Engineers strive to make technology truly useful

GOODBYE, HACKER HELLO, INVISIBLE COMPUTER

June 29, 1992|By Chicago Tribune

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- In the sunny precincts where personal computers and myriad other information technologies were pioneered, some people are focusing on making these appliances more useful.

Others seek to make them invisible.

It may seem a heresy in Silicon Valley, spiritual home to the computer nerd, but some researchers predict that hackers will fade from view, just as crystal-radio buffs did once commercial receivers became widely available.

At Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in California, the lab where personal computers were pioneered -- but not commercially exploited -- the goal is to move beyond desktops, laptops, notebooks and all such models to the day when computing is so widespread and easy that no one notices the technology at all.

They call the concept "ubiquitous computing."

"When a technology is new, it has an unnatural attraction for people," said Mark Weiser, head of PARC's computer science laboratory.

"It was that way when electricity first became commercially available. Vendors advertised electric soap flakes and underwear.

"Now it's computers, but it should pass. The problem with such fascination is that it puts blinders on. It causes computer people to think they're on the right track, that we should just do more of the same, only trying harder.

"What's needed is to step back and ask what do people really need, and that's what we're trying to do here."

Although PARC scientists admittedly take a long-range view, working toward a world that may take a decade to realize, some colleagues across town on the campus of Stanford University aim to help people squeeze more value out of information technology within the next few years.

They are trying to improve deployment of information technology, adapting it to the trend that decentralizes organizations to make them more flexible and productive.

Stanford researchers are building software that compares and analyzes the usefulness of voice mail, video conferencing and other technologies in a variety of organizational settings. The goal is to help enterprises use the best tools to perform work as quickly as possible while maintaining high quality.

"I certainly hope this leads to something commercially useful," said Raymond Levitt, the civil engineering professor heading the project. "I'm an engineer, not a philosopher."

The projects at Stanford and Xerox PARC are just two manifestations of a feeling that, somehow, the technological flood washing through American commerce for the last 10 or 15 years has yet to deliver the promised economies and efficiencies.

"The technology environment gets between us and our work as often as it helps us. It needs to be fixed," says Gerald Michalski, a vice president at New Science Associates.

Since the advent of personal computers, Mr. Michalski said, many workers produce more reports, do more mathematical calculations, and produce many more computer-generated projects than ever. But, he said, all this activity doesn't translate into more productivity.

For example, it is now common for a person first to print out a report, then experiment with different fonts to highlight certain parts of it -- not because it's necessary to do so, but because it's possible. A report that might have taken a morning to produce may now take all day, with the only improvement being that it may be prettier.

The Stanford project also focuses on using information technology to improve productivity.

A simulation program has found, for example, that voice mail can be useful to a decentralized organization, but can really cripple a centralized one in which many people must talk with a single person to get approvals as they proceed.

That boss will become a bottleneck if he or she comes to work to find 60 voice mail messages waiting, Stanford's Mr. Levitt said.

Written memos or electronic mail are better choices for communicating with such people, Mr. Levitt said.

Xerox's Mr. Weiser is working with anthropologists and sociologists to design and build tools that will help people work without calling attention to the technology. They have already built a large electronic drawing board on which someone can write, draw and scribble ideas for display to an audience, very much like the "white boards" common to corporate meeting rooms.

The difference is that this board has a memory -- and its contents can be printed out and distributed or sent electronically to anyone who wants them. In addition, people in the audience can use hand-held tools to write on the board from their seats to interact with the person using the board.

The goal is to build enough devices so that within a year or so Xerox research scientists will use the tools routinely and their value can be assessed in a working environment. Mr. Weiser may also place the tools in a workplace more akin to the real world.

Major computer firms such as IBM, Apple and Microsoft are oriented toward technology rather than toward truly useful applications, Mr. Weiser said.

"Even Apple's new development, Newton, isn't anything new," he said, referring to a prototype device the size of a videotape that will offer various software tools as well as remote communications. "It's still one person, one computer, with too much emphasis on the technology. Truly useful tools don't call attention to themselves. No one ever referred to his typewriter as a 'personal assistant.' "

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