21 August 2015

Forwards in Three Directions

Text: Harald Taglinger

Since the relaunch of form in 2013 the Microsoft Surface team around Ralf Groene designs the back cover of the magazine. In form 250 we talked to Ralf Groene about his previous professional milestones at Interform, Frog Design, and Ideo, about the computer of the future and his current work with Microsoft.

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As computers get smaller and more powerful, their design faces a choice: recede from view, upgrade to consumer fetish, or adopt a new metaphor.


At 11 in the morning in Seattle, Ralf Groene is sitting at his computer. The video image shows a windowless room; here in Zurich it is already dark. The connection is unstable at first, the words slightly chopped. We have 40 minutes.

After working for Interform, Frog Design and IDEO, and having designed the Rocket e-book reader, Ralf Groene (born 1968) came to Redmond in 2006 and designed the Arc mouse and keyboard and the LifeCam for Microsoft. Stephen Sinofsky, in charge of Windows at the time, asked him to direct the design of Microsoft’s first tablet, now on the market as Surface. New devices are also being developed.

The computer of the future never emerges without a past. What began as a table-sized SUR40 Surface computer with a touch screen, co-developed by Samsung and Microsoft, now stands, as Surface, for something completely different with a detachable Touch Cover keyboard accessory, seeming to consist only of in and out components. The Surface looks like a touch screen running Windows 8. And for those who don’t type, the coloured Touch Cover keyboard flap can be removed. This actually represents a complete reversal of what is still categorised as a computer. The computer itself is miniaturised to such a degree that it carries precious little weight. The input and output of data alone seem to make up the device. It is almost as if the computer would disappear if there was not (still) a need for a keyboard and a screen to look at.


The disappearance of room-filling mainframes was followed by the PC and its reduction, a process to which the mouse has already fallen victim. “Atoms-to-bit migration” is Groene’s term for this trajectory. Over the past 30 years, the digital revolution has turned the industrial manufacture of computers on its head. As well as allowing huge quantities of devices to be sold, fewer and fewer resources are required to generate exponentially increasing computing power – Moore’s Law seems to extend beyond processors. And in this process, physically anchored functions grow together and lose their familiar form, becoming virtualised; where once there was a switch, now it is enough to make a gesture on the scratch-proof glass behind which many functions have been brought together in a single tablet. Simulations allow video conferencing, desktop tasks, and both the production and consumption of media in a single device. The vector here is simple: everything that can be digitised transitions from analogue to bits.

In this way, the interface has become increasingly important – along a path from a simple command line in the days of the mainframes, to the window metaphor and the simulation of materiality, on to what is perhaps its first purely digital-looking form in Windows 8. The old programme icons were so dominant that they are now lined up as tiles, off which the simple form of a Surface seems to echo. This feature permits direct access to the software and its graphic implementation.


What if one were to exaggerate this flattened hierarchy and assume that CEO Steve Ballmer will decide to release the next version of Windows as “Bubble 9” and make the circle the basic form of all future applications. Would computers then become rounded and lose their angular outlines?

Groene laughs and shakes his head – followed by a clear “No.” Only substantial changes to software requiring support from the hardware would change the basic shape, he says, anything else would be pure decoration. And, he adds, a computer must also be convenient to use: the Touch Cover with its foldable basic form also creates a support to stabilize the Surface in its upright position. I nod in agreement: a tablet that is forever rolling away can only be marketed as a joke product.


But why would anyone need a visible computer anymore if a set of glasses and a motion sensor in the style of a miniaturised Kinect were enough? Finally, all the computing power you need already fits in your trouser pocket as an inconspicuous matchbox with a Bluetooth connection.

Groene pauses for thought: Software and its interconnections are creating a new world. Combinations of hard- and software increasingly take place in smart objects equipped with a range of sensors for input and output. Kinect and glasses are in/out devices that can be meaningfully linked into such smart objects. And if the large beige metal box under the desk were to vanish, reappearing interestingly in a new context depending on the imagination of the designers, then surely that can only be a good thing.




