We used to have server computers, desktop computers, and notebook computers. Life was simple. We still have all those but we now also have the iPhone, iPod Touch, and Palm Pre. We're also soon going to have a whole bunch of tablets and possibly one from Apple too.
From a design perspective, we're seeing two entirely different user interface paradigms and interaction styles currently--computer and mobile. On the computer side, we have three basic flavors all of which are pretty well the same--Windows, OSX, and Linux. On the mobile side, we have the iPhone/Touch and the Pre operating systems which are also quite similar to one another. When tablets are introduced, they'll likely have a UI much more similar to the mobile than the computer paradigms. Given the hype about the tablets before any have been released and Apple hasn't even confirmed they're working on one, they'll likely be highly successful. If so, it'll be interesting to see what happens to computer OS UIs. Add into the mix the fact that most applications will be in the cloud, have a browser as their app container, and the fact that Google is developing an operating system optimized for this environment and we have a dramatically changing environment.
All of this suggests that we're in for an interesting and exciting time over the next while given this evolution of user interfaces and interaction styles. I believe the future will involve a combination of what we see in the mobile space today together with what we see as cloud-based Rich Internet Applications in the browser. What we know as computer user interfaces and interaction styles today will be a thing of the past and won't be carried into the future, although this may take a while to be fully realized given the install-base of traditional computers and operating systems. I believe designers need to stay on top of these paradigm shifts in user interface and user interaction because the rate of change is increasing dramatically. We may even see a reemergence of voice, possibly large gesture (beyond touch with fingers), and hopefully a sixth-sense style display sometime in the near future too. We may get that Minority Report dream yet.
As always, I'd greatly appreciate hearing any views you may have on this via the comment facility below.