Put The “In” Into Input/Output

Mobile devices such as iPhones, Android-based phones, and tablets are gaining significant momentum as human user interface devices. The issue for me—and just about everyone else who uses full words when they type—is that getting information into those devices is very difficult. As such, they’re not useful as true business machines. I think that could change if we treat them more like games and less like computers.

Fundamentally, electronic devices are I/O (input/output) oriented, and the level of usefulness of any such device is proportional the efficiency of I/O. The computer (regardless of “coolness”) is a great I/O device because keyboards can accept information efficiently, and they have virtually unlimited output capabilities. The value of the computer is proportional to that input capability and the reason why desktops and (full-size) laptops are not becoming less popular as tablets and smart phones become more popular.

Smart phones and tablets are exceptional at output but marginal at input. Their usefulness is almost limitless with respect to getting information, but limited with respect to putting information into them. Therein lay the challenges and the opportunities for device manufacturers and the application development industry: put the IN into I/O.

There are alternatives to the keyboard (e.g., voice recognition) that are theoretically very appealing. However, the history of keyboard input has a strange stranglehold on people because although voice recognition is quite outstanding, it hasn’t caught on.

Consider video games. They capture huge amounts of information without words, such as player movement, progress, success, and failure. I think that’s an inherent part of gaming, which is only now being applied to the professional realm. What if navigating a system were a matter of making moves that either succeeded or failed? That kind of I/O could fly on a mobile device but not until the software catches up with the hardware.

Think about how this could work. Users are given choices for people, coverages, and even in some cases objects (e.g., link to external system that track people to vehicles for example). The one input that works on mobile devices is “click” (or tap) so navigation is dominated by tapping, not typing. Pretty simple in theory.

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There are undoubtedly obstacles to overcome before we can create such software. For example, integrating third party systems, access to information (i.e., privacy restrictions), and inflexible systems all come quickly to mind. But if we act like those obstructions aren’t there, the industry can free itself from the bondage of the past. However, the more we live in today, the narrower our future becomes so let’s shed the past!

While we’re waiting, there are clear ways to use mobile devices right now. For example, product marketing is significantly enhanced with tablets that can show high definition video. Billing inquiries are easily tablet-enabled since most such systems are already web enabled. The social network aspect, while still emerging, is also a great “today” candidate for mobile computing (note that the social network works because it requires minimal input but provides maximum output).

Mobile devices are exceptionally good at providing information, but less adept at allowing input. To put the “I” back in I/O, developers need to consider simple input mechanisms based on complex options. To accomplish this new world, we have to let go of the way things are and embrace what’s possible because innovation starts with imagination. While we’re all waiting for this future to emerge, mobile devices have practical uses that don’t require much innovation, including video, inquiries, and social networking. Where we go from here is up to us and our imaginations.

About the Author
Frank Neugebauer

Frank Neugebauer

Frank Neugebauer joined United Educators (UE) in 2012 as its first Chief Information Officer. He brings extensive experience in insurance and technology to UE. Neugebauer formerly served as CIO at the Kaufman Financial Group and CTO at ACORD.

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