Every once in a while me and some of my buddies will get together for lunch to prognosticate and pontificate. The "rules of engagement" are that you argue the future of technology with the assured confidence of Steve Jobs, while still being nice. ;-) Today, you won't get the laughs, the jeers, the oohs and aahs or even the subtle interplay of the multiple ideas and feelings as we sit around the table and guess about the future, but you will get part of my view of things and you'll just have to imagine the rest. So with that preamble, let me start with what the world looks like in 2013:
To begin with everyone has at least one, but most have two, 30" displays at work that support multi-touch and have embedded hi-res cameras. Screens haven't grown much taller, but they will have grown wider. People carry around their iPhone on which resides all their digital assets. They walk up to a workstation and "plug in" to run all their customized programs and data coming off their phone. Laptops still dominate, because, well, they have a keyboard and mouse that work, but they are the peripherals of the phone, the iPod, the communication device, not the other way around.
The user experience isn't just about being pretty and functional anymore, it's about making the work you do fun, in a very game-like almost surreal kind of way. Of course it's efficient, because it's fun to be successful at what you do! But it's not just about being efficient anymore, it's about being beautifully efficient and deeply effective.
In this world of 2013, all desktop applications, as we know them, continuously bounce back and forth between two states: fully online, and partially offline. While all the user's data is stored on their local device (read their iPhone), they know that when in range of any wireless signal, their data is being securely and automatically backed-up and kept in sync up with all their other peer devices. Normally this is the cloud for down-level, but always accessible access, their home and work computers, their entertainment center and car and of course their iPhones. Yes, most people will have one "work horse" iPhone and another smaller, lighter, "more invisible" if you will, model.
Documents are far from dead in this environment, but they are more dynamic, they are less the end, but the vehicle for the process of learning and discussion. The standard way to transmit rich but static read/only documents will continue to be PDF. Word processing will move to be more about design and layout than about text macros, spell checking and print out. PowerPoint presentations become less about bullet points and more about data visualization. Excel workbooks finally take on embedded SQL back-end for deep data-sets. This simultaneously thrills regular users who always knew Excel was a database, while frustrating DB admins worldwide. Excel "views" on to any data set auto syncs back up to and around with other people and servers. PowerPoint presentations include Bonjour enabled real time text chats on the presentation's "side screen" if enabled for the presentation. The typical method for connecting to a HD presentation display is simply connecting your phone to the projector and driving the phone with the button on your phone's headset over a secure wireless connection. Your headset will also record your presentation for later automatic transcriptions or playback.
Email and News isn't so much about "getting to done" and reading all the email and news coming your way. It's much more about training your "inbox aggregator" to sense the signal in the noise. Which people and sources consistently produce high signal work will be the basic factor. Your work will be to both broadcast so that people will want to subscribe to your data-out-stream, but also aggregate the common themes coming in. Spark-like, the software will identify the new, the novel and out of the ordinary. Analysis of your reading, response times, collaboration habits, phone calls, even tracking your focus on the screens will help the system to make connections and inferences and your projects and priorities will there by emerge. The complex patterns over time will create a data set that you can both tag with good and bad behaviors which the system can use to help you do more "good things" and fewer "bad things." When the system senses you are "in the zone" phone calls, IMs, even background applications fade from view allowing your to focus and really think and really produce. This kind of pattern analysis will be done both locally as well as in the cloud. The system learning will happen in both places.
Help systems will be much more user developed, driven and updated with a few mavens driving the core content. Person to person personalized help will emerge: This is where you can call someone and get a personal response in your own language, from the same support person you have grown to like, within 24 hours. The help system extends beyond just using an application, becoming more like a workflow analyst and personal coach. Help systems well done become a modest profit center for those few companies who figure out how to serve personally, not just quickly. This premium help service becomes something people love to pay for, because of the way it helps them directly improve their day to day work. Think of it as life hacks, evolved and distributed.
Software updates and personalization of software on the fly will mimic and then surpass the current web based model. Users will be able to log feature requests directly in the applications they use. Developers will be able to respond in aggregate or individually. Web apps will support roll forward upgrades, while desktop applications will support seamless roll forward upgrades and roll back downgrades. The roll back ease will allow for people to bravely try out new features in newer versions without the risks of all our nothing upgrade decisions. When a bug or feature they requested is fixed or something similar added to a new version of the application of which they don't have, they will be notified. Think of it like out of band email feedback and support, or like FogBugz stuffed into each application you own.
Video conferencing will be available most places and no one will use it except for one to many lecture style communication. What they will use is screen sharing, document sharing and white board sharing while high quality audio, text and data sharing collaboration will be the norm. Conversations will naturally move from audio, to audio and text chat, to screen sharing, to document editing to white board sketching and back to basic text all with the effort of adding a new party to a conference call on the iPhone. Even with all this communication technology, person to person visits will remain he most effective form of collaboration. As such, most systems will tend to lead you from lower communication models to higher communication models, given your particular context.
User interfaces will provide greater affordances for the human user. Not just skins and layout changes, but reading text summaries into audio files to be processed and listened to while moving from place to place. Reminders to get up and stretch, take a break. Zooming in and especially zooming out spatially will help people not only to read better as they age, but to step back and gather greater context, then focus in on the most important information or task. Audio will be used slightly more to provide feedback, but displays that can "thump" or provide force feedback when touched will also allow for better interactions. Where today we use "if statements" then we will use Bayesian probability in making our decisions.
The most important aspect of software design will be the answer to this question: How can we optimize this experience such that the things humans are good at are made easy, fun and amplified, while the things humans are generally poor at are made automatic, simple, out of the way, multi-tasked, yet controllable, abstractly knowable and understandable.
In this world, technology will not be the enabler or even the competitive advantage. In 2013, technology will be the raw material upon which and out of, much of life's daily work and play will be built. In 2013, people will have gotten over technology, less will be the worship of technology as some magic cure all, more the understanding of technology like a bicycle for the mind, the heart, and even the soul. And so here's to a softer time. A time when the real world, not these virtual intellectual properties, but the actual world around us takes preeminence once more.