Today there are few things more familiar to us then our smartphones. We take them everywhere we go and get more intimate with them daily than our spouses. Yet for all their electronic flair, the modern User Interface (UI) that drives our gadgets isn’t a new development. Invention is a continuous process of remixing ideas. Modern (UI) software is a product a quarter century in the making.
Twenty five years ago in Toronto, Canada; Konverge was only a startup. While we had only began our journey of constructing an enterprise, Microsoft had already struck gold with their famous Windows over ten years ago. Windows was exceptional for being the first major computer application to make heavy use of the Graphical User Interface (GUI). It’s early use of icons that could be manipulated by a mouse also made it famous. Microsoft changed things again in the mid 90s with the introduction of the START button. This feature alone with resize buttons are still in use today.
At about the same time, Apple released the Newton. The device was arguably far ahead of its time. You could manage your calendar, convert currencies, and check your time zone. Yet its greatest ability was also its undoing. The Newton could also recognize handwriting, in theory. In practice the software was buggy. Steve Jobs killed the Newton in 1998.
Developments were also in motion at IBM. Early in the 90s they released the ThinkPad and it was arguably the first revolutionary mobile computer. It achieved the feat by marrying the TrackPoint (red touch button replacement for the mouse) to a very durable casing. The tablet became widely loved by the mobile business world and the ThinkPad even flew on the space shuttle. Along with the TrackPoint, customers also enjoyed backlit keyboards and drop protection.
While Apple failed with the Newton, they still fought to raise their game. In 1995 Apple hired Don Norman. He spent his five years at Apple promoting the importance of human centered design and even created the “User Experience Architect” position. This work pinnacled in 2001 with the release of Mac OS X. Microsoft followed suite the same year with the release of Windows XP. Both platforms transformed the user experience with the smooth click integration of files and functions.
Near the end of the 2000s, advancements in computer processing were permitting engineers to build ever smaller phones. Incremental improvements in semiconductors (Moore’s Law) were granting designers to ability to build very compact computers. Where once the Apple iMac consumed a desktop, now it was a flatscreen. Blackberry was also widely successful with its RIM series of smartphones, but the market would soon transform again.
In January 2007, Steve Jobs released the iPhone at the Moscone Center in San Francisco. Notwithstanding that the original phones were marginally functional, the (UI) design was a game changer. The designer of the iPod, Jonathan Ive built the phone to replicate the Mac with a touch screen. The new applications could be manipulated with only a touch or gesture. The real disruption came when Apple opened up the market to third-party developers and anything that could be engineered became available.
Then in 2008, Google joined the fray with the release of Android on the HTC Dream. Unlike Apple’s iOS, Android was not an original Google invention; The company purchased Android Inc. The ascension of the iPhone sent Google back to the drawing board to add the touch feature because originally only the physical keyboard was supported. Since 2011, Android has been the best selling mobile operating system globally.
Virtual Reality-The Next Chapter
Technology is constantly in flux and at the moment the next great disrupter is undecided. At this period in the late 2010s, it is evident that virtual reality will likely be next game changer. How Virtual or Augmented Reality will be successfully implemented is still an open question.
There are three contenders for the gold.
In 2016, Microsoft released the development version of the Hololens. The lens is engineered to run in a mixed-reality. The headset projects images into the view of the wearer using a visor. Running off of Windows Mixed Reality, the platform is designed to make holograms, games, Skype calls, and many others.
The lens owes its lineage to Microsoft Kinect, the XBox controller. Like with Kinect, the wearer can control the lens with their gaze, gestures, and voice. The lens can also project virtual buttons for the wearer to touch and gestures can launch applications.
Originally launched in 2015, the first smartglass was a failure. Google rebooted Glass in 2017 for commercial customers. Like with the Hololens, Glass is a mixed-reality headset. The wearer sees images projected into their view. The unit runs off Bluetooth commands from an Android smartphone.
The wearer controls Glass via gestures on a side mounted Touchpad and Glass accepts voice commands. Applications are condensed to cards that are swiped through to select.
In 2016, Oculus VR released the Rift. Oculus VR is a subsidiary of Facebook. The Oculus Rift is a full virtual reality headset and provides the wearer with a full immersion experience. Unlike Glass or the Hololens; Oculus is a fixed platform. The wearer plugs the unit into a PC computer and the games begin. The units began as a Kickstarter campaign, specifically to serve video gamers.
Unlike the mixed-reality platforms, Rift supports no touch or gesture control. It is the responsibility of the wearer to manipulate reality by head movements. The wearer controls the video games through external mechanical controllers that are optional add-ons and common to many gamers.
The future is always uncertain. Over the years the brightest minds of our generation have failed to forecast the next spectacular invention. Mark Zuckerberg expected the Oculus to transform entertainment. It still could happen. Google envisioned Glass as the smartphone killer. Perchance, we are back to where we began in the 90s. The technology needs to again catch up to the user interface of the smartglass. Or maybe we are already here and the right visionary needs to show us the way?