NUIs are Changing How Businesses Work with PCs

Richard Campbell explains how natural user interfaces (NUIs) are changing the development industry

There's a lot of confusion and concern these days regarding how business applications should be built. The tried-and-tested battleship-gray designs of yesteryear are looking more and more stale in the face of new graphic interfaces, touch and gesture inputs, and new form factors such as slate tablets. But businesses themselves will need to adapt to take advantage of these new technologies.

Concept designs for natural user interfaces (NUIs) have been around for many years. In early 2006, Jeff Han demonstrated early multi-touch technology in a TEDTalk showing some of the first representations of using touch to move around a surface of a screen and making pictures bigger and smaller with pinching and expanding gestures. Remarkably, 18 months after Jeff Han's TEDTalk, the first iPhone was released. Apple's iPhone really put multi-touch in the hands of consumers and spread the multi-touch metaphor to the world.

But NUIs are more than touch interfaces—they're also how visualizations are drawn on the screen. Typically in the realm of game programmers, one might argue that Microsoft's Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) was the beginning of providing developers with broad 3D control of the screen. A lack of tooling capabilities and the sheer complexity of WPF held developers back for a couple of years. However, between better tools and improved versions of WPF, XAML has become a mainstay for programming the modern UI.

These NUI elements are central in Windows 8. The question is, how do we build business applications that take advantage of these elements? The battleship-gray WinForms-style input forms aren't well-served by XAML. But it's important to remember when the WinForms style was new—it was when the mouse and high-resolution color screen had become a mainstay for PCs.

WinForms and the battleship-gray UI paradigm were designed for the mouse user. The whole concept of the chrome UI--all those little widgets around the edges of your windows--was designed for the precise movements of a mouse. But we've had them so long now that we've forgotten that we had to learn how to use that interface.

At the same time, standard business processes have been built around users sitting at their desks entering data into battleship-gray WinForms with desktop computers as the focal point. The new generation of highly portable tablet PCs with XAML-style graphics and touch interfaces makes the desktop PC appear obsolete, but only if you can rethink your software into the new NUI metaphors.

And therein lies the business practice challenge. Throw away the idea of sitting at a desk and start thinking about how you can bring your PC with you, in your pocket or in your hands, and interact with it in your business. It's a different approach to software and ultimately a different approach to business. The businesses that solve this problem effectively will have a huge advantage going forward.

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