Google’s Matias Duarte has a problem. In the next ten years he wants to replace the computer on your desk and the phone in your pocket with a smart, continuous mesh of information. But to do that, he’s got to fundamentally change how everyone interacts with technology.
“I see what we’re doing now in this digital interactive space as a kind of industrial revolution,” Duarte, Google’s vice president of design, tells WIRED. “But there’s a real risk, there’s a real risk of stagnation.”
Computers of the future, Duarte says, will fade away into the background, creating a “mesh” that is more human and less disruptive to our lives.
“The system or the computer can become more accessible and more universal because it operates on atoms of interaction that are more human, that are conceptual, that are things that you could speak to or things that you could draw,” he explains.
And the driving force behind the need for change? We’re drowning.
“As we get more and more screens and more and more devices that are smart, both integrated into our homes but also on our bodies, it’s creating new types of problems that are going to create a new type of opportunity.”
Radically overhauling the design of our digital devices is no small task. Eight years on from the launch of the original iPhone we’re still using rows of apps and touchscreen rectangles. And many of the design conventions our smartphones and tablets rely on are more than 30 years old.
Even the iPad Pro and the Surface Pro 4, praised by reviewers, are “basically laptops”, Duarte says. “I don’t think you could really call it a significant fading of the laptop. It’s a new blouse by the same name.”
So how did we get here? “It’s easy for things to settle on standards that are sub optimal. Its very for things to catalyse into local maxima that are hard to break out of.” All phone and tablet design since the iPhone has mimicked it to some extent. Duarte describes this as a “crystallising moment”, a key inflection point in hardware and software design. But Apple’s success was never guaranteed.
“You had things like the PalmPilot, which was a little screen with a little row of icons, but then you also had things like a Blackberry that didn’t look like that at all,” he says. And it could’ve been so different.
“Frankly it’s not a world where the best package wins. It would’ve been very easy, if Apple had been a year later to market, that instead the market’s expectations of what a smartphone should be crystallised around something that’s more like what the Blackberry was.”
Apple’s victory, and the subsequent success of the iPhone was a “fairly positive” moment. “But it also crystallised a lot of other things that were kind of stayed even by that point, like the rows of icons, which don’t scale very well. This idea of a tiny grid that you manually curate starts to feel very heavy and burdensome.”
Apple’s leap was a major one, pulling together ideas that had been “bouncing around” for some time. “It was almost like the industry knew some of the attributes that it wanted to have but it hadn’t quite gotten the package right yet.”
Apple’s leap changed the direction of consumer electronics. But what will be next?
“I get the sense that the answer you’re looking for is a particular product or a particular idea,” Duarte responds. “I’m excited that there is this tension in the current tech ecosystem where phones are starting to show their age. Laptop models have shown their age so much that everybody is desperately trying to get to a different model. I’m excited about the potential of that rather than any particular vector that says: ‘oh, this is going to be hot or I have this idea.’”
Duarte is part of a subtle but significant change at Google. Earlier this year he helped establish what he describes as a “design incubator” to do “new things with design” both within the company and externally. Material Design, the simplifying and flattening of Google’s once chaotic-looking Android interface, was one of his first major projects. He’s since gone on to work on Android Wear, Google’s operating system for smartwatches.
“Google has always had incredible design talent,” he says. “It just wasn’t organised or scaled in a way to utilise it. And culturally it had a hard time understanding how to work with design.”
Despite being indispensable for millions of people, the design heritage that our phones, tablets and desktop computers rely on remains underdeveloped, Duarte argues. “When we talk about phones and websites and apps, this is an incredibly young medium still. It’s changing very quickly and it’s still almost at this raw industrial state.”
“Over the last 20 years we’ve been really making it accessible to everybody. Almost mass producing software. But, just like the first mass produced things during the industrial revolution, they were not the best designed things.”
The concepts needed to improve design — the aesthetic, emotional, social and historical considerations — don’t develop overnight. An Eames lounge chair is based on thousands of years of knowledge. But Duarte says this understanding is starting to emerge in software, even if the collision of technology and design has been somewhat painful.
“For Google, it was very hard to go through that transition. A lot of us in this room bare the scars of that transition and there’s still more work to do. I think its really important to start to create an environment where these two communities can actually converse and understand each other.”
“If you’re going to be a product designer and you’re going to make furniture you’re going to know a lot about your materials and manufacturing, and that’s what makes you a designer. But you’re also going to know a lot about design, you’re going to know about the history of furniture design, you’re going to know about ergonomics, style and fashion trends. If I look at digital it is almost impossible to identify people who have both of those backgrounds. And that is a sign of the immaturity in the industry.”
As a designer, Duarte is driven to distraction by the seemingly random rows of apps on which our smartphones and tablets rely. “I’m tempted occasionally to just organise all my icons by colour,” he admits. And decades on from the invention of the graphic user interface (GUI) desktop, the mouse and the keyboard, we’re still all enslaved to them.
“It starts to look really old and it starts to bring a lot of baggage with it,” he says. “It can’t be the ultimate solution, it is completely implausible. It cannot be that the optimal solution for 30 years ago, one of the potentially viable solutions for 30 years ago, is going to be applicable for all time.”
Asked what Google is working on now, Duarte is evasive. Will it radically change the phone in everyone’s pocket? “I hope so. But even if I knew I couldn’t tell you.” And what about suggestions Google should make its own phone, rather than outsourcing it to the likes of Huawei and LG?
“I don’t know. It could happen. I don’t know if that’s a thing that Google needs to do or even a thing that Google even particularly wants to do. It would give you greater control but I don’t know if you need greater control.
“I think if that team felt like there were things that they wanted to do in the phone space that they couldn’t find a partner for, they would be empowered to do that. But its not a mission or a goal unto itself.”
And his vision of a less intrusive, more human form of computing is still some way off. Current designs rely on siloed apps — Airbnb, Facebook, Uber — unwilling to talk to one another: “a set of features that a particular brand encapsulated and hid behind a little doorway”.
“If you think about the way that traditional desktop application software was, it had a very monolithic character. Successful desktop applications actually tended to expand and expand and expand and to almost try to become operating systems unto themselves,” Duarte says, pointing to Microsoft’s Office suite and Adobe Photoshop as examples. “In going towards mobile we’ve sliced things up a little bit further so apps tend to be more single focussed but they’re still fairly monolithic entities.”
Android Wear, which leans heavily on contextual understanding, voice control and pulling useful nuggets of information from apps, shows a different way of thinking. And, much like Apple’s Watch OS, the change in design was forced by necessity.
“Why should there be a grid of apps on a watch? It’s this tiny thing and it’s hard to pick through and hard to organise and so on and so forth. And as you accrue and use more and more services that’s going to start to get really ridiculous. You’re going to have a massive grid on a little tiny screen. So that created this opportunity where we could try something new and different.”
“I don’t know that Android Wear has the right solution or even is on a vector to the right solution, nobody knows,” Duarte says. “We’re just trying things to see which are successful. That’s what design is. You form a thesis, you try to do it without any ego or hubris.”
But where digital design will be in ten years time? Will we still be stuck using GUI interfaces and smartphones based on the original iPhone?
“I hope not. I really hope not. That would make me very sad and I’m doing my hardest to make sure that that is not the case. That is one of the things that I care passionately about. I’m going to do my hardest to make sure that in 10 years time you’re not going to sitting with a single laptop and walking around with a phone. But instead working with a much richer, continuous mesh of devices and interfaces.”