The Changing User Interface - InformationWeek

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9/2/2005
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The Changing User Interface

We spend a lot of time staring at PCs, cell phones, and Web pages. It's high time vendors improved the view.

Jeff Pierce, an associate computer-science professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, sits in his Atlanta office flanked by an array of computers arranged in a U-shape before him. To his right is a PC that runs specialized software he needs to write a grant proposal that's due this afternoon. Next to that machine is a Tablet PC running a version of Windows that lets him take notes by digital pen without lugging a laptop, and whose battery lasts for several hours. At the far end of the U is a Macintosh laptop for reading E-mail--Pierce likes the Mac's user interface and security.

But if he wants to work on the same project on the different machines, things quickly devolve into an elaborate dance of E-mails, key-chain-sized storage gadgets, and backup software. "They're all mine, but none of them knows about the others," Pierce says.

If users could better coordinate their computers to deliver information to the machine at hand, it could improve usability. Giving computer users better ways of interacting with hardware and software is gaining importance as users try to organize a rapidly growing number of digital files and as companies try to use their Web sites to make their brands stand out from the crowd.

The next wave of Windows could change what's graphically possible on a PC. Sophisticated Web sites already respond with the snap and immediacy of PC software, dispensing with annoying page refreshments. And new research from Pierce and others is blurring the lines between PCs, PDAs, and cell phones, which in the future could contain the power of today's desktops. "You've seen renewed interest in people trying to build richer user experiences," says Charles Fitzgerald, a general manager at Microsoft.

To make sense of the changes coming in the user interfaces for the machines we use every day, InformationWeek looked at a handful of new technologies that are altering the look of PCs, the Web, and the computing-capable cell phone. Then we looked at ideas for tying them all together. The computing world is becoming more diffuse, but, with any luck, the way we interact with it could congeal.

Illustration by Harry Campbell

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