Monday, March 14, 2011

How do you explain something that's never existed before?

This is one of my favorite images, and largely speaks for itself.  So you can stop here (all else is commentary).  

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A "better mousetrap" is easy to explain.  The first mousetrap, like the first wheel, is not so easy.  

This cartoon is from the October 1981 announcement of the Xerox Star workstation, the productized version of the Alto, the very first WIMP (Window, Icon, Menu, Pointing device) Graphical User Interface.  (To anyone who has the full advertisement this was clipped from, I would love to have a better, more complete copy.)

Relevant to my theme of user-centered media, this gets to the idea that the user may not know what he really would like.  In many respects, Steve Jobs is a champion of user-centered media (even if maybe not user-centered business practices).  Asked why Apple doesn’t do focus groups, Jobs responded: "We figure out what we want. You can’t go out and ask people ‘what’s the next big thing?’ There’s a great quote by Henry Ford. He said, "If I’d have asked my customers what they wanted, they would have told me ‘A faster horse.’"”  Of course we need to think of the user, and usually should listen to them, but to innovate, one must look far in front of them.

All the best really new ideas are simple at heart, but have many aspects and embodiments.  Like an embryo, it may be all there at conception at some level, but the details that work in the world unfold as you let it grow to maturity.  Depending on context, some aspects grow faster and are more apparent than others.  But explaining them is no easy task.  I have enjoyed seeing many new ideas in early stages, but am still trying to learn how to explain them.  Steve Jobs has the advantage of being able to build them and show them off.  I have not had his resources.  And sometimes no one has the resources until the time is right.

I tried to convince Mobil Corporation to buy a Star workstation to experiment with when I was in their technology planning group in 1981, but it was too expensive, even for Mobil (which was the first company to buy a Cray supercomputer)!  The workstation cost about $100K, but  as I recall, a useful single-user system also needed a file server, print server, and communications server, totaling about $250K minimum (about $600K in current dollars).

I watched hypertext unfold since 1969.  Ted Nelson did a masterful job explaining it (inspired by Vannevar Bush's 1945 vision in The Atlantic Monthly), and Doug Engelbart spectacularly demonstrated similar techniques in what was called "the mother of all demos" in 1968.  But it was slow to reach wide recognition until technology advanced, Berners-Lee simplified it, and Andreesen packaged it.  

As to my own inventions, I have struggled with the challenge of trying to explain online/local hybrids in 1994 (now in RSS, AJAX, and HTML5), coactive TV companion devices (now emerging for iPads) in 2002, and now for FairPay in 2010.  (A companion post is on my FairPayZone blog.

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[Caption text:  "How do you explain something that's never existed before? ... He had a similar problem"]

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