Why we’re wrong about the phone of the future

I recently read a fine article in the Atlantic called iPhone 5? Yawn. What Will the ‘Phone’ of 2022 Look Like? It does a good job of summaring what some engineers and designers believe will be next. It’s a fun and inspiring read.

The problem is the odds are very good we’re all wrong.

The trap is when we think about the future, we assume the best idea wins. This is a myth of innovation: it’s chapter 8 in the book. The quality of the ideas involved is certainly a factor, but often not the most important one.

Consider how many human interfaces throughout history were chosen:

  • Silverware
  • The QWERTY keyboard
  • Car steering wheels and gas/brake pedals
  • Doorknobs / handles
  • Bathroom faucets
  • Electrical outlets

These paradigms became standard primarily because they were the idea in use at a key time in the development of the technology. Better ideas came along later, but it didn’t matter. It was either too expensive, too hard to teach, or there was no market incentive to drive a shift to something new. So no change came.

Odds are very good we will have many of the same UI paradigms a decade, or even a century, from now. (the motion detection bathroom faucets are an interesting counter example, but they’re not dominant and they may be more annoying than they’re worth).

And when change does come it will likely be not because of some master plan to make a better phone, or a better outlet. It will be because an entirely new concept comes along that disrupts the very idea of these devices, and that change will likely bring along with it entirely new flaws that were impossible to predict at the time, but that we’ll be stuck with for much longer than anyone expects.

Also see: The future of UI will be boring



3 Responses to “Why we’re wrong about the phone of the future”

  1. Steven B. Levy

    The QWERTY myth has been debunked numerous times. The only studies of Dvorak keyboards have been done by those with an interest in selling them; other studies show that the two layouts offer equivalent speed and no difference in ease of learning. Granted, QWERTY was a response to a specific need with very early typewriters, but it’s proven no worse than the alternatives. In other words, better ideas did not come along… until very recently.

    Now we can dictate (with small success except in areas with limited universes of discourse, such as forensic pathology), or Swype (which used the QWERTY layout, but that might change), or…?

    Sign me,
    Etaoin Shrdlu*

    (*The keyboard layout on linotype machines, in order of letter frequency as understood at the time)

    1. Scott Berkun

      There are several myths about QWERTY but I wasn’t referring to them actually. As you mention, I was only trying to say that early typewriters designs weren’t thinking that much about human factors. By the time anyone starts to think hard about human factors, it’s often too late to do much about it.

      DVORAK does, at least, hypothetically, have legitimacy for reducing repetitive stress, as it does a better job of distributing frequently used keys to the home rows where less movement is required. Most of the debate focuses on speed but that’s not the only consideration.

  2. Sean Crawford

    Indeed, a published fantasy writer, a swift touch-typist, switched to DVORAK due to joint pain. I myself have made the switch a few years ago, as I anticipate joint pain some day. I suspect my speed is still a little slower than before but I can’t say, as I learned on my new non-beveled apple keyboard that another published sf author has said is slower.

    As of a few years ago, there is no off-the-shelf software for timing (or teaching) DVORAK.


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