“I Think We Have to Start Over”: Usability Guru Don Norman on the Next Internet

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having separate networks [for different purposes]. I don’t know. But I do know there are many groups of technology experts thinking about what it’s going to take. Technology and policy and legal experts who are banding together to try to find answers.

X: Are these people mainly from academia, or NGOs and think tanks, or are they in startups, or big corporations, or all of the above?

DN: They’re from all of the places you mentioned. The ones from large companies are mostly from research, because as I’ve always commented, the research divisions of a company like Microsoft—and Apple in the day, Google, any company you can imagine—they interact more with academics than they interact with the product people in their own company.

So, I think that probably things like Skype and Zoom and the competition are good enough, they’re private enough. But there is a lot of metadata that’s being collected, and it’s possible for the companies to be recording the entire conversation. And that’s what I worry about. But those are not technology issues. Those are policy issues.

When it comes to the internet, the technology is the major problem because it was invented so many years ago. It’s time to upgrade it. Upgrading is really hard. It may not even be possible.

Another example of bad technology is the electronic medical record systems. And they are actually a major cause of the physician burnout. They increase the workload. But they also have benefits. The problem is that they were developed many years ago, decades ago, and they were primarily designed for insurance purposes, for billing purposes. And they use technologies and computer languages that are no longer really in fashion. But they are so huge that all the major companies I work with, executives of the major electronic medical record companies, they know the deficiencies, the problems in their systems. But they’re very, very difficult to change when you have this huge massive infrastructure. And the only solution may be to completely start over again.

X: Right, you just need to replace the software in every physicians’ office, every emergency department, every hospital back office.

DN: Exactly. As we like to say, “It’s just a simple matter of programming.” Well, I was at Apple, where for many, many years we tried to get a more modern operating system. We knew our operating system was crappy. It was originally written by amateurs, by young kids, and built on over and over and over for many years. There was so much of that at Apple we no longer even knew the source code of everything we were running because it got lost. And it was called “spaghetti code,” and we had really world-class computer scientists who just hated it, but it was really difficult to change. It took a long time to change.

And one of my favorite stories is how we took a part of the operating system that was flawed and buggy and slow and huge, and we said, “This one is the most disgraceful of all, so let’s change it.” And it was rewritten so that it was small and elegant and sophisticated and had no more bugs, no more errors in it. And we introduced it. And guess what? All sorts of people around the world complain that their programs were no longer running because the people who did their programs knew about all the errors and had devised all sorts of ways of getting around them. And now that we had a new, efficient system, it caused their programs to fail. And so we had to put back the flawed system, so that our customers could keep running their programs. And that just shows you the complexity of all of this.

X: It strikes me that these complex systems do get replaced over time, just not all at once. It’s like rebuilding a jet engine while the plane is in flight. Or it’s like the way all the cells in your body, except maybe some brain cells, get replaced over months, years, or decades. You are still you, but you consist of different matter. Is that the way the internet will get replaced by something better?

DN: My answer is very clear: yes, maybe, no. Take a look at the automobile industry. It certainly has evolved in a very interesting way. In the beginning it was three kinds of vehicles. They were powered by electricity, by steam, or by internal combustion engine. In all my readings of the history of technology of those three, the internal combustion engine was considered the least likely to succeed. And then there are all sorts of arguments about how it did succeed. I won’t repeat them, but in the early days, if you went for a drive you basically had to either be a mechanic or you took your mechanic with you. And quite often you had to stop or repair things, and you certainly had to change your tires frequently or fix flats.

Today, cars are sold without replacement tires. We don’t expect our car ever to fail. Most people don’t even think about that anymore, and cars have really, dramatically improved in many, many ways. And they’re also much more efficient. And we’re now switching to different things. Pretty soon, all cars will be hybrid or fully electric. Business models are changing, with ride sharing and with more and more automation, and someday autonomous driving. We won’t have fully autonomous vehicles, I claim, for 30 or 40 years, but I believe we will have them. But there is an example of what you’re talking about, how the whole infrastructure and business model is going to change. It will take a long time, but it will happen.

Now, in the computational arena, software is slightly more complex than anything else we have. But we are changing the software slowly. The operating systems of our computers are changing. We have new types of devices. I’m wearing one on my wrist right now and which is really pretty powerful, with lots of sensors built in.

Microsoft has dramatically changed the nature of their computer; we had tablets and cell phones and desktop computers, and Microsoft now combines them all into one, basically. And, in fact, I myself have switched to the Surface because I find that this way I can draw, and take notes, and I can make it into a tablet and read it when I want to read things. And yet it has all the power of a major computer. And it looks like Apple is about to move in that direction because they just announced a new operating system for the iPad which is no longer going to be just the same as in the iPhone. It’s moving us more directly where they someday won’t sell computers, except for professionals who have real need for huge computational demands. But for the average person it’ll be the iPad, which will have a keyboard and stylus.

And so, everything is changing, but it’s slow. But the problems that I talked about in the internet—the long list I gave you—if you think about it, all of them are policy issues, not technology issues. Policies that enhance companies’ profitability and also keep out the competition are harder to change. Although, companies don’t last that long. There is still one company that has lasted longer than any other, and even that one is almost dead now. And that’s General Electric.

X: It does seem like even small changes in the internet infrastructure take a long time. The transition to IPv6 addresses still isn’t finished, for example.

DN: IPv6 was introduced in 1994. First of all, it is a relatively small change. It was not just increasing the number of addresses, but it also changed some of the infrastructure. But look how long it took to be adopted. It still isn’t fully in use. And that’s kind of what I’m getting at. It’s not that easy even for what appeared to be a fairly simple problem—we’re running out of addresses. The problem is, we get workarounds. We now have subdomains. So, instead of a big company needing thousands of IP addresses, they just need one and then they have their own internal system.

X: So, will the next internet just be an iteration of the one we have, or will it work on completely different principles? I’m thinking of ideas like content-centric networking, where the emphasis is on what people are looking for, rather than where it’s stored.

DN: I don’t know. Let me point out your example of the human body, the example of the airplane, and even the IPv4 vs IPv6. Those are incremental and not radical changes. You’re going to change the jet engine in flight. You may get a far better jet engine, but it is still a jet engine, and the airplane is still the same, and the engine is still in the same place, it’s just that it is now better. And IPv6 is still the same internet, it’s just slightly better. And we have lots of stuff in our human body that nobody understands and we think is archaic, and it’s because of the way evolution works. It’s always trying out new things.

So, how do you ever get a completely different organism? You cannot get a completely different organism by incremental changes. And in the world of products where I talk about this more often—I even have a paper on this, Radical and Incremental Innovation, where I talk about how evolution is a hill-climbing device, really. It makes little changes, and if it’s better, hey, it keeps going, and if it’s worse, that organism dies out. And to do radical innovation, well, that has happened certainly in the evolution of animals and plants, but it has taken millions and millions of years. And often the biggest innovations come when some event happens that destroys half the life on the planet, and new life comes out. We have meteors striking or volcanoes or whatever. That’s not a good way to change. And so, a lot of what you’re talking about are incremental improvements, whereas what we need is a radical improvement.

[Photo of Donald Norman by Flickr user Jordan Fischer, published via a Creative Commons license. Image has been cropped to fit Xconomy publishing system standards.]

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