Predictions of the iPad

// Published 15 June, 2010 by Andrew Lamb

Here’s an enormously prescient passage from Donald Norman’s 1988 book The Design of Everyday Things:

The computer of the future is perhaps indicated by my imaginary perfect calendar. Suppose I am home one evening, deciding whether to accept an invitation to attend a conference next May. I pick up my appointment calendar and turn to the appropriate page. I tentatively decide that I can attend and pencil in the topic. The calendar flashes at me and displays a note reminding me that the university will still be in session during that period and that the trip overlaps my wife’s birthday. I decide that the conference is important, so I make a note to check whether I can get someone to take over my classes and to see whether I can leave the conference early for the birthday. I close the calendar and get back to other things. The next day, when I arrive at my office I find two notes on my message screen: one to find a substitute for my classes next May, the other to check with the conference organizers to see if I can leave early.

This imaginary calendar looks like a calendar. It’s about the size of a standard pad of paper, it opens up to display dates. But it really is a computer, so it can do things that today’s appointment calendar cannot. It can, for example, present its information in different formats: it can display the pages compressed so that a whole year fits on one page; it can expand the display so that I see a single day in thirty-minute intervals. Because I frequently use my calendar in conjunction with my travels, the calendar is also an address book, notepad, and expense account record. Most important, it can also connect itself to my other systems (via a wireless infrared or electromagnetic channel). Thus, whatever I enter into the calendar gets transmitted to my office and home systems so that they are always in synchrony. If I make an appointment or change someone’s address or telephone number on one system, the others get told. When I finish a trip, the expense record can be transferred to the expense account form. The computer is invisible, hidden beneath the surface; only the task is visible. Although I may actually be using a computer, I feel as if I am using my appointment calendar.

Sound familiar? Norman wrote the book in the late 80s, and although he subsequently worked for Apple as a Design Fellow, he was not a techie or a futurologist – instead he used his background as a psychologist to approach technology from the perspective of the user. This passage goes to show that the most successful products are not necessarily the most innovative – they’re the ones that most effectively meet the needs of the user. Those needs can be predicted, it seems, more than 20 years ahead of time.

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