I was dusting my bookshelves last weekend – which some could argue must only be a yearly event for me – and found myself waxing nostalgic over Donald Norman’s “The Invisible Computer“. Written in 1998, I thought it might be interesting to re-read what he thought the personal computer needed and whether his wishes/predictions have come true 12 years later.

I studied under Dr. Norman for my Cognitive Science degree at UCSD. His POET (Psychology of Everyday Things) manuscript was the text for his Human Factors classes, which later became the book “The Design of Everyday Things“. “The Invisible Computer” is his followup which bypassed the analysis of door handles and cooktops and instead focused on the need for “information appliances” in this high-tech age.

I’m about halfway through the re-read, but already it strikes me that Dr. Norman must undoubtedly be an iPhone user. I believe the iPhone embodies his “converging interests and technologies of communication, computation, and entertainment”. True to form, adoption of the iPhone has been less about the technology itself and more about the social impact and cultural change, I’m guessing much to his own satisfaction.

Almost immediately upon introduction, the iPhone had reached the transition point where the device met the basic needs of the average user to become a consumer-centric (rather than technology-centric) product. There was practically no early adopter phase, as the phone quickly became utilitarian and adaptable for many uses – music, communications, gaming platform, life coach. It’s a compass, a carpenter’s level, and oh yeah, a phone(!) in a convenient tool that adapts to the task rather than a complex machine that forces people to use it on its own terms. Sure the iPhone is still a computer, but it makes people forget this. It is the prototypical “invisible computer”, a true information appliance.

I’m sure there would be some aspects of the UI that he does not like, and he would probably want email, voice, and SMS to all be managed within the same application so that the act of communicating became more about the task than the technology. And of course he dislikes the term “application” and would probably prefer the Apple commercials to tout “there’s an activity-space for that”. But still I think he might be pleased overall, and possibly even an avid user.

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