The Starfire video prototype, produced by Bruce Tognazzini and colleagues at Sun Microsystems, was explicitly conceived as a kind of response to Apple's Knowledge Navigator (described in my posting a couple of days ago).
But Starfire set itself a harder challenge by focusing on a scenario exactly ten years in the future (Knowledge Navigator was set some unspecified date at least twenty years in its future). Nine of those ten years have now elapsed, so the chickens are on their way home to roost. Starfire shows an even clearer case study of social and economic factors having hard-to-predict but easy-to-underestimate influence in shaping the development of user interface technologies.
The Starfire video is not available online (or offline at the time of writing), but you can read the full, annotated script, see a short clip, and read an account of the thinking behind it. Tognazzini is an entertaining and punchy writer, by turns ebullient and self-deprecating, so if you have time I'd also recommend Tog on Software Design and the earlier Tog on Interface. Unfortunately my copy of Tog on Software Design is inaccessible in a packing case at the moment, so I can't refer to it!
In his case history of the production of Starfire, Tognazzini notes how some aspects of the Knowledge Navigator scenario — such as the anthropomorphic interface agent I railed against previously — 'may not be approachable for 100 years.' He stresses that the Starfire team continually questioned whether each object or action could be accomplished in ten years on a real computer, and they based their work on technologies that they could either build in 1994 or that were well launched in laboratories around the world at the time.
But it seems pretty clear that only a small proportion of the hardwire or the software in Starfire will be widely in use twelve months from now.
What's perhaps most depressing is that some of the best visionary usability ideas were good enough to inspire small steps towards them — but those steps have since been abandoned. You could (if you were a little generous!) see Apple's eWorld as a move towards rich visualisation of information spaces, of the kind used by Starfire's heroine, but look what happened to that two years after its 1994 launch.
More substantially Tognazzini was a great evangelist for what he and others called 'document-centred' computing. He argued that the 'application-centred' approach was a historical design accident brought about by early PCs' limitations of RAM, which have been irrelevant for many years. In the document-centred approach you can take a single document or file and use whatever favourite application does the job (text, graphics, calculation, multimedia) that you want to do on that document. The advantages of this were well understood, and steps were made with Apple's OpenDoc technology, incorporated into its ClarisWorks software suite. Yet OpenDoc too was abandoned in 1997.
The problem with these improvements is that the real benefits come only when the technologies — rich visualisation, full document-centred computing, or seamless gestural interfaces — are in place, mature, and supported by the social and economic infrastructure of the marketplace. While they are young, new and different, they are vulnerable. Especially in the ICT marketplace of the last ten years where battles have been won more by big players throwing their weight around (or should that be "leveraging their installed customer base"?). This is a variant on the idea of what economists call a 'network effect,' for which I refer you to people like Phil Agre, who understand and write about such things better than me!
I'd like to know what Tog things, but I'm probably too shy to ask him.Posted by David Jennings in section(s) Human-Computer Interaction on 4 November 02003 | TrackBack