Toward the third generation of the PC: Lessons learned from Thomas Edison

Donald Norman, Hewlett-Packard Laboratories

Seminar on People, Computers, and Design
Stanford University May 30, 1997


Thomas Edison was a great inventor, but a crappy businessman. Consider the phonograph. Edison was first (he invented it), he had the best technology, and he did a brilliant, logical analysis of the business. As a result, he built a technology-centered phonograph that failed to take into account his customer's needs. In the end, his several companies proved irrelevant and bankrupt.

Sound familiar? That's today's PC business. There are even more parallels. Speak of ease of use: It was judged to be too complicated for office use. The early phonograph took about two weeks to master, if you were willing to persevere. Today's computers take even longer. In general, whether it is the phonograph or the computer, the technology is the easy part. The difficult parts are social, organizational and cultural.

Note that the phonograph went through a number of major revolutions in its lifetime. Cylinders. Disks. Acoustical, electrical. When the radio came out, it almost killed the phonograph business. 78 RPM to 33 1/3 and 45 RPM. Cassette tapes. CDs, mini-discs. DVD, And so on. If you compare the computer industry to the phonograph one, we are still producing 78 RPM shellac discs.

This talk addresses the changes we might expect to see in the information technology world. And the process by which they might come about.


Don Norman is former Vice President of Research, Apple Computer and Prof. Emeritus of Cognitive science, University of California, San Diego. He is the author of lots of stuff, including "The psychology of everyday things" and "Things that make us smart." Right now he is in the process of accepting a job at a major computer company to lead the initiative to the 3rd generation of the PC. And, of course, to write another book.


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