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Interfaces

Over the last 20 years or so there have been several turning points in the way people think about computers. Each has involved a new technology or a new application of technology that has turned out to be less important in the long run than the new application ideas that followed. I've just whipped around another of these points, and I think that you should get ready for a whirl. Before I tell you about this latest shift, though, I really should tell you about the ones I've seen before.

The first change came in the late '70s, when I saw my first personal computer. Suddenly a computer was something that could come to you, rather than being an immovable object. Computers became affordable tools for much smaller and less costly projects than they'd ever been before.

The next shift happened during the winter of 1984, when I went to a small computer dealer in Massachusetts and sat down with a Macintosh. Now a computer could talk to me in pictures as well as words, and I could compute in images and symbols instead of being limited to characters and numbers.

The third turning point came in the mid '80s, when Tandy put a Model 100 in my hands. The thought that a computer could go with me to a job so that the job wouldn't have to follow me to the computer was fabulously liberating. Not until the PalmPilot did I find another type of device that easily accompanied me from place to place. The Pilot was the next great revelation in devices because it made the computer a very casual and comfortable tool - something that I used without really noticing that a computer was involved.

The most important thing about all of these changes was that they shifted my thoughts on how computers could be used - not just what they looked like. As the form and interface of the computer changed, applications expanded along with the new look and feel. Applications and technologies leapfrogged as computers became more and more accessible tools.

The most recent change I've seen is in the way we communicate with the computer. Even as computers have become smaller and more casual, the keyboard has remained the basic means for putting data into the system. Lately, though, I've seen more people moving beyond keyboard-driven data entry. Devices ranging from white boards to electronic legal pads have finally begun to deliver on some of the promises of pen-based computing. And the pen will have to share the spotlight as voice-recognition systems improve.

Integrators - and the rest of the industry - suffered when each of the earlier shifts came along if they held onto old ideas and technologies after their customers had moved on. Helping customers integrate the new ways of thinking about applications that the new interface will surely bring ensures that integrators are positioned to take advantage of the shifts, rather than being left behind.

I'm convinced that the new writing and speech technologies will make a difference. They're good enough to use now. In fact, this column is an example of the technology - I've "talked" it into my system using products from Dragon Systems. I'm not ready to throw out my keyboard, but I've already started thinking about new ways my computer and I will be working together. I'll let you know about some of them in future columns.


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