Bill Buxton strikes again

A few weeks ago, I saw Bill Buxton give a talk at UW for the Puget Sound SIGCHI meeting.

The main takeaway for me was Buxton’s call to study and learn from the history of design. “Know the good parts of history and what to cherry pick from it.” For example, the original set of five-color iPods took many design cues from an early consumer camera product line. “[Apple design chief] Jonathan Ive knows the history.”

Buxton showed photos of what he called the first educational technology device: the PLATO IV from 1972. It included graphical output and a touch screen, and was apparently put in schools all over Illinois. The similarities to the iPad are striking. He demoed a watch from 1984 that includes a touch surface capable of doing character recognition on decimal digits. It sold for just $145 (in today’s dollars). Buxton also took a look at the first real smartphone: the “Simon” from 1993. It is shockingly similar to the iPhone, complete with a row of app icons on the home screen. The only app “missing” is a web browser (the html web was still a research novelty in 1993).

There were many other examples which I didn’t note specifically, many of them MIT Media Lab prototypes published in SIGGRAPH. Buxton also pointed the audience to archive.org for more, such as a video on input devices in 1988.

The second takeaway was Buxton’s theory of the “long nose”: it takes about 20 years to go from an idea to a $1 billion industry. In other words, “Any technology that is going to have significant impact over the next 10 years is already at least 10 years old.” So the important act of innovation is not the “lightbulb in the head” but rather picking out the correct older ideas that haven’t yet hit the elbow of the exponential curve. When change is slow, humans don’t tend to notice; but you can counteract that by explicitly measuring the change as technology progresses. What are the technologies invented 20 years ago that are about to become huge?

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