Pick it up and shake it

Handhelds that operate like Etch-a-Sketches? Now you’re talking.

A sincere happy birthday to Microsoft’s research and development unit, which turns 10 years old today. At a celebration from its headquarters in Redmond, Wash., the software company offered a rare glimpse into the projects its inventors are working on, including a personal digital assistant with a screen that could be cleared with a good, hard shake. It’s the realization of an e-mail joke that went around years ago in which “pick it up and shake it” became the answer to nearly every support problem.

According to a Reuters story, Microsoft’s R&D unit is nicknamed the “Star Trek division” by its workers, who flock to the latest movies based on the sci-fi TV classic.

How appropriate that Microsoft would have Trekkies in the lab. The company has often acted with Borg-like ruthlessness with competitors, OEM partners and — through its recent licensing changes — its own customers. Microsoft product managers discuss new functionality in Windows XP with a level of technical jargon that approaches some Klingon dialects. And, like any other high-tech company, Microsoft wants to run the enterprise (the customer segment, not the starship).

There are no doubt legions of R&D types who have been inspired and influenced by what they have seen on programs like Star Trek, which explored the limits of human-device interaction long before IBM launched its first PC. Within the industry there might even be some empathy for Scottie, the prototype for IT managers everywhere who seemed on the verge of a nervous breakdown as he tried to keep the ship’s infrastructure running.

After all this time, however, it’s time to look at whether Microsoft’s developers and other great innovators have been modeling their ideas on the wrong utopia. Though Captain Kirk might have used a handheld of sorts to communicate with the Enterprise, the speech recognition capabilities of even the best software products today leave many users too frustrated to advance adoption rates. The starship’s crew communicated with other spacecraft through a videoconferencing solution, but it took the U.S. terrorist attacks and the subsequent fear of flying to see interest in that technology revived.

Science fiction is an extremely useful genre to technologists because it focuses on possibilities. Where it falls short, of course, are the practical considerations that take into account the way people actually live — for example, the fact that we’re not all soldiers crusading through the galaxy.

For companies like Microsoft, HP, Compaq and IBM — all of whom have invested considerable amounts in R&D spending — the challenge lies in delivering innovation that can meet the user expectations which TV shows like Star Trek have raised. Despite the psychology that probably goes into much of their inventions, vendors too often seem to lack an understanding of what constitutes a comfortable computing experience.

Perhaps an Etch-a-Sketch handheld screen isn’t going to solve that problem. But there are other, better examples. I’m reminded of the Cross-Pen Computing Group, which spun off years ago from venerable pen manufacturer A.T. Cross Co. The company came up with a sort of digital notepad that captured handwriting as an image, allowing users to turn shorthand into files they could store on their PC. Developed in partnership with IBM, the concept might have been a bit ahead of its time, and I’m not sure that it ever found a market (its Web site didn’t work when I tried it today). Earlier this year, IBM seemed to have evolved the idea on its own with a notebook line that paired a laptop with a digitally-enhanced paper-based pad. It might be hard to displace traditional notebooks with something so radical, but here we finally saw R&D that successfully married the old and the new.

It’s not all about the interface or the design — compelling back-end applications can drive some customers to even the most clunky technology. But ease of use is critical to the mainstream acceptance of most products, and in the case of IT devices it will prove the deciding factor over which vendors capture market share.

Instead of Star Trek, maybe Microsoft should watch reruns of Dr. Who, where a mysterious scientist used a time machine to explore both the past as well as the future. As the quest for the perfect device continues, that’s the kind of perspective the industry needs now.

sschick@plesman.com

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