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3/29/2004
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SPRING CONFERENCE: Making Computers Adapt To People

Yake University professor David Gelernter says it's time that computers adapt to users, rather than the other way around.

Thanks to software with roots in the 1970s, people conform to meet the needs of the computer system. But the day is sure to come when computers adapt to the people.

That was the theme of Monday's presentation at the InformationWeek Spring Conference when David Gelernter, professor of computer science at Yale University, took the stage. "Most users could care less about new features," Gelernter said. "Our core software to manage personal information hasn't budged in 20 years."

Gelernter couldn't say when computers would adapt to us, but laid out the four fatal flaws of the current computing model. First, the file system forces us to think organizationally, when few people want to be that way. It forces us to file things in a very rigid way. Next, the desktop interface lacks power, makes it hard to wipe out images, and renders any information unused if it's not an icon on-screen. Third is the mailer, where spam is a federal case, but we can identify and toss out junk mail within seconds. Last, Web sites lack any sense of history and scope, making wandering around them "a drag."

Looking ahead, he said, files, desktop, mail, and the Web should exist as Cyberpools, or one big Cyberpool, and all information, across multiple machines should always be in the pool. Gerstner was asked one follow-up question, about the need to delete information at some point. "Deleting and managing that takes time and storage costs essentially go down to zero," he said. "Time is the one resource I care about the most."

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