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Last Updated: Thursday, 21 June 2007, 09:41 GMT 10:41 UK
The Tech Lab: Greg Papadopoulos
Greg Papadopoulos
Mr Papadopoulos has more than 20 years experience in the tech industry
As part of a series inviting some of the world's leading technologists to speculate about the future, Greg Papadopoulos, chief technology officer of Sun Microsystems, calls for technology and design to be married to people's needs.

As a technologist, when I look at the artefacts that we're thrusting onto the world they contain a lot of historical baggage and biases because we simply carry on the assumptions from the past. Things really could be a lot simpler.

All too often, it's like we're asked to care for these things that we really shouldn't care about - and that ranges from mobile phones to personal computers - rather than asking the technology designers to build tools with us in mind.

'Ridiculously broken'

Think about the voicemail system on your cell phone. It's really bad.

You get the messages linearly, you are told that you have five new voicemails and you don't know what's from whom or the content of each message.

To organise your messages, you have to dial through with ridiculous key sequences.

Making it worse, you can't choose a better system as you have to take voicemail from your mobile service provider.

When I look at my phone, with the nice display and all sorts of processing power, I begin to think that voicemail is not just bad - it's ridiculously broken.

Messages should come down to my phone well ahead of when I want to listen so that I can organise them.

Since the beginning of personal computing, we've thought about PCs as machines that sit on our desks

Then I want to be able to arrange voicemails like my e-mail, where I could see all the messages and pick amongst them.

I would also really like some voice recognition as well. If I want to read my voicemails, I should be able to do just that.

Reforming the PC

But that's just one example of how the legacy of design holds us back. PCs are full of old designs.

Take the concept of installing and maintaining software.

Since the beginning of personal computing, we've thought about PCs as machines that sit on our desks that we have to take care of: they run software that needs to be installed and maintained.

My computer runs code, the code has bugs, and now it's my job to worry about what needs to be updated when or if I should allow it to take place at all.

I can barely decide what to do. I'm thinking most people don't have a clue and we're all pretending that we do.

There are other even deeper assumptions within the programs that we run.

Word screen grab
Have you ever been at your word processor and asked yourself why you have a save button? Why save a file at all?

Have you ever been at your word processor and asked yourself why you have a save button? Why save a file at all?

Why isn't it just remembering every keystroke you type?

It's a relic of the cost of storage and computing which was important 20 years ago, but today there is enough of both to have your computer remember everything you do.

Personal networks

For me, the magic wand to fix all this is the personal network. I want to be attached to my own personal TV channel.

I want my desktop supported in the network. I don't want to think about software or disk drives crashing. Basically, I don't want to worry about saving or maintaining my data.

This, to me, is a revolution waiting to happen. What's going to push it over the edge is rethinking how we deal with one last legacy design: screen real estate.

Think about how much of your energy is expended managing the display. How much of your mouse movements are about rearranging windows or opening and closing things?

As these displays get a lot cheaper, and we're seeing that over the next five to 10 years, you're going to want to put a lot of them around.

This should change the focus of our user interface design; it makes the idea that we manage our own real estate completely wrong.

Instead I'd like to have a bunch of cheap displays everywhere, each designed to do a single task.

I'll go to a website to look at the weather and assign it to a certain display. Then I'll paste it up on the bathroom mirror.

Human-centred design

This integrates with my lifestyle. Going to a computer and clicking around a webpage does not. That kind of integration was not possible when computing was expensive, but more human-centred design is now possible.

Take a comparison between a Swiss army knife and a suite of kitchen tools as an example of something that's well designed.

If I really had to open a bottle of wine with a multitool, I would. But mostly, I'll have a corkscrew, a good chef's knife, scissors, and a nail file. Each one is a separate object, with incredibly simple interfaces. Each was designed for a specific purpose.

Rather than making our technologies increasingly complex to use, the same kind of design should be done on the technology we use.

There could be all kinds of computing behind something I use on a daily basis, but at basic level, that's not what I'm interested in. Instead I want an appliance that has a very well-defined and simple function.

Today we're asked to care about things that we really do not want to care about. I don't want the technology artefact or its management to be one of my objectives.

I want to turn on my TV, not update its software.

For me, all of this is more demanding from a design point of view.

I would say that there has been laziness or a lack of courage by some technology developers, because we could go and redesign our entire system of computing.

But to do that upsets a whole bunch of assumptions and even more technological ecosystems, like the software makers who sell us software to run on PCs.




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