. You know, the view is that every horizontal and vertical surface will have a projector so you can put information [on it]. Your desk can be a surface [where] you can sit and manipulate things.

Gates is wisely looking forwards rather than backwards here. Note, in particular, his faith in the "tablet form factor" and his notion of that our "desk can be a surface where you can sit and manipulate things." What Gates is predicting that we'll be able naturally write on our computers (ie: they will become like paper) and our desk will be a place in which the digital will spill into real life. Gates is saying that our whole desk will become a personal computer. The analog will be digitalized. The computer will become genuinely personal.

Ironically, the one company at D unambiguously showing off the future was Hewlett-Packard, the original Silicon Valley garage operation who have surfed wave after wave of digital innovation. At D this year, HP was displaying a stunning 16 ft wide by 8 ft tall fully interactive touch screen. The logical extension of their latest TouchSmart PC, this screen is a more natural, more human than the traditional computer screen. HP were also displaying visual content that moved seamlessly from screens onto the world around them, thus fusing together their displays with real life. And HP are promising many more technological breakthroughs which will allow other tactile gestural interactivity with our computers. This, rather than exploding coke bottle videos or flashy phones -- might well be the future of digital. Tactile interactivity is what can make technology friendlier, more intuitive to all of us. This is what will seamlessly integrate digital into our analog lives.

Note to Walt and Kara: this year was really wonderful -- but, next year at D, let's look forward rather than back. Please select speakers -- from innovative HP, for example -- for whom the new new thing isn't just memories.

Topics: Apple, Emerging Tech, Hardware, Hewlett-Packard

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  • Apple's still fixated on the past.

    At least in the Macintosh, Apple's holding on to the old 1984 user-interface mistakes with both hands. The one-button mouse and single menu bar were reasonable on a computer with a 9" screen, but even the 17" screen on my Macbook Pro (let alone the 20, 23, and 30" displays on the iMac and Cinema displays) makes the edges of the screen too far away to reach.

    Apple's use of Fitt's Law was already missing one of the easiest places for the mouse to reach... the place where he mouse already was. Now, that's the only place left that *is* still easy to reach.

    We need at least two real buttons (not the stylish tricks in the Macbook and Mighty Mouse, it's got to be just as easy to hit any of the buttons), and one of those buttons needs to bring up an interface that does everything the menu bar does. Get working on it... gestures, a pie menu, or even an old Xerox style pop-up menu, you can think of something that'll be really great. But get cracking, screens aren't getting any smaller.
    • Er...

      You mean like Windows has?
  • HP

    I Have found out that HP is using something in there up dates ,
    That causes memory loss in XP, And Causes XP To become UN stable.WE will not buy HP No More.
  • Fear

    Yeah. I'd love to see more innovation as well. But especially for big companies, major innovations are a huge risk, that I think a number of companies are afraid to take. Even Microsoft, for all Gates' talk, hasn't had major innovation in their software.

    We need a huge change of mindset for major innovations to happen.
  • Operating systems

    Yeah, forgot to mention in my earlier comment. It's easier for smaller start ups and individuals to innovate.

    In the software arena, I think Symphony OS ( is a great new innovation. I'm really looking forward to their first major release. Really wish there could be more of these sort of innovation.
  • Steve hinted at the future!

    Steve was asked by Moss twice on whether Apple had anything planned like
    Surface. Twice, with a huge smile on his face, Steve replied, "Yes, something
    sweet. We have something sweet that you will all see soon!"

    Steve was possibly refering to Leopard, which some are speculating will have
    advance mullti-touch capabilities. What ever, Apple will soon have an answer to
    HP and Microsoft.

    By the way, didn't anybody notice that Surface borrows a lot from Apple's multi-
    touched iPhone? Just view Surface's manipulation of photos and music; they are
    almost a 100% copy of the iPhone's interface!

    Time will tell, but if Microsoft and Hp can give you a great experience with 'touch'
    components, just think of what Apple and their innovative interface expertise will
  • old as new

    We had touch plasma screens through which we could rear-project, CPUs that
    could do more than one operation at a time, CPUs with vector pipe-lines, and 60-
    bit words in the mid-1970s. We had 9-button pucks and styli, graphics
    accelerators, and 64-bit words in the 1980s. We had tablet computers from
    GRiDpad in the late 1980s.

