Back to the (Office of the) Future

touchscreen

Over the years, there have been numerous articles musing on what the office of the future would look like, but how have those past predictions matched up to reality today?

Back in 1975, BusinessWeek published “an in-depth analysis of how word processing will reshape the corporate office.” In the article, industry experts were divided over whether they would be able “to call up documents” from their files on-screen and connect electronic terminals to each other or if this vision of the future was, in fact, “scare talk.” One of the biggest concerns raised was how word processing would change the traditional secretary-executive relationship.

I think it’s safe to say that the predictions in the article put forward by George E. Pake , then head of Xerox Corp.’s Palo Alto Research Center, were largely correct. According to Pake, in 1995, there would be a TV-display terminal with a keyboard sitting at his desk and he’d be “able to call up documents from my files on the screen, or by pressing a button … I can get my mail or any messages. I don’t know how much hard copy [printed paper] I’ll want in this world.”

I have it on good authority from Jonathan Howell, Huddle’s CTO, that in the 1990s, everything was networked, all internal communication was done via email on a mainframe and desktop printers (with “desktop” referring to ubiquity rather than size) were commonplace. However, Jonathan was working for IBM in the 90s; what was it like for the rest of the workforce? You could indeed access your files with a click of a button on your computer. Networked desktop PCs were becoming increasingly widespread in offices worldwide, and in August 1995, Microsoft launched its much-anticipated Windows 95. The World Wide Web started to take shape, and Yahoo became one of the largest directories for web content. In short, advances in technology during the 1990s resulted in the “revolution in the office” that Pake predicted. Laptop computers were also becoming hot sellers, so the idea of a mobile workforce, while still a long way off, was starting to develop.

However, Pake’s vision of a world without “hard copy” remains a fantasy. In spite of the increasing popularity of email and the web, the rise of devices such as the iPad and enterprise content management tools, such as Huddle and SharePoint, the paperless office is still out of reach. The desktop printers that became a familiar sight in the office in the ’90s continue to be the worker’s trusty companion. According to the WWF, the average U.S. office worker goes through 10,000 sheets of copy paper per year. People still want to have physical documentation. Whether it’s business records, receipts or utility bills, people continue to feel they need to store paperwork in a safe, physical place for future reference. To drive widespread adoption of new technologies, a cultural shift and change in habits needs to take place. Just as the introduction of word processing and automation to the 1990s office changed the traditional secretary-executive relationship (or “office wife” bond), enterprise content management and collaboration technologies are disrupting the way people work today. Transforming working practices takes time.

In 1987, little more than 10 years after BusinessWeek’s predictions article was published, Apple Computer created a video envisioning how people would use technology to work in the 21st century:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hb4AzF6wEoc&feature=related]

The touchscreen “Knowledge Navigator” tablet device shown in the video could easily pass for an early prototype of Apple’s iPad, while the University Research Network accessed for information on deforestation in the Amazon rainforest looks suspiciously like the web. We are now accustomed to seeing touchscreen devices — according to market research firm iSuppli, worldwide production of touchscreen modules for use in computers is set to hit 117.9 million units in 2014 — but in 1987, mainstream adoption of such devices was still years away.

Another application shown is video conferencing: The professor is seen happily conversing with his colleague on-screen. Now, of course, video conferencing is part of most workers’ everyday lives, whether they are based at home or in an office: another hit for Apple’s vision of the future. While I doubt avatars with bow ties fielding calls and managing diaries will take off (unless Clippy 2.0 is overdue?), but virtual customer service assistants are now a familiar sight: Jenn at Alaska Airlines and Lucy at O2, for example. It may be a while before speech recognition is as seamless as that shown in the video; it is still a familiar (albeit often frustrating) technology.

The paperless office and a diary-managing avatar may not be a reality just yet, but many of the predictions made decades ago aren’t too far off the mark. However, there were some visions of the office of the future that just didn’t come to fruition, such as the short-lived Microsoft at Work (MAW). On June 9, 1993, Bill Gates launched MAW, which was supposed to connect common business machinery, like fax machines and photocopiers, with a communications protocol allowing control and status information to be shared with computers running Windows. It never got off the ground, and by 1995, it had disappeared from view.

Andy McLoughlin, co-founder and EVP Strategy at Huddle, can be reached on Twitter @Bandrew.

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