Few terms convey less meaning than “futurist.” What exactly is a futurist? What does he do? The definition, so far as I chose to apply it, is simple: a futurist looks at the present, at human behavior and human tendencies, to imagine how these trends develop. This is less science than storytelling; the development of any human endeavor is fraught with non-linear events, which yank the arrow of the progress this way and that. One can never know the future with any precision, and the farther the future recedes down the light-cone, the less distinct it becomes. We might know with high accuracy what will happen tomorrow. But five years from now, or twenty? That’s more alchemy than anthropology.
Yet, in order to play the game, futurists must make predictions. It’s what we do. So, for those few futurists who are willing to take the big risks of making short-term predictions – ranging from twelve to thirty-six months in the future – the game is particularly dangerous. Any futurist can predict what will come to pass in twenty years’ time, because no one will remember how wrong they were. But to make a prediction for the near term risks being revealed as a charlatan. Such predictions must be considered carefully, revealed hesitantly, and pronounced provisionally. Doing that will give you an out later on. Yet I have never been one to be either hesitant or provisional; I leap in where braver (and, arguably wiser) souls fear to tread. My particular brand of futurism – the “futurest” – is expansive, encompassing, and uncompromisingly revolutionary. I say this not to tout my strengths, but rather, to reveal the dangers.
In the early 1990s I predicted that VR would become the standard interface metaphor for computers by the 21st century. Did I get that right? It seems not; after all, we still use windows and mice as standard the interaction paradigm, just as we did back in 1990. Yet, if we can draw anything from the recent and somewhat surprisingly successful introduction of the Nintendo Wii, it’s that VR did arrive, is pervasive, and has become a dominant interface metaphor. Just not on the computer desktop. VR isn’t about head-mounted displays, although it might have seemed so, fifteen years ago. VR is about bringing the body into contact with the simulated world. Nintendo, with its clever, cheap, attractive and highly functional Wiimote, has done just that. They’ve done what decades of other researchers and engineers failed to do: they’ve brought us into the game. So predictions might come to pass, but rarely do they come in the form imagined. But every so often, when you step up to the plate, you connect completely, and knock one out of the park.
In early December 2005 I was invited to give a plenary presentation to the Australian conference on Interaction and Entertainment Design. This was one of the rare opportunities I get to talk on any subject I desired. Most of these academics wanted to talk about the latest trends in gaming and online communities; having been through that, and more, a decade ago, I decided to take the conversation in an entirely different direction, by focusing on that most common of our electronic peripherals, the mobile phone.
So common as to be nearly invisible, the mobile phone has become the focal point of our social existence. Yet, despite its constant presence, the mobile seemed poorly fit to the task of being our perpetual servant. It seemed stuck in an liminal position, between the wired world and the pervasive networked environment which is the global reality of the 21st century. The mobile was broken, and needed to be fixed. Hence, working with Angus Fraser, my graduate student – who, on his own, has had years of experience developing interfaces and applications for mobile phones – I wrote “The Telephone Repair Handbook”. I started off by challenging the audience to answer three questions:
- Q: Why does a mobile phone have a keypad? We never use it.
A: Because wired phones have keypads. And so we can enter text. Badly.
- Q: How many networks are our mobile phones really connected to?
A: The answer is generally at least three: GPRS/GSM, Bluetooth and IrDA.
- Q: What are our phones doing all the time they’re idle?
A: Nothing. They’re just waiting for a phone call or a text message to make their day.
These basic failures in the design of the mobile phone, I argued, arose from our fundamental misunderstanding of the function of the device. Mobile phones are not simply passive terminals, waiting to be activated. They are (or rather, should be) active communications processors, managing the minutiae of our social relationships.
Once I’d set up the straw men, and knocked them down, I described a new kind of mobile phone, designed from the outset to be a communications servant, a nexus which tracked, facilitated and recorded all of the social interactions happening through it, or, via Bluetooth, proximal to it. And, because I can code, I demonstrated the very first version of Blue States, a small Java J2ME application which allowed mobile phones to note and record the presence of other Bluetooth devices in their immediate proximity. This information, I insisted, could be come the foundation of an emergent social network. The mobile, at all times with you, or nearby, knows your social life better than you do. When exposed, and analyzed, this data becomes a powerful tool. Angus and I worked up a few user scenarios to demonstrate our point: the mobile can be so much more. All it needs is the right software. I finished by encouraging this room of researchers to re-invent the mobile phone, to make it the digital social secretary, the majordomo, and grand vizier.
A month after I gave that presentation, I left my teaching position, and began coding, full-time, on Blue States, readying it for its first deployment, at ISEA San Jose. As an art project at an art festival, it might influence the creative minds of electronic artists. Perhaps they would begin to pervert their own mobile phones, transforming them into something entirely more useful.
As it turns out, I didn’t have to wait for the artists to catch up with me. For it seems that even as I was beginning my research work, more than two years ago, and formulating my theories on the future of the mobile telephone, another group of researchers set to the same task, and came to many of the same conclusions.
Yesterday, on a stage in San Francisco, Steve Jobs, CEO of the now-renamed Apple, Inc., introduced the iPhone, Apple’s much-rumored and long-awaited convergence device. Three things must be noted as essential to the design:
- It has no keyboard.
- It is connected to wireless internet, Bluetooth and GPRS/EDGE networks simultaneously, and moves between each seamlessly.
- It has a sophisticated operating system, and is constantly executing several tasks at once. It is never truly idle.
The iPhone is a combination of an iPod and a mobile telephone, and these elements have been fused together with a fingertip-based user interface to make the device nearly as tactile and natural as any familiar object. It is a mobile phone, but it has – finally and rationally – lost its vestigial connections to the wired phone. It is not simply a wireless phone; it is a network terminal, with all that implies. That it has a true operating system – instead of the “toy” operating systems of earlier mobile phones, which are cranky, and which crash all too often – means that programmers can harness the capabilities of the device wholly, taking it into directions that its creators at Apple never intended. This is not simply an iPod, or a mobile phone, but a complete redefinition of the device. This, quite simply, is the future, as I predicted it, thirteen months ago.
Will the iPhone succeed? No one yet knows. The device is both new enough and different enough that significant changes in user behavior must follow in its wake. Like the Macintosh with its Graphical User Interface, this transformation might take a decade to become the dominant interaction paradigm. Or – given the level of hype and excitement seen in the media in the last twenty-four hours – it might be the right device, at the right time. It may be that Apple has told the world not only why the telephone must be reinvented, but has show it how it should be done. If they have, the iPhone will make the iPod look like a weak overture. Copies and clones will proliferate, skirting to the edge of every one of Apple’s two hundred iPhone patents. And people will begin to have very different expectations for their mobile phones.
While the iPhone both excites and dazzles me with its ingenuity, design and inventiveness, I am not completely satisfied with it. It is still a phone, an iPod, and an “internet communicator” rolled into one. It is not, in any true sense, wholly integrated. There is no way for my friends in San Francisco, with their iPhones, to know what my favorite songs are, or what I’m listening to at the moment, or what I’m reading on the web, or who I’m texting. It is halfway to the social device which I see as the inevitable end point. But the rest is just software. The hardware platform is there, ready and waiting, and will be disrupted by a dozen innovations that no one can yet predict. But I do predict they will happen, in the next twelve to thirty-six months.