The technological revolution of the last decades created countless new products and services while burying many old ones. Things that once had physical presence are now done through software – documents (pdf), memos (email), pictures (digital), money (bitcoin), etc. Unlike previous revolutions in which one physical technology replaced another, this one is doing away with the physical altogether. Case in point: music moved from vinyl to cassette tapes to CDs to MP3s. MP3s were first stored on handheld devices (like iPods), but these quickly gave way to cloud storage and streaming, reincarnating through invisible (yet audible) services.
Software is eating more and more traditional technologies. The cloud is swallowing software that used to run elsewhere, and products are giving way to services. As these trends become more prevalent, the lack of physical presence can be confusing and frustrating. Some companies try to counter that by adopting visual cues that remind people of physical equivalents, like Apple’s skeuomorphic design style. These are bound to be short lived not only because styles evolve, but because fewer and fewer people remember the technologies they depict. Take the floppy disk, for example, a technology that died 20 years ago but still lives in the Save icon. I bet that the majority of people who use this icon nowadays have no idea what it represents. The reason this icon wasn’t replaced yet is simple: it’s not easy to represent “save” – sending bits from point A to point B – in a universally understandable icon.
The constantly increasing abstraction of everyday products explains the renewed interest in user interface design. Graphical user interfaces serve as means through which we interact with products that lost their physical form. Since the UI is the only thing left, getting it right becomes ever more important.
Every recent technological leap requires us to be a little more connected to our devices and the services consumed on them, and a little less connected to things of substance. Our brains, capable of rich imagination, are well equipped to deal with this abstraction. People yearn for a physical form but can easily get by without one. I suspect that before long we’ll get used to the absence of drivers in cars and the disappearance of coins and paper money from our wallets. What we now call “the cloud” will eventually lose any hint of physicality and be accepted as an ever-present storage, computation, and communication infrastructure – much like the power grid is for electricity. When this happens we will finally focus on function and learn to care less about form. It might take a while, but I’m sure that my grandchildren will find it strange to go to the grocery store to buy food, drive a car, or sit through a lecture in a classroom. Doing all these things “virtually” will be perfectly natural to them.