    So, what's new? Bigger, higher resolution monitors. What hasn't changed enough
    is what we can do with them, how we can manage that display "real estate".

    What I'd like to see are some additions to the window paradigm, e.g. to stake out
    portions of the display on a more rigid basis. You have panes in the desk-top/
    display inside of which windows could be manipulated but their manipulation
    could be prevented from slopping over into neighboring desk-top/display panes.
    This would give you another layer of hierarchy of arrangement to take advantage
    of those larger displays. Similarly, it should be easier to stitch together multiple
    systems into one. Such a rigid display pane could almost as well be a whole
    separate system with its own dedicated CPU, in the same box or a separate one.
    You could unplug a unit and take off with both that pane and CPU as a lap-top
    unit and hot-plug it back into another system.

    The solution to the problem of the corners of the display being too far away is
    certainly something I'd like to see solved. Curved screens might help, but, unless
    they're literally partially flexible you're designing in size limits, then. I want that
    full-wall display that has graphs, news, movies being updated in real-time. And
    that also requires higher band-width to every home. Conversion to fiber would be
    a good start, if we could break up the local telephone and cable monopolies to get
    some competition going again in order to provide incentive for the investment.
    The transition went smoothly at universities a couple decades ago.
  • Don't look back - the future is touch

    Interesting article. It would be easier to read if the author would improve his grammar.
  • More Smoke and Mirrors...Let's get real...

    Look at your desktop. Do you have more than three square inches of open space?

    My desktop has staplers, a ruler, a printer, pens, reports (yes, we still haven't gotten to a paperless office yet), a coffee cup and more items that are less generic stuff. From my visits to other offices, so do my coworker's desks. Except the boss, he has a secretary who's desk is a mess so his doesn't have to be.

    I can just see it now. Boss "We need to double the square footage of our offices." "What!" Worker,"Well let's see we are going to need a desk and then a "touch desk" for the new Microsoft operating system." Or get this, everyone sitting around with an easel-like monstrosity in their laps. Oh, yup, good one Bill.
  • Vertical touch screen would be better

    I think a vertically-mounted touch screen is much more likely to prevail than the coffee-table-computer concept. Hang it on the wall like a white-board. Any horizontal surface inevitably gets things stacked on it, spilled on it, stood on, etc.
    • Not better,

      but equally good. If you're working at your desk, having the desk as your monitor works well. Vertical works best for group scenarios (such as a design session). That said, i'd much rather type a document than write one.....I type a lot faster than I right (at least 2x as fast) and in the cube infested world that we live in, dictation would make for a very noisy office.

      As for spilling stuff, I have to believe that a spill just means you have to wipe it up (which is what I do now). After all, they're clearly aiming this at hotels and restaurants, which are likely to have drinks spilled on them.

      I look forward to owning one of those....maybe one of each :D
      • Not convinced

        I just don't see the surface computer being practical outside of very limited vertical apps. Maybe kiosks or games, where privacy and floor space are not a concern. They could (and will have to!) make them water proof and strong enough to stand on, but those physical issues alone will make them heavy and expensive, limiting the potential market even further.

        Most jobs (still) involve paper, magazines, books, and other things that would obscure a surface computer. If I had a surface computer, I would also need a traditional desk and a larger office. A very large screen might reduce the need for paper in some cases, but paper will be around for a long time.

        What DOES excite me is the trend towards larger screens and touch/multi-touch capabilities. A 40" multi-touch screen sitting (vertically) on my desk, along with a bluetooth keyboard and mouse (so I don't have to wave my arms all day) would be GREAT. And it looks like Microsoft and Apple are both headed in that direction.
    • I agree

      We had desks that had monitors mounted inside the desk. I piece of glass covered the monitor. Students would constantly be shuffling books and paper around to uncover their monitor.

      They also complained about sour necks from looking down all the time.

      As a species we are designed to look straight ahead (not up or down for long periods).
    • Ergonomically, that'd be a disaster.

      Try this experiment: Put your fingers on your current monitor. Hold them there
      for one minute. Now think of doing that for 8 hours a day.

      Now try this: Look at your fingers while you type. Don't look up. Type a one page
      letter. Think of doing that for 8 hours a day.

      As long as the natural position of the hands is horizontal, and the natural position
      of the spine is vertical, two surfaces are needed.