One thing I really like about social networks is how they allow me to follow the pioneers of the computer industry. I think we have an under appreciation for those who came before, who created and built the hardware and designed and developed the software that today we take for granted. For example, Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston developed the reason why business people had to have an Apple II, that is they created the first spreadsheet program called Visicalc.
So, it was with great interest that I read Bricklin’s latest article in which he writes about his thoughts on the culture that gave birth to the personal computer. Bricklin wrote the article in reaction to a draft chapter for a book being written by Walter Isaacson on the innovators of the digital age. Issacson wrote the popular book about Steve Jobs, but is not considered to be an industry insider.
Bricklin disagrees with Isaacson’s premise that the initial vision for computing was for personal use but that it quickly evolved into computing for industrial and military use. Bricklin says that Isaacson asserts that computing did not return to the original personal use vision until some “hippie, anti-establishment renegades brought it back.”
Rather than renegades taking up the cause for personal computers, Bricklin believes personal use was always part of the vision. Science fiction, Bricklin says, probably had more influence on the vision than LSD and anti-establishment sentiment.
Bricklin also cites the influence of early hobbyist magazines like Byte, Kilobaud, Creative Computing, and Dr. Dobbs. Indeed, my own interest in personal computers was fueled by reading Byte magazine in the early 80s, and I am not the only person who fancies himself a technology writer because they were inspired by Jerry Pournelle’s Chaos Manor column in Byte magazine. Chaos Manor was all about personal computers.
Lower prices, says Bricklin, is what ultimately enabled personal use of computing:
The advance wasn’t because of a change in attitude. The change was the economic availability. All along the way in research institutions around the world people were using expensive computers for ‘personal’ use, exploring what could eventually become common.
The culture that gave rise to the personal computer was the long-held belief in a computer as a tool for everyone and the culture of engineering constantly improving on what we have.
Google is one company in which the culture that Bricklin refers to is still thriving today. In an article on TechCrunch titled “Google Wants To Build The Ultimate Personal Assistant” we learn more about Google’s vision for search and its evolution towards a personal assistant.
Said differently, Google is striving to make computing more personal. It’s “all about making all your tasks as you go through the day simpler and quicker.” How we use computing will evolve from interaction with screens, keyboards, and mice to voice commands. We already see the interaction evolving in Android phones with the Active Listening feature of the Moto X and Nexus 5 (“Ok Google”), Google Glass (“Ok Glass”), and Microsoft’s Xbox One.
Today, we can tell computers what to do by initiating a voice command, but tomorrow that interaction will take the form of a conversation. Again, we already see a bit of this in Google’s latest voice search where you can follow up an initial question, “Where is the Detroit Institute of the Arts?” with the question “How long does it take to drive there?” and Google understands that by “there” you mean the Detroit Institute of the Arts.
Personal computing is not just about a conversation between man and machine, Google believes that the ultimate personal assistant has to anticipate our needs. Today Google Now uses information we allow it access to, email in Gmail and search history, to present information without having to initiate the request. In the screen shot you see how Google is providing me additional info that it thinks is useful to me, information about a shipment coming to me from Amazon and a book by an author I recently searched for on the Internet.
Taken together, I think Bricklin’s article and the TechCrunch article show the evolution of a personal computer as a tool, used either at work or at home, to the evolution of real personal computing, the mashup of hardware, software, and network, that is always available to us and anticipates our needs. Oh, and to Bricklin’s point about science fiction, am I the only one that is hoping that Google knows Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics?