By Peter Eckert
Originally published in Product: Design & Development, May 2, 2011
Technology never remains stagnate. Consumer and business applications, along with hardware, are constantly changing to create and satisfy the public’s demand for advanced computing. For the past 20 years, we have seen a staggering adoption of technology worldwide and greater access to information than ever before.
We hardly notice the vast transformations until we step back and reflect as each of these technologies has become increasingly integrated into our lives. It is difficult to remember what we did before Google, and few of us can imagine going back to static maps to find our destinations.
Today we see planet Earth instantly, zooming into a particular address in Wisconsin effortlessly. And we can send a single email or text or post a message accessible to millions with about the same amount of effort. Each incremental advance offers us new possibilities.
So, to look at 2011 with its technology trends, is also to see we are part of a vast evolution with different facets making advances simultaneously. The process is chaotic and advancements are driven to meet various needs.
But, the net-result is often inflection points where we rapidly integrate technology into our lives at a new level. And, in the next couple of years, we are continuing to do so as the market brings us compelling solutions as well as entertaining options.
Technology advancements are as much about the power of a processor as they are about how that information is interconnected to other data sources. However, advancement also lies in how that technology is accessible to the end user.
It’s common knowledge that our processing capacity far exceeds its application in our lives at this point in history. It will take many decades, experts predict, for us to fully tap into the computational power we have created.
A key hurdle in the ongoing technology evolution is the process of translating computational power into usable applications via intuitive user interface design that enables the end user. Simply put, the easier it is for end users to access features, make decisions, analyze data and/or interact with technology, the more we are actually leveraging the computation power we have available.
Setting the Table with Tablets
2011 may be known best as “The Year of the Tablet.” The iPad is part of a growing transformation in computing: mobility, ease-of-use and a depth of functionality at our fingertips. But, stepping back and looking at the 20-foot view, the tablet’s mobility and engaging user interface is part of the much broader evolution and transformation in computing.
On the surface, the tablet is a light weight, sleek portable computer. Those qualities alone do not make the tablet in and of itself a breakthrough in computing. A key facet of the innovation lies in what Apple did with the iPhone and transposed on the iPad; an intuitive user interface design, access to engaging apps, elegant graphic and hardware design with an easy-to-use touch screen.
Since the 1990s, the tablet itself has been around in various formats. The breakthrough in the new decade is in the way computing functionality and form has transformed it.
The tablet is an important part of personal computing and has literally carved out a market through its design, even though it cannot and is not designed to replace the workhorse data entry capabilities of a laptop or desktop, or the convenience and size of today’s smart phones.
Simply put, these devices are a new instrument of technology that is capturing the imagination of consumers and businesses alike based on what it does offer.
Early in 2011, technocrats and industry gurus began the debate about the iPad’s viable competitors. A key facet necessary for a successful rival includes creating an interface that serves up compelling apps intuitively and matches the iPad with its sleek and attractive portability.
Much debate, sizzle, rumor and likely criticism, will encircle competitors of the iPad. Technocrats speculate who will rise to the top and who will and who will sink with new tablet offerings. And many of the world’s technology leaders are rushing to market with their version of the tablet experience.
Apple may have the hearts of the consumer, but the business user is also at stake as more and more organizations around the globe, and in vastly different sectors, examine how mobile computing can increase their productivity and enable their workforces. Apple won the consumer; it may not win the tablet war with business.
In business, organizations must translate their process to the tablet for it to have a meaningful impact on their day-today operations — unlike consumer adoption which is built with an avalanche of enthusiasm and excitement, business tablet users are slower to adopt as it is evaluated for its functionality in the workforce.
Nevertheless, leading organizations are already looking to integrate the tablet into their practices. With an increasingly mobile workforce, many leading companies want to offer their own business-to-business software applications in a form that aligns with the tablet as a benefit to their clients.
They envision making a version of their software — like workforce management applications — more accessible to clients through a mobile device. For others, however, they have staff working in environments where desktop computing is less accessible, such as deployed workforces based in or frequently visiting industrial and/or other sites.
They would benefit by being able to enter information while working versus having to stop and enter data and/or retrieve information from a computer located elsewhere.
While the tablet’s potential is vast, it is not limitless. Tablets and other mobile devices are not built for the kind of data entry inherent to laptops or desktops. Also, it is not a simple process to create an “app” version of complex enterprise software.
In some cases, to do so, would require numerous apps that breakdown the software into so many components the convenience would be eliminated. One might see 25 apps to equal one ERP implementation.
Each organization who identifies a potential synergy with offering app versions of their software should evaluate the potential outcomes and limitations. In many cases, porting a software application to a mobile environment will decrease the functionality and change the application.
Decisions related to functionality and features will have to be considered closely. That said, the tablet itself offers new opportunities for leading companies and many will look for these synergies throughout 2011.
Tablets Keep Evolving
As tablets and smart phones continue to penetrate all facets of the mobile market, in 2011, leading innovative companies will take them further by offering apps and solutions that literally begin to replace processes within our daily lives.
An area that appears to be drawing new interest is natural human behaviors like gestures — meaningful gestures that can create a communication on or between devices. One is example is the iPhone finger scroll or pinch to expand images. Another one discussed in the past is bumping cell phones together to exchange contact information.
Imagine reading a newspaper and being able to circle with a finger a coupon and it goes into a folder nice and orderly. Or, by simply placing a tablet under your arm — like you would a newspaper — it shuts off. Simple sounding, but each convention and/or gesture must be designed for the specific user type and the context that those users will be in.
It’s like taking the most ordinary of movements and integrating them into a computing environment that responds to human directives. These simplistic responses are foundational and symbolize the start of a next generation of computing — one that begins to absorb and take over or support many small and large daily processes.
Technology must get simple and seamless on a lot of fronts. There are real market drivers at play; namely an emerging middle class in China predicated to be twice that of US’s in coming years. In emerging markets around the world, new middle classes are surging and technology companies are seeking to offer these populations solutions that align with their needs.
In China, India and South America, iterative technologies have been skipped and, thus, the populations require totally intuitive applications to meet their needs. The tablet — its simplicity — offers an interesting solution or component in worldwide mobile computing.
Technology will take some interesting turns in 2011 and throughout the next decade.
Mobile in general is shifting the computing environment in many significant ways and leading companies want in on it for a host of reasons. Their challenge is ensuring their objectives and the tablet environment align for a successful and useful adaptation. For all the innovation of the tablet, people still need computing tools that support heavy data entry.
The tablet itself embodies far more than a new piece of sleek hardware. Apple’s focus on customer-centric usability sets a new paradigm in computing. It also demonstrates a worldwide demand for simplicity in computing.
Mobile devices are integrating into our daily lives in big, compelling ways as well as simple ways. Collectively, the evolution of computing is chaotic yet creating an exciting new foundation that goes beyond a new device but illustrates a future where we seamless interact.
Peter Eckert, co-founder of projekt202 and chief creative officer, is regarded as one of the leading UI design visionaries in the U.S. Peter has helped many fortune 500 companies implement a meaningful UI design process into their organizations. He has directed efforts for SAP, Charles Schwab, Sabre Airlines, Motorola, Microsoft, Agresso, Thompson Financials, Vignette, Buffalo Technologies, LeGrand, Logitech, Tektronix, Deloitte and many more.