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Posted: January 27, 2010

The rise of machines that do just one thing

But they do it very well

Thomas Frey

Over the past couple decades the World Wide Web has been growing by leaps and bounds with huge amounts of new data being added on an hour by hour basis. Accessing this information, however, has always required an interface device which has traditionally been the computer. A computer was a computer and for most of us if we had a screen and a keyboard we were good to go.

However, as gamers are quick to attest to, there are huge differences in the gadgets we use to interact with the data, and these gadgets often determines the speed, ease of use and even our willingness to interact with it.

Until recently, the push among device manufacturers has been to create one awesome super cool piece of equipment that could do everything, although nothing particularly well. That, however, began to change when Amazon and Sony started getting traction with their electronic book readers.

The reason book readers began to catch on was because they provided a better user experience. The way a person reads a book is vastly different than the way they interact with a computer. People who studied the humans-to-book interface realized that generic computers provided a rather poor book reading experience and that if a specialty device were to be constructed, it would open the doors to very niche marketing opportunities that were currently getting lost in all the noise of Web.

They concluded that the optimal book interface would have to be a book reader with a paper-like reading surface that allowed people to read for long periods of time while lying in bed or sitting on a plane without the slightest hint of eye strain. It needed to have wireless download capabilities, batteries that last as long as the person doing the reading, the flexibility of changing font sizes, making notes, marking up the pages, and saving the changes for later access. It had to be light and portable, and to really make serious inroads, it had to be less expensive than a computer.

With Amazon's success in selling the Kindle, others have been quick to jump onboard with their own book reader products. Recently my wife Deb and I visited several dozen of the companies who were launching new book reading gadgets at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.  What's most important to understand here is that Amazon didn't just create an opening for book readers. They proved a market for many other single use devices, provided they have a superior interface than multi-use devices.

With this idea in mind, I began to think through the world of possibilities, speculating on the next big idea for single use devices, and what the applications might be. I'm sure I'm only scratching the surface, but here are a few ideas that came to mind:

•Airline Booker: Travelers in airports have a tough time accessing the Web. Currently it is very difficult to use an iPhone or Blackberry to surf the web and make an airline reservation and airports tend to be a rather unfriendly setting for someone sporting a laptop. The trend here will be toward branded airline bookers with names like Travelocity, Orbitz, and Expedia taking the lead. Individual airlines like Southwest, United, and British Airways will be quick to follow, with some offering free devices to their "gold club" members.

•Day-Trader Portfolio Manager: People who have money to invest are often too busy to sit behind a computer monitoring the minute by minute changes in a stock. They need a device that is lightweight and portable with super fast access to specific pieces of data. Perhaps what's most critically important is a feeling of control where the user has the feeling that they are in command of any given situation. Again, look for branded devices to surface with names like Ameritrade, E*Trade, and Charles Schwab.

•Courseware Taker: Students immersed in online education know the current limitations of sitting behind a computer all day. And the people creating the courses know all the limitations of channeling a learnable experience through the Internet. People who carefully study the student-learning interface will quickly find hundreds if not thousands of ways to improve upon it. These improvements will then manifest themselves into a device that is lightweight, portable, and inexpensive, with book-reader screens and audio-video capabilities that allows students to do all the things they like to do on the side.

•Health Checkers: Our ability to understand the inner workings of our bodies is creating a greater need to monitor and manage certain conditions. Athletes in training, people with restrictive diets, and those with diabetes, heart problems, and other reoccurring conditions are all seeking more timely information as well as access to solutions, experts, and the location of nearby medical facilities should problems occur. As a way to extend their brand, look for HMOs and insurance companies to put their name on these devices to create a branded health experience. Future heath care companies will be judged by the devices they offer to their customers.
•Facebooker: Many social networkers don't want to be left out of a conversation, not even for a little

it. Devices for managing multiple accounts, allowing for quick audio and video segments to be both produced and reviewed, may unlock even larger audiences. Although some believe the world revolves around Facebook, the interface will also need to accommodate other social networking platforms like MySpace, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, and much more.

•Buyer-Seller Device: People who engage in online auctions know the importance of a timely bid. Others who are involved in buying and selling products online have an ongoing need to stay plugged in to the marketplace. As a way to separate themselves from the free services like Caigslist, look for Amazon and eBay to take the lead on this one.
Certainly there have been many single use devices in the past like pocket games, address books, and music players that have failed to get much traction. The difference here is the level of sophistication and the deep understanding of user interaction.

The advantage of a single use device is that it is less complicated, and far less distracting. It caters to the specific needs of an individual and helps focus their attention with a superior operator experience.

I should make one clarification though. Certain kinds of data require a unique and different interface. While I have been referring to them as single use devices, they can in fact be multiuse devices based on a newly established interface. The inputs and outputs will start out as industry specific applications, but additional applications may give end users far more latitude.

At CES it was very easy to imagine how existing components like keyboards, screens, and touchpads could be combined to make an entirely new device. Whether it has a flexible screen, head-mounted displays, flip-down lenses, or embedded Pico projectors, or the user requires a touch screen, gesture controls, or sensory monitoring components, the advantage will go to people who best understand the specific user interface.

In the end, the best device will be the one that is invisible to the user, an imperceptible doorway between the user and what they are hoping to accomplish. Final results far outweigh the look and feel of the metal and plastic clenched between one's fingers, but we have a few more evolutionary steps before the physical interface goes away.

PREDICTION:

•Within the next five years, dozens of new single use devices will hit the marketplace.

OPPORTUNITIES:

The biggest opportunities are for human factors researchers to carefully crystallize the critical element involved in each aspect of the human-data interface. Well-crafted interface storyboards will lead to well-designed next generation devices.

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Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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Readers Respond

What does the just today introduced iPad contribute to this discussion? Seems that Jobs could have invented all of the above listed single use devices just by switching apps. By Rick F on 2010 01 27

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