Groene emphasizes the special quality of the universal machine: The computer is more like a Swiss army knife; it is flexible and all-embracing in its function; rather than actually disappearing, it changes its appearance; the desktop metaphor is disappearing, and with it the visual association of a file with paper. These were transitional metaphors for our generation, he says, borrowed from familiar situations to make the software easier to use. But authentically digital today means a move to more abstract metaphors. The computer is the theatre for this, the “stage for Windows,” imploding into a universal device with countless options. But in spite of all this, there will still be physical objects, and for good reason.

After all, keyboard and cover may merge, and there may be virtual keyboards on an iPhone, but not everyone wants to forgo the haptic dimension of a computer. In light of the euphoria surrounding new computer cases made of milled aluminium or die-cast magnesium, one gets the feeling that a counter-trend is generating a new fetish with excessive attention focussed on the outer surface. It looks good on a desk, even if the computer might just as well be hidden away in a small silver box made by the same company. It is the altar celebrated as a haptic experience and designed down to the last detail. In this way, it becomes a coffee-table device.


Let’s look back: In the 1980s, Hartmut Esslinger at Apple was the first to transform a computer into a stylish consumer product. From 1995, beginning with the Macintosh LCs, then from 1998 with the iMacs and from 2001 the iPods/iPhones, this led to a reinterpretation of the media machine as new applications came to the fore, bringing mobile usage. In this process, none of the previous applications are lost, and the omnipresent machine is born. What we are seeing is not the disappearance but the consolidation of technical devices in a tablet or smartphone. The devices that do still exist become established as modern icons. “I read the newspaper on my Surface” is a lifestyle statement (just as deliberately doing without electronics and reading the news on paper can be). Because the devices that have been bundled are no longer needed, the money previously spent on them is freed for spending on a luxury design object in the upper price segment. Or the devices are given a shorter purchase cycle, as fashions enter the world of hardware. “The hip device for this summer” is imaginable. The newest is the best. Smartphone makers are already doing this. A single new device then carries the market and becomes a status symbol that a manufacturer can sell up to 50 million times in a quarter with just a few modifications.


New Metaphors


And we still talk about “computers,” even if we mean a telephone and card reader with integrated recording studio, editing suite, video conferencing and travel simulator. The device in question can still be used to compute, in the sense of number-crunching. We had almost forgotten that. The operating system still includes a calculator app. But all of this can no longer aptly be called a “computer.” It’s time for a new term, as our categories are rooted in the last century and they are getting old. The time for this will come in the next few years, says Groene, as we can expect an increasing number of dynamic small objects that need not even have a screen. Like the existing trackers that can synchronise their data online. The more computing takes place in the cloud, the more chips are developed to fit in small volumes.

The interesting task for designers now is to discover these new possibilities in the new context and to link them together in new ways. What we are seeing, then, is not one but many metaphors for something that provides computing power for data processing, turning out many varied types of information. This is the next generation of devices for designers to focus on. The possibility to read email only makes such devices more convenient. In any case, the form factor will change. Even interfaces no longer need to be visualized. This makes computers interesting for designers again. No more constantly reinventing the metal box with a fan, because concepts of and the demands on devices are evolving. They may even evolve so far that parts of the computer become virtual. Today, Microsoft Research is already offering initial studies on the material quality of graphics and even working inside a screen. This recalls the Holodeck, and Groene is quick to put things into perspective. There is a reason why not all of a computer’s components will become virtual, and why not all virtual components of a screen can be experienced via touch. It is a question of the use derived from such an experience. It simply makes sense not to transfer certain physical experiences into the screen. Every guitarist knows that the feeling of fingertips on strings is an integral part of playing the instrument. Even if a guitar string, even its bending, can now easily be simulated on a touch screen.




Harald Taglinger went online in 1987 and has, since the 1990s, worked for various IT companies from his real-world base in Switzerland. He now writes about this still relatively new medium and also finds time for a range of online audio projects.


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