September 21, 2003
Just Read: The Invisible Computer

Donald Norman's attack on the PC and the technology mindset it propels is interesting reading, even if we early adopters might feel that the PC is a little better at what it does than Norman would have us believe.

One of the annoying things in the book is that Norman does not consider the possibility that maybe GUI's could be more like appliances. Maybe the PC as such is viable as appliance infrastructure, it's just the bulky applications that have matured on the platform that aren't delivering on usability. In fact there is an interesting story (supporting Norman's theories on technology development drivers) to be told in that regard. When I started reading computer magazines, the object oriented architecture of GUI's was still up for grabs. The battle was over Microsofts OLE technology or the OpenDoc technology sponsored by IBM and Apple. Both technologies address the composition of complex documents from parts, but the way the story is usually told the two technologies differed in philosophy exactly by being tool-centric (OLE) and document-centric (OpenDoc) respectively. The reason for Microsoft's tool focus was exactly according to Normans argument: The monolithic apps provides Microsoft with a lock-in strategy, which further enhances the market dominance of Microsoft.
So the PC and its GUI could have been an appliance assembly platform, but due to the nature of technological competition that just didn't happen.

Another reason why the book is interesting reading is that it is from 1998. As I was reading the book and the many dreams of a better way, I felt a slight disconnect with the book even though I considered it contemporary. But 5 years is a lot of time in technologyland. Many of the developments in low price displays and better batteries that Norman talks about have happened, and indeed the devices are beginning to appear. Sofar they have made hardly a dent in the PC infrastructure, but that of course is in the nature of disruptions. Apple is certainly beginning to see a complete change into a content and appliance company via the iPod - a development foreseen with great precision by Norman.

And finally, on reading the book it is crystal clear what the deal is with usability and cognition/behavioural science. For that reason also it is recommended.

Posted by Claus at September 21, 2003 10:01 PM | TrackBack (0)
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