24 November 2010

From computing to consuming

By Professor Leon Sterling

People’s understanding of computers and computing has changed markedly over the past 60 years since the first electronic computer was built.

The early image of a computer from the 1950s was a large electronic brain capable of performing complicated calculations. A later image, which emerged after the widespread adoption of the IBM PC in the 1980s, was a tool for business and processing written documents and spreadsheets.

In the 1990s with the emergence of the first commercial Internet browsers, computers became an essential item in most homes. They are primarily seen as a communications and edutainment hub, allowing email, photos, music, and more recently, social networking with Facebook, videos on YouTube, and phone calls with Skype.

This article considers a new image of computing – the computer as a consumption device, corresponding with the emergence of the iPad earlier this year and smart phones over the past three years.
Those fortunate enough to use an iPad, such as myself, typically became enamoured at the easy way of consuming media, be it music, videos, maps, books, or the vast treasure trove of information that is the Internet.

There are specialised devices for many of its purposes, such as mp3 players for music, navigation devices for maps, readers for e-books, digital photo frames for pictures, and browsers for the Internet. However, having all of these capabilities in a single, elegant, well-designed, easy-to-use device is irresistible.

There are three major factors that have brought us to this new image of computing. The first is people’s increasing use of social media and the need to associate it with fashion. The second is new modes of interaction with devices such as using touch and finger swipes in preference to keyboards. The third is the app store with the rapid dissemination of cheap applications.

Apple devices have played a pioneering role in each of these factors.

Apple computers have been masters in design, and with the iPod, technology devices reached a new status as a fashion statement. Earphones were to be seen and the white earphones for the iPod became a symbol. It marked a trend that not only are you what you eat and what you wear, you are what gadget you use. There is social pressure to be trendy, expressed through technology devices. IT devices are now for fashionable people as well as geeks and techies.

The second factor is ease of use with a minimum of moving parts and no instruction manual. The iPod was a pioneer in providing a simple interface which proved very easy for the younger generation and spread remarkably quickly.

Ease of use was taken to another level with the introduction of the iPhone. Swiping fingers rather than tapping keyboards also proved easy to learn and to use.

Indeed children as young as two and three can readily interact with games on the iPhones and have much fun. Children often adapt more quickly than their parents.

Expanding and contracting pictures by changing the distance between thumb and forefinger was a pioneering idea which users have found intuitive. Finger movements and gestures have continued with the release of the iPad and contributed to its success.

The App Store has been a runaway success. It opened in 2008, building on the model of the iTunes store for selling music. Two years later, there are over 300,000 applications and over seven billion downloads.

For consumers, it is incredibly easy to buy an application. And the low pricing of applications encourages people to download even if they are unsure whether the application will be useful.
There is new social behaviour to swap applications or discuss a new find, just as you would discuss a bargain at a shopping centre.

For an application developer, the App Store also provides an excellent distribution channel. There is a very low barrier for a software developer to cross to be able to sell their product and Apple has done a good job of monitoring quality to ensure positive consumer experience.

Interestingly the low cost creates a challenge for application developers to grab people’s attention. Reportedly more than 90 per cent of uses of apps last less than a minute using the application, so it has to be fast to load and instantly grab attention.

The convergent nature of the iPhone, released in 2007, has radically changed people’s expectations. People use phones for far more things, ironically not primarily for making phone calls.
Other technology companies are following in Apple’s footsteps. Several new tablet platforms have been announced. Google has developed the Android phone with an associated app store, and has been encouraging people to view their phone as a consumption device.

The iPad has won several awards as the technology device for 2010. So, employees are demanding that their organisations issue them iPads and iPhones often instead of the previous corporate standard such as a Blackberry.

Computerworld summarised the uptake of these new devices as the consumerisation of IT, and labelled it as one of 2010’s top 10 technology trends.

Of course, having consumer devices raises many concerns about security and privacy which will be addressed in the coming years. In the meantime, compute, consume and enjoy.

Professor Leon Sterling is the Dean, Faculty of Information and Communication Technologies at Swinburne University of Technology, Australia.