PC Forum 2001 Conference Report

by Jakob Nielsen on April 1, 2001

Scottsdale, AZ, March 25-28, 2001

Esther Dyson's PC Forum was the usual schmoozefest  for the high-tech intelligentsia (Steve Hayden started his talk by saying, "hello, smart people" ). My old boss, Eric Schmidt was there as usual and everybody, including me, congratulated him on having joined Google.

The mood at the conference was more somber than last year because of the stock market. Marie Tahir from my group was also at PC Forum and said that it reminded her of visiting Poland after the Solidarity movement had been suppressed by martial law. An initial euphoric feeling of freedom where everything seemed possible had been crushed, leaving people more depressed than before, saying "will it ever be good again?"

Poland became a democracy a few years later, so let's hope that the network economy will revive as well. For sure, PC Forum demonstrated that innovation is still alive, with several new technologies being shown. A standing-room-only crowd attended my usability session.

Both of the co-inventors of the spreadsheet were at PC Forum:

  • Bob Frankston insisted on using the term "first mile" for the link between a house and the public network, thus taking a more user-centric view than the telephone companies' preferred expression, "last mile."
  • Dan Bricklin showed me his newest essay where he argues that is it OK for some things to be difficult to learn. General-purpose devices like cars and computers provide sufficient subsequent leverage to pay us back for the initial investment in learning. I agree, and even while I think that general-purpose tools should be as easy as possible, I also think that there are benefits from powerful tools that can be applied widely. The argument for power only applies to a small number of general-purpose tools: the majority of interfaces should be at the receiving end of these tools and must be very simple so that the tools can be applied. In particular, Web browsers and other client software need more powerful features; websites need simplicity.

Several new technologies addressed the Internet's persistent usability problems. Here are two.

Real User: Passwords by the Face

Real User Corp. showed a possible solution to the Internet's password problem. Traditionally, users have to remember long, random strings to log in. The human brain cannot do so, leading all users to write down their passwords. In the end, we get poor usability and low security. Passwords worked in the mainframe era when users were limited to a single account. They don't work on the Web.

Real User's authentication system presents the user with a screen full of photos, one of which is the user's "passface." Click the right face, and you get in. Actually, you have to step through several screens of faces, which seems like a drag but might be faster than typing a password. For sure, it's faster than looking up the password on your "secret" page of passwords. From the usability perspective, this approach leverages the huge proportion of the human brain that's dedicated to face recognition. Security people will appreciate that users don't have to write down their secret knowledge. In fact, it's almost impossible to describe a face well enough in writing to allow an intruder to pick it out from the set of similar-looking photos.

FindTheDot: Half-Dead Hypertext

FindTheDot gave me a stealth demo of their product. They provide half-dead hypertext links that connect the physical world to the virtual world. The Web is already very good at live links where you can click on something and get immediate satisfaction. Dead links are references that are not active at all, that require you to run a search. For example, if I mention FindTheDot without giving you the URL, it would be a dead link that you would have to activate manually by going to a search engine. Half-dead links are the middle ground: You cannot click on them directly, but they do point directly to a hypertext destination.

When Keith Blei, president and chief technical officer of FindTheDot, gives you his business card, it has a psychedelic dot on it. Tap the dot with a small reader and when you return to your computer, it can retrieve his information from the Internet. The dots can be printed in many other contexts, such as classified ads in a newspaper, to allow, for example, readers to go from the real estate listings to more detailed information about the houses that interest them.

FindTheDot sounds suspiciously like the CueCat, a famously clueless technology. In that system, magazines would print ugly bar codes that -- when scanned by a CueCat peripheral -- would make the browser load a given Web page. The main reason CueCat didn't work was that it had to be connected to the PC. If you were already sitting by your computer, why would you need a special bar code scanner? Why not just type in the URL? And when you are reading a magazine, you are rarely sitting right in front of your PC. CueCat also had some privacy problems, but the main issue was simply that it didn't fulfill a need for the users. It was good at collecting demographic information for advertisers, but that's not a compelling proposition for an end user.

FindTheDot's reader connects wirelessly to the PC. Since it's untethered, you can carry it around and have it available when you come across things you want to look up on the Internet. It just might work.

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