Lessons from the Death of the PC

If 2016 was the year that apps became conversational, it’s been a long time coming. As messaging apps eclipse conventional social networks and our environment is increasingly hooked up with the internet, new opportunities arise to create increasingly personalised experiences for individuals, groups, and teams, as well as lessons to take from the slow demise of the PC. Additionally, several new messaging and voice platforms have emerged, putting us on the precipice overlooking a broad shift in how technology is designed and serves people. We’re seeing new hardware and embedded technologies emerge that spell new paradigms for user experience, voice experience, and conversation experience.

With all of these changes seemingly happening at once, there are considerable questions confronting businesses about how, when, why, and even if they should get involved. Join Chris Messina as he guides you through why this is happening now and how to participate and evaluate whether joining the conversational product revolution makes sense for your business.

The death of the PC fits into a much broader cultural context. It’s a chance to leave behind some old ideas that have outlived their time, a chance to forget about things that hold us back.

First – how do you define a personal computer? How would you describe a computer to someone who’d never seen one? In 1983 Steve Jobs talked about a new machine with electrons moving around instead of pistons moving around… using the combustion engine to explain the new idea to a room of designers.

Computers deal in pure information, allowing calculation at great speed – far higher than any machine that had gone before. But as the era of the electron comes to a close, many of our assumptions are wrong about what comes next.

Book: Marshall McLuhan – Understanding Media

In modern computing it’s less about the environment and more about the apps. Our experience changes.

Look at the impact of TV on sport. The instant replay turned sport broadcasting into a form of analysis, not just a linear broadcast. Time was no longer linear and unreachable. If you missed a moment, you could look up and see it – from different angles.

In the same era (the 60s), the cold war created the notion of an information war. You didn’t just need bombs, you needed to know where to drop them. Spy planes gathered a great deal of information, which needed to be shared between military sites. ARPAnet was the precursor the web.

ARPAnet map from 1971

This is the era in which Doug Englebart delivered The Mother Of All Demos. His report was entitled “augmenting human intellect” – making humans more capable of dealing with large amounts of data quickly. The information and systems were designed for highly-trained military and academic specialists. Most computers were thin clients connecting to a large, shared server or mainframe.

It was the 70s and 80s that brought in the idea of self-contained/independent computers for the general public – or at least in business. Many common UI paradigms like “folders” persist from this push to normalise computers in a paper-based workplace. This persisted for an unusually long time.

It was 2007 when Apple popularised the next big leap in UI – the small touch-screen device… the iPhone. It broke away from other smartphones with their tiny fixed keyboards; and went back to the old idea of a variable screen and a pointing device. A screen, and your finger. Ten years later this is ubiquitous. Children learn it during infancy.

The massive rise of social media and messaging came along at this point.

Now in 2017, with the Next Billion coming online, what will the first device be for people as they get online? A PC? A mobile? Ambient voice-controlled devices?

We need to look at apps. Apps pushed businesses to create APIs, to understand their own business in terms of API endpoints. Instead of connecting a thin client back to a mainframe, we connect a heavier client to a data endpoint.

Voice control and voice processing are on the rise. Computers will have better speech processing capability than humans.

A side effect of voice search is that Alexa users are not specifying brands, or going to Google to do their searching. It’s not “Alexa, Engergizer rechargeable batteries” it’s “Alexa, rechargeable batteries”.

The importance now is to have a device present at the moment of desire, the moment someone wants something. This is why we have Apple airpods, Pixel buds, etc. Companies are trying to literally get into our heads.

Steve Jobs once described the need for difference Apple devices due to “a difference of emphasis”. Cars, trucks and sports cars share many similarities (engine, wheels, seats) but their purpose gives them a different emphasis.

We have devices now that we touch and talk to; or they listen and watch us. Amazon Look takes a selfie and analyses your outfit…

Now let’s take a little leap, forget a few things, blur our vision a moment.

Children have greater access to mobile devices and spend more time on them than ever before. What does that do to us? …so how many of you have seen the movie “Her”? (plays a clip from Her where the protagonist’s niece meets his virtual girlfriend)

Kids are growing up experiencing relatives through 2D screens (video chat). They are used to talking and interacting to people through screens. So… what does this mean for human connection? When AI gets sufficiently advanced, how do people truly know that grandma is real?

Kids are growing up with all of this and they’re adapting to it. They communicate in ways we don’t really get.

We have the rise of virtual celebrities. Miquela is big on Instagram, despite not being real. The people commenting don’t seem to know or care that she doesn’t exist. Even if we find it odd at first, this sort of tech will also create new art forms like emoji kareoke.

So what about the responsibility of creators? Making CGI so good it’s undetectable means we can’t trust any image. How do we convince someone an image is real when they know it can be easily faked?

In the early years of the web, we tended to believe that simply connecting everyone in the world would create understanding and harmony. It turns out that’s not true.

Are we really prepared for what comes next?

“We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.” – Marshall McCluhan

The next generation is much more open, more malleable, more plastic. They bring less assumptions, they are more open to what comes next.

There is hope for us yet.

@ChrisMessina