The number of ‘digital’ screens we view every day and the sheer amount of diverse content we consume through those screens can feel overwhelming at times. How our experiences of those screens and the content we consume through them (more the latter, as screens may become antiquated) are brought together, consolidated and streamlined is the great frontier of innovation in technological development and user interface design, I believe.
The unification of experience is the term I’ll use to describe the unrealized ideal of a trend toward the coalescence of our experiences through those screens (though I’ll limit the discussion to ‘digital’ screens, as opposed to traditional ‘screens’ like book pages and canvases).
The screens I personally interact with regularly are: my personal laptop, my netbook, my personal monitor, the other personal monitor/LCD my friend loaned me, my work laptop, my work monitor, various other screens I use at work (the LCDs I use on the walls of meeting rooms and the projector in the screening room), my smart phone, and the TV in my living room.
I admit, though — I probably interact with a lot more screens than the average person. Still, according to recent research by the Council for Research Excellence (recently cited by CBS), “The average American adult now spends 8-1/2 hours a day staring into screens.” That’s not an insignificant amount of time, and chances are that those interactions aren’t limited to a single screen.
As both the number of screened devices people use and the time they spend with those devices increases, the unification of experience becomes an increasingly important idealization of a trend — and one that the titans of media and technology are seeking to attain at an ever faster clip through varying strategies and tactics.
3 Approaches That Could Work
While there are a host of innovators aiming to attain the unification of experience through myriad tacks, there are only a few avenues that I think are truly viable. Even these, though, are harried by obstacles that lead me to believe it’s unlikely that any single one of these strategies will ever have the opportunity to fully succeed.
The Cloud, Ubiquitous Broadband & Inter-Operable Languages. Companies like VMWare, Cisco and IBM (among others) are laying the groundwork for a computing future in ‘the cloud’, while the FCC pushes policies to expand the scope and speed of broadband coverage in the United States. These trends, in tandem with development and dissemination of inter-operable computer languages, could be factors that facilitate the perfect storm of tech that would ultimately lead to (something like) the unification of experience naturally. Simply put, the cloud provides an external place where programs, content and even computing can live, while users are free to move from device to device and have similar experiences that are delivered via the internet. Think Google Apps, but broader. The adoption of a singular inter-operable language (which is dominating certain niches of cross-platform communication — e.g., Flash vs HTML5), while less likely, would augment the cloud and broadband’s strides toward the unification of experience.
A Closed Ecosystem of Devices, Software & Experiences. Undoubtedly, the company most successful at executing this strategy is Apple. Their “walled apple grove” is both beautiful and verdant. Their hardware, software, virtual shopping experiences and developer community — while aggravating to many competitors and developers — has created an unparalleled attempt at taking on the unification of experience single-handed. The problem: there are competitors that are coming out with comparably awesome experiences. Their barrier for creating a similarly closed ecosystem? — They’re not as cool. Don’t count competition out, though. Companies like Samsung are going to give Apple a run for their (heaping pile of) money.
Cross-Platform programs that Bridge Devices and Share Content. While many of these types of programs (e.g., Google’s many online apps) reside in the cloud, there are a host of ‘hybrid’ programs (downloadable programs, online portals, mobile interfaces) that allow devices to communicate and share content among each other seamlessly and with little thought for users (other than using them). Among my favorites are Evernote and Dropbox; sadly, I have yet to see All Share (on my Samsung Epic 4G) work in action, though it seems to have a lot of potential. Less ambitious programs like Gmote are also tackling the unification of experience, though in much smaller bites.
Barriers to Unity
Privacy, Security & Cultural Backlash: With data, content and operable capabilities flowing from device to device, it’s no wonder that attaining the unification of experience is fraught with security and privacy issues. User access, compliance with regulations and figuring out where data resides are among the many security challenges, for example, that cloud computing faces, according to Gartner Research. Google and Facebook are the most publicized villains in the ever-growing debate over online privacy. Truth be told, though, it’s a broader cultural question — with vast differences across nations — that pits one of the fastest growing areas of business (how companies wield data) against traditional cultural mores about privacy. How this will play out remains to be seen.
A Competitive Market & Fragmented Innovation. The nature of a competitive market gives rise to the fragmentation of technological innovation (as a result of differing business models). Not every company can be Apple, but many will try their damnedest to break the efficacy of Apple’s business model and introduce disruptive innovations that prevent them and others like them from gaining too great an advantage in any one of the aforementioned strategic areas. The result is a ‘king of the hill’ approach toward playing in this space. But, if businesses can find mutual benefits from helping each other win (as many are already doing — e.g. Sony, Intel and Google with GoogleTV) we may be looking at a more unified future.
I initially wanted to include a piece about ‘pervasive computing,’ which is, in many ways, of the same ilk of idealized trends as the unification of experience. But, for the sake of brevity (yes, I realize this post is long), I’ll leave you with a salient quote from IBM’s W.S. Ark and T. Selker:
“Part of the beauty of pervasive computing is that we will not even realize that it is here, once it has become a necessary part of our lives. In the future it will often be invisible, and the user interface will be intuitive. The other important part of the story is that it will all be networked. Data, once entered, will never have to be entered again, but will be readily available whenever and wherever needed.”
Regardless of whether unification of experience or pervasive computing is attainable, is it a reality we want? Do we really want to be that ‘jacked in’? I leave you with this video, which one of my colleagues sent me with the note: “If this is the future, shoot me now.”