Tognazzini Will Keynote UniForum '95

Bruce Tognazzini, distinguished engineer at SunSoft, will deliver the morning keynote address on the final day (Mar. 16) of UniForum '95 in Dallas. Other keynote speakers for the conference are Robert Frankenberg, CEO of Novell, and Edward McCracken, CEO of Silicon Graphics.

"Tog" is best known for his work on the graphical user interface (GUI) for the Apple II and Macintosh. In 1992 he left Apple Computer after 14 years for SunSoft, where he is responsible for the design of Sun's future "human interface."

The topic of his address will be "The Coming Quality Revolution." Tognazzini recently gave UniNews a preview of it and talked about related issues.

"The next decade will see computers reaching an unprecedented level of integration," he says. "Applications will cease to exist, in favor of toolsets and integrated documents. E-mail, voice mail, telephone, and video conferencing will all fold into a single integrated communications system. People will have a single personal information space that will be with them no matter where they are."

Evangelizing the Programmer

To achieve this dramatic change obviously will require much technical innovation. For users the change will be reflected in the interface, which must become simpler in inverse proportion to the increase in capability it offers to users. As an interface designer, Tognazzini finds himself having to remind programmers of this necessity.

"The conventional thinking in computer science was and to a great extent still is that the more difficult it is to use, the better it is," he says. "Computer scientists like to protect their priesthood. They also think they are average people. I spend a great deal of time telling programmers, 'You're too smart. Please give other people a break.'"

This tendency is especially strong in the UNIX community, with its history as a technical and scientific operating system. In capsule form, Tog characterizes UNIX as having "lots of power and tremendous barriers for ordinary people to get access to that power.

"The problem in the UNIX world, and I don't think it matters which brand of UNIX, is that the programmers still tend to look at the GUI as a device for people who are not as bright as they are and shouldn't want to do as much as they want to do," he continues. "As a result there are some fundamental capabilities in UNIX that aren't in the GUI because programmers think ordinary people wouldn't want to use them."

He cites an example that leads directly to his vision of the future. "I've seen engineers whom I travel with walk up to a Sparcstation on the East Coast, type in what looks to me like gibberish, and get their desktops back in Mountain View. That's an extremely important power for users as we move forward, that no matter where they are, their personal computer space is always with them. That kind of power should be automatic. When you walk up to any kind of computer and swipe your ID card through a card reader or whatever the mechanism might be, you're in your office. These kinds of powers that currently are reserved for the cognoscenti should be democratized."

Preparing the Future

In their efforts to imagine and create what he calls "a revolutionary third-generation interface for personal computers and workstations," Tog and a team of 30 engineers, marketers, and human interface designers produced a film, Star Fire, which he has been screening at conferences and industry events for the last six months. It came out of a project whose purpose was "to figure out who the customers would be in 10 years, what kind of work they would be doing, and where they might be doing it," Tognazzini explains. "We developed a series of scenarios that would bring to life some of those customers so we could focus on what kind of capabilities they would need. At the end of six months we turned it into a single master scenario that displayed as many of the problems and solutions as possible."

Star Fire shows a day in the life of workers at a large auto manufacturer 10 years in the future. In one key scene, the "heroine" has to refute at once an argument by her "enemy" within the company. She starts up her portable computer and finds the information she needs in the remote corporate database just in time.

"A lot of things have to work for this to happen. There has to be an extremely high level of quality," says Tog. "In our industry there is so high a demand for products that people will put up with alpha releases because of new features. You wouldn't buy a car if there was a chance the steering wheel would come off, but we buy software like that. If you're in a board room and have a minute to come up with a response, you're not going to even pick up the computer if you're working with alpha release software.

"For the new world to work, for applications to seamlessly melt into each other so people just work on documents and don't worry about what toolset they have to bring to bear on it, there has to be a much higher level of organization and quality than exists anywhere in the industry today."

To portray this new world of instant information access, the team had to employ special effects of the sort moviegoers expect, based mostly on a Forrest Gump-like mix of live actors and computer animation. According to Tognazzini, it would have been almost as easy to really build the advanced system that the film depicts but, given the need to prototype and test it, far costlier. "I know how to build it," he says. "I couldn't sell it for a price anybody would pay for it tomorrow, but I suspect I could in 10 years."

Embodying Change

A true revolution involves much more than shiny new technology; it alters human behavior as well. The office of the future, Tognazzini predicts, will resemble that of Chiat Day, an advertising agency in Los Angeles, which has eliminated private offices, though retaining some cubicles for specialized equipment such as color printers and big screens. Employees each have a portable computer, and everywhere are electrical plugs and telephone jacks. "People work wherever they want; they may go home and work," he says. "It's a very fluid structure. No matter where they are, they're part of the system.

"The glass lump [office building] in a fixed location is no longer going be appropriate. Your personalized space can go with you wherever you are. In 10 years you'll have video telephone, audio telephone, and voice mail with character recognition so you can look through the messages if you like. All documents will be collaborative, so that if you call somebody up, you just share it.

"Today we have an extremely narrow communication line between the user and the computer," he continues. In the future, instead of merely typing on a keyboard and using a mouse, users will be able to speak commands and make gestures right on the screen. "When you build up a vocabulary of gestures, suddenly you don't have to have all the clutter we have on today's screens. Visual complexity will disappear.

"Applications are walls," says Tognazzini. "You have the document inside the application. Those walls will come down."

Given these glimpses, attendees of UniForum '95 can expect to be treated to an exciting vision of the future when Tog takes the stage.