On the Road to Intimacy

by David Dunham and Scott Shwarts
Pensee Corporation


Wouldn't it be nice to have a helpful friend you could carry in your pocket? Someone who'd help you remember important appointments, screen out trivial phone calls, and suggest connections between your ideas? Someone who keeps track of minutae so you don't have to? Someone you could unobtrusively consult during a meeting to help you appear smarter and better organized than you are? Such a friend wouldn't be a computer, of course. Computers make you worry about commands, filenames, data formats, discharging NiCad batteries, and attaching cables. You might talk to your friend with a stylus, however...

What we're talking about has been called an "information appliance" or a "personal digital assistant." For historical reasons, any information appliance with a microprocessor will probably be called a "computer" for some time (and 12 cm CDs will still be called "compact"). But it will be a much more intimate device than the computers available today. We haven't arrived at the intimate computer yet, but we're well on the way to crossing the five barriers to one: application, price, usability, accessibility, and intimacy. Think of these barriers as doors that technology has opened in turn. Pen computers are taking us towards the goal.


The first barrier is, what do you do with a computer? The original machines were designed to tally census data or calculate artillery trajectories. Eventually, small corporations or even individuals began to be able to use timesharing computers, and came up with important new applications, such as accounting, scheduling, and games. Computers were used every day in science, engineering, and business, though only large companies could afford them.

We think pen computers have at least as broad a range of applications as computers that came before them. They're not just for filling out forms.


The second barrier is money. As long as a computer cost more than a car, it wasn't of interest to an individual. Advances in integrated circuit technology allowed costs to fall, and small companies could afford microcomputers. The Apple II was essentially the first computer that was affordable, if not by the masses, at least by crowds. As the price of computing fell, it made sense to use computers for more and more applications, from tax preparation to educational software to word processing.

Recent trends in pen computers are disturbing, because they aren't being priced for individuals. As the price points of current laptop computers show, there's no technological reason pen computers should be expensive.


The third barrier is usability. An affordable computer isn't much good if most people can't actually use it. The graphical user interface, as popularized by the Macintosh, broke through this barrier.

Alas, Windows for Pen Computing is a step backwards. Not only is it a GUI bolted onto DOS, but it's a pen interface bolted onto that. It's true that an application written from the ground up to run under PenWindows can be very natural, but users will also be running non-pen Windows applications, and even character-mode DOS programs. It's hard to imagine a great deal of consistency, and easy to imagine confusion.

The right approach is to design the operating system around the pen. However, when we use the word "operating system," we're still talking about computers. PenPoint is still an interface to a computer, as witness its computer-like accouterments such as modal dialogs and disk browser.

It's interesting to note that while no one can program a VCR, anyone can use one to play a rented video. Computers should end up as easy to use as VCRs (while remaining easier to program).


The fourth barrier is accessibility. Although the industry term is "personal computer," I maintain there is no such thing today as a personal computer. I don't have a computer on my person. The goal is to have a computer available whenever and wherever you need one. We're no longer tied to a desk, but with most portable computers, you still have to worry about battery life, wait for hard disks to spin up, or reboot to attach peripherals. And lots of our information remains isolated on a desktop machine.

Most portables are deficient in the "whip-out" factor: can I whip out my computer from wherever I carry it and immediately start using it? Pen computers will help crack this barrier. Most don't have a clamshell design (clamshells have to be opened, and thus can't be used upon being whipped out), many don't have rotating media (which has to be brought up to speed before it can be used), and they can be used in more physical and social settings -- while walking down the hall, or sitting across from someone in a meeting.

Even if these problems are solved, today's computers are still too heavy to carry around all the time, or too bulky. (This shouldn't be a major problem, as the Sharp Wizard and Casio BOSS demonstrate.)

It may take a little longer to make computers fully accessible -- I often come up with great ideas while in the shower, and would love to have my notebook available...


The fifth barrier is intimacy. A telephone* is an intimate device. You don't have to think about using it, and probably don't consider yourself to be using high technology when you do. When you talk on the phone, you frequently forget that you are. An intimate computer should be equally transparent. Ideally, you shouldn't know you're using a computer until it does something wonderful. A computer notebook should be just as easy to use as a spiral notebook, revealing its power only when you can actually find a note you wrote a month ago.

My intimate computer would

Current software does some of this, but mostly provides automated literacy, simply speeding up what we could already do on paper. Pen computer software doesn't have to slavishly copy what was done before, and has the chance to be more intimate simply because it can be redesigned from scratch.


The barriers to an intimate computer alternate between software and hardware. We needed software that was of interest to individuals, that ran on affordable machines. The software had to be usable with minimal training. We still need to have machines we can take and use anywhere. Finally, we need software that lets us forget we're using a computer, and helps us deal with information directly.

An intimate computer could act as a true friend, freeing us from the drudgery of information management, always there when we need it to jog our minds to a new burst of creativity.

Copyright ©1992 Pensée Corporation

Last updated 7 Aug 96 drd

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