Chris Poelker

The beauty of simple technology

August 07, 2012 4:05 PM EDT

Back in the 1970s, when mainframe was king and mini computers were the new rage, a kid named Bill Gates and his buddies spent hours in the school computer lab hacking away at large, paper-based computer terminals, writing simple pieces of code that later became the foundation of the Microsoft Disk Operating System, now known as MS-DOS.

In the world of computers, that’s ancient history. MS-DOS became one of the most widely used operating systems for personal computers. These computers – with their simple, powerful Intel-based processors replaced the mini computers that Bill and his buddies used. The next thing Bill did after he started Microsoft was to develop a cool user interface for its next operating system, which we all now know as Windows. Windows was one of the first commercially successful graphics-oriented interfaces for computers, and it was a major leap forward over text-based computing. With the introduction of Windows, paper-based terminals were replaced and the mouse and keyboard became the new method for interfacing with computers.

Microsoft’s Windows operating system ruled the world for more than two decades. In school, kids in computer classes no longer needed to memorize complex text based commands. Instead, students could simply point and click their way onto the Internet to watch videos, do research and surf online. The PC and the Internet together enabled students to reach out and touch the whole world with a simple click of the mouse. The new improved interface was simpler as there was no longer any need to memorize cryptic commands, which made the jobs of students and teachers a little bit easier too.

The next advance was the laptop computer. Although the laptop computer used a similar interface as the desktop PC, the mouse was built in and the system was mobile. Laptops made it easier for students to use their computers to take notes in class or even to do homework while relaxing in the park.

 

Woman using laptop in a park.

The PC was an awesome tool in the hands of someone who was properly trained and knew how to use it; however, the problem persisted that although the PC was simpler than older mini computers, a PC was still quite hard to master. For many who were untrained, especially the very old and very young, simple computing was still out of reach.

All of this history is important if we are to analyze the opportunity and impact of today’s new technology on our lives. The once hard-to-remember esoteric command, like the one below, has disappeared with the graphical interface taking its place.

Remember commands like this?

C:> CD c:\windows\system32\drivers\etc

C:> Attrib *.* -S –H –R

C:> DIR

C:> Copy Hosts c:\ Hosts.bak

The benefits of these advances in user interfaces were tremendous, as the world of computing opened up to almost everyone. Now, let’s take a look at what has happened since then, and examine recent technical innovations and how the current drive towards simplicity in computing is changing our everyday lives.

Although both Microsoft and Apple have been around for a while now, it seems most of the commercially successful game changing advances in the computer interface have come from Steve Jobs and company over at Apple. Their Industrial design and interface engineers understood that computers, music devices (such as Apple’s MP3 players), and even mobile phones needed a more intuitive interface that was simpler to use and easier to learn. The innovation was combining touch technology for all their new devices with simple gestures. With just a flick of your finger, their screens will now scroll to show you more apps. No more commands or clicks. To search for contacts or music, just flick your finger and a list of songs or contacts will scroll by in that direction. Flick your finger slowly, and the screen contents will also move slowly. Flick fast, and the names will zoom by. You can navigate and do all sorts of things simply by using intuitive gestures with your fingers.

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