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Visions of the future

Thirteen years ago, Apple launched the iPad—the device that seemingly every technology journalist in the world was certain would be called the iSlate. This is handy, as it provides a ready-made search term for anyone interested in transporting themselves back to those days of fevered speculation of quite what such a device would do.

Even after its launch, I was certain that the iPad wasn’t for me. I wasn’t alone in thinking that the market for an oversized iPhone that didn’t even function as a phone would be minuscule. I was wrong. I’m typing this very post on one of the two iPads I used regularly, the third and fourth that I’ve owned.

Partly because of that experience, and partly because I’m older, I’ve reserved judgement as I’ve read the coverage of the launch of Apple’s Vision Pro. There’s another element, too: I can actually see a potential benefit in sitting at home and working with lots of different large computer screens without having to clutter up the house with hardware. It’s not worth the financial cost or the practical tradeoffs at this stage, but I can see a future for this kind of device that would work for me.

As so often, though, Benedict Evans’s writing on the subject widened my perspective. He makes the point that simply projecting 2D screens into 3D space is not really the point of ’spatial computing’—‘That’s cool, but it seems like using a desktop service on an iPhone. It’s not native to the experience. I can use an iPad for that.’

Evans says that the device is really for 3D work. I was—and still am, to a degree—sceptical that 3D is the future of everyday work. As he asks, ‘is our work 3D? Is your data 3D?’ I have strabismus and sometimes think that I barely see in three-dimensions to begin with, so my scepticism is, maybe, unsurprising.

But, ‘is that like looking at a colour monitor in the 80s and saying that your spreadsheets don’t need colour? Putting maps or messaging onto your phone changed where you used it and how it could be useful: what’s the equivalent for 3D?’

It was the ’spreadsheets’ line that got me. I remember being taught, in the 1990s rather than the 1980s, that one really ought not to use colour in spreadsheets. I’d forgotten all about that. These days, it’s entirely normal to see spreadsheets filled with colours: does a risk register even exist if it isn’t pasted into a spreadsheet with colour-filled RAG ratings, which the colourblind among us struggle to interpret?

I think, too, of PowerPoint presentations. These seem, in many cases, to hand supplanted Word documents as the preferred way to share lengthy text-based narratives. They’re not the logical nor most accessible option, but perhaps people find uses for the tools they’re given.

Perhaps in fifteen years’ time, the Vision Pro 15 will be as every day as iPads are today. Perhaps it will be de rigeur to present things in 3D, regardless of whether it’s actually the best approach for any given task. Or maybe the idea will fade away, like Google’s vision for Glass.

‘Of course, most people didn’t realise how big the iPhone would become, and conversely, some people thought that everyone would have a 3D printer. Predicting tech is hard, and predicting human behaviour is harder: we all do things every day that “no-one would ever do”.’

Well, quite.

The image at the top of the post is by Miyako Fujimiya.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, Technology, , , .

‘No’ meaning

Benedict Evans wrote an interesting blog post recently. It discussed why, when new regulations are passed, the tech industry’s first response is always negative. He made a wider point:

Whenever anyone proposes new rules or regulations, the people affected always have reasons why this is a terrible idea that will cause huge damage. This applies to bankers, doctors, farmers, lawyers, academics… and indeed software engineers. They always say ‘no’ and policy-makers can’t take that at face value: they discount it by some percentage, as a form of bargaining. But when people say ‘no’, they might actually mean one of three different things, and it’s important to understand the difference.

The three meanings are: that they just don’t like the change; that the change will have grave negative consequences that haven’t been understood; and that the change is misconceived and impossible to implement.

I think this is more generally applicable to the process of change, and that doctors are probably more likely to say “no” to change than other groups. Because it was a tech article, it made me think of times when tech changes had been imposed on my medical work.

I can think of two notable tech changes over my consultant career to date which I thought fell into the third category, but—when they were introduced anyway—turned out to fall into the first category.

I can also think of two which I thought fell into the third category, and where I turned out to be correct, and rollout was abandoned at the very last minute. In one case, this was even after staff members had been trained to use the new system. In the other, which was cancelled after it was supposed to have rolled out, I was vaguely threatened by someone saying “I’m not asking you to use this system, I’m instructing you to”—as though that made any difference to the fact that I could not have access to their system.

And this makes me reflect that perhaps, like so many things in life, the problem boils down to failures of communication. If the concerns I raised weren’t genuinely showstoppers, then I would have felt better about the rollout if someone had helped me to understand the flaw in my thinking. For the two which were showstoppers, perhaps a conversation along similar lines would have revealed that I wasn’t talking nonsense.

And, of course, that assumes that those performing the rollout have the time and resources available to have those conversations.

The image at the top of this post was generated by Midjourney.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, .

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