Wayne MacPhail
The Post-it note and the computer

| March 23, 2016
Photo: Michael Arrighi/flickr

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Back in 1991, I read an article in Scientific American called "The Computer for the 21st Century." It was written by Mark Weiser, the head of the Computer Science Laboratory at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. 

A decade earlier, that same lab had pioneered the graphic user interface, networked computers and an early version of the mouse.

But, in this article, Weiser was imagining a world in which computers were anything but front and centre in our lives. He and his colleagues were exploring what he called "ubiquitous computing" -- computing in which there were a hundred computers in every room. Some, he called tabs, would be the sizes of scraps of paper or Post-it notes. Others, pads, would act like notebooks, and the largest, as interactive smart boards. Some would fade into the background, or at least, to the periphery of our awareness, the way the text on book spines and the wording on notices in a coffee shop do.  

At the time, most computers ran MS-DOS or, if you had a Mac, OS7. Laptops were as portable as patio stones. Hard drives were measured in megabytes and home computers got on the Internet via screeching, painfully slow modems and phone lines. The World Wide Web was a year away. 

So it was hard for me and other readers of Weiser's article to believe that we would litter our workspaces and homes with almost disposable computers. 

In Weiser's world, the tabs, pads and boards would communicate invisibly with each other. The tiny tabs might just be ID badges that tracked a user. Pads were more like today's tablets. 

But rather than a pad being dedicated to a single user, Weiser's devices were communal property and could display different sets of information depending on who was in proximity, as indicated by the tab the person was wearing. 

Weiser used the metaphor of the motor to explain his vision of computer evolution. He pointed out that a turn-of-the-19th-century factory would have been driven by a single motor, delivering power to tools via pulleys and long leather belts. But, the invention of small electric motors meant that each station could have its own motor, hidden inside the tool itself. In other words, the motors became ubiquitous and all but invisible. 

On the other hand, Weiser rejected the metaphor of a computer screen as a desktop. Instead, he imagined a real desktop littered with tabs and pads that could display and swap information easily. 

And, he considered the world of virtual reality as the polar opposite of his vision. In VR, the real world is replaced with a wholly imaginary space. There is no periphery, the computer display is everything. 

I remember being fascinated by Weiser's vision. And now I find I'm starting to live it. I have nine devices at home that would count as pads, tabs and boards -- from my Apple Watch to my tablets and Kindle to my LCD TV attached to an Apple TV. 

Each of my tablets can easily pass information to another. My smartwatch is the equivalent to Weiser's tab, a small, personal screen that knows who and where I am at all times.

When I'm working on a report or column, like this, I may have my phone, my tablet and my watch in play. Sometimes I use my iPad as a second screen for my laptop. And, with Continuity in the El Capitan version of OSX, I can pick up where I left off in one application on another Apple device. 

My Kindle is a dedicated e-ink device that, while not cheap when I bought it, is now old enough to almost be disposable.

And Microsoft's continuum functionality in Windows 10 mobile allows smartphones to convert any monitor into a personal PC. 

But, we are not at the point where our screens disappear into the background. Quite the opposite, in fact. But, for me, and I suspect many others, our tabs, pads and boards are replacing paper, laptops and desktops. The computers we take for granted, in our microwaves, thermostats, clocks and cameras, have become, like motors, the invisible engines of modern life.

I thought of Weiser today because I have just purchased an iPad Mini to complement my iPad Pro. A friend on Facebook asked me, "Why do you need two iPads?" Weiser would suggest that's like asking, "Why do you need Post-it notes, scratch pads and legal sized paper?"

Listen to an audio version of this column, read by the author.

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for on technology and the Internet.

Photo: Michael Arrighi/flickr

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