Citrix Labs has recently started to expose more of our longer term initiatives and research to the outside world, as part of that process I thought it would be useful for me to highlight an article that I posted on CIO a couple of months back. I do hope this post will spark some comments from the community especially around how collaboration and the human to computer interface will evolve in the next 20 years…


Humanizing Technology: From Raw Power to Intuitive Simplicity Looking Ahead at the Next 20 Years of IT Innovation

Making predictions about the future is an imperfect and humbling business at best, as the industry’s track record makes clear.

Twenty years ago, it was commonly expected in the computer science community that the next great frontier of innovation would lie in the standardization of software development practices, and software that could be written using natural languages—a revolution which has yet to materialize. Meanwhile, few were paying much attention to the emergence of the online communications technologies soon to transform everything from personal media to global trade, which ultimately became what we today call the internet Another big technology push that is right at the top of the hype curve, virtualization, has been around since the early 1960s in use with IBM mainframes, but only recently shed its longstanding sleeper status and became mainstream in the PC industry.

Why is it so hard to see what’s coming? Perhaps one reason is the tendency of technologists to focus on technology: how can we make systems more powerful, faster, more efficient, more versatile, and so on? Specs are all well and good, but they’re not the whole story.

If we take a step back and look not just at the tools we’re creating, but also at the way they’re actually used, another, more fundamental challenge becomes clear: improving the human-machine interface. By providing the simpler, more natural experience that people really want, we can enable them to garner greater value from the tool—and everything else flows from that: better productivity, new capabilities, and a more meaningful impact.

In the years ahead, then, this will be our challenge: to take the raw power we’ve developed and find better ways for people to integrate it into their work and personal lives.

Machines that Listen

Few aspects of the human-machine interface are as taken for granted as the keyboard. Typing is an effective enough means of communication, as evidenced by the ubiquity of PCs (and before them, typewriters)—but it’s hardly intuitive. The QWERTY keyboard—patented all the way back in 1874—arranges letters in seemingly arbitrary order, a vestige of the mechanical requirements of early typewriters. There is no natural correlation between speed of typing and speed of speech or thought, and a user’s fluency is limited by their manual dexterity (not to mention the constant threat of carpal tunnel distress).

The need for a better approach has long been recognized. Natural language computer interfaces have been around for 15 years or so, evolving from painfully awkward to increasingly adequate. More recently, natural language has begun creeping into new areas such as voice commands for mobile phones, handheld devices, and car audio and navigation systems. Still, this hardly constitutes widespread adoption.

Looking ahead, though, we’re well positioned for major improvements in natural language, with desktop computing power increasing rapidly, dual core and quad core laptops, and a new generation of voice recognition algorithms. While the underlying technological evolution will be incremental, its implications could well be revolutionary. It could result in natural language going mainstream and becoming a primary way that people do a broad range of things—not just giving commands, but putting words on paper, working with enterprise applications, surfing the Web, and working with digital media. Once the keyboard is out of the way, all manner of things become possible.

From Mouse to Multi-touch

We now turn to the other mainstay of the traditional human-computer interface: the pointing device. In its original form, as pioneered at Xerox PARC, the mouse was seen as a huge breakthrough, and it fueled much of the wonderment with which the Apple Lisa was greeted.

But once the novelty and whimsy wear off, the mouse proves to be an odd sort of tool, requiring the user to correlate the movement of a physical device beside the computer with the image on the screen. It seems intuitive—unless it doesn’t. Everyone has seen a newbie waving their mouse in the air and complaining that it doesn’t seem to be working. And even the most adept user knows the frustrations of limited desktop real estate. The touchpad isn’t much better; it’s awkward to use and too easily touched inadvertently, and there’s often a huge differential in movement between finger and pointer.

Now, we’re finally starting to see real innovation in this area with the rapid rise of touch screens and multi-touch—first in Apple iPhones, soon in Microsoft Windows 7, and inevitably in future Macs. This is a fundamentally more intuitive way to work. Instead of fiddling with a mouse or touchpad off to one side, you simply point at the thing you’re interested in on the screen, then use your fingers in combination to manipulate it—just like in the offline world. No less than natural language, this shift will help technology providers serve a broader population of users, help people accomplish tasks more easily, and make the computing experience more natural-feeling as a whole.

Mending Fractured Social Connections

Broadly speaking, one of the greatest legacies of technological innovation to date has been the ability of individuals to work anywhere, any time. Not only can people access information, resources, and functionality online, they can also collaborate with others through a wealth of communications media (e.g., phone, email, SMS, IM, VoIP, webcam, videoconference). As a result, everything can be decentralized: applications, data, and the people who use them. There’s hardly a need anymore for a physical headquarters. And yet—if this is the case, why do millions of us show up at the office any given day of the week? Because the technological aspect isn’t the whole picture. Just because we can work remotely doesn’t mean we want to, or that we’re more productive when we do.

Think of how much of human communication is non-verbal: body language, facial expressions, physical reactions, eye contact. Think of how much more is serendipitous. Unlike the forced nature of electronic communications, where every interaction must be explicitly initiated, workers in the same office are constantly running into each other, overhearing conversations, and ducking into offices for a quick touch-base in passing.

From a work perspective, these chance encounters give people a sense of what others are working on and an idea of the context of their own work, and create crucial opportunities to brainstorm, trigger associations, mention reminders, and spark new ideas. On a deeper level, this kind of informal, unstructured contact helps people work together more effectively by strengthening interpersonal bonds, corporate culture, rapport, and team spirit. It reaffirms the sense of a common purpose and contributes to morale, whether by cheering someone on or by cheering them up.

This kind of thing hasn’t typically been part of the plan for electronic communications—and that’s a problem that must be addressed, especially as distributed workforces become the norm. We’re creating a generation of people who work in isolation, communicating only through 2-dimensional media, without developing the social skills essential for a successful workplace. Many organizations have adopted the best practice of requiring every employee to spend a certain amount of time in the office on a regular basis. This is an important step, but it’s still not enough.

In the coming 20 years of innovation, much of our focus will be on re-creating that personal face-time experience over distance. The rapid rise of social networking, both professional and personal, underscores the pent-up demand for this kind of capability, and also suggests a way forward. Social networks are already gaining ground in the enterprise, along with Twitter, blogs, wikis, and other channels that give people new ways to share information and connect. Now, we must build on these Web 2.0 technologies, along with other existing tools like presence detection and video communication, and take it all further to create a more vivid sense of co-workers—as much as if they were physically working in the same place.

Creating Technology that Works for People

Innovations like these will always have a significant technology component—such solutions will likely require all the compute horsepower we can throw at them—but at this point, the really important breakthroughs will be conceptual: thinking more deeply about what people really need from technology, and how to make their tools more natural, intuitive, and simpler to use. It’s no longer enough to say, “Here’s your new laptop—it’s twice as powerful as the old one!” Now we have to give people new ways of doing things, and new ways to interact with technology and with each other. As the iPhone has proven—when you get it right, people respond.

Martin Duursma is CTO Office Chair and Vice President of Citrix Labs at Citrix Systems, Inc. He is chartered with leading product groups located in Cambridge, England; Redmond, U.S. and Sydney, Australia, that pioneer and review new technologies.
Humanizing Technology: From Raw Power to Intuitive Simplicity Looking Ahead at the Next 20 Years of IT InnovationHumanizing Technology: From Raw Power to Intuitive Simplicity Looking Ahead at the Next 20 Years of IT Innovation