Communal computing, part 1

How do we build devices that are shared by default?

Chris Butler
2 min readJun 17, 2021
LG Smart Refrigerator, CES 2011. (source: David Berkowitz on Flickr)

Communal computing are devices that you find in your home or office. Anyone within reach (or voice) can use them. I’ve written the first post in a series for the O’Reilly Radar blog on how these devices are framed, designed, and built wrong.

The reason they are “wrong” is that they are built with one person in mind: the owner of the device. Whereas there are many people in a home that could use it.

The problems start out as weirdness like your Spotify playlist starts to have recommendations for songs you don’t like. It escalates until you don’t trust the device at all.

In the first post we talk about how we got here. The kitchen phone with a long cord was an early communal device. Through academia and research building multi-tenant computing systems. Ending with home assistants like the Amazon Echo and Google Home Hub.

We touch on different computing movements like ubiquitous, ambient, and omnichannel. They are all considering what it means to make computing interwoven with our physical experiences.

Through this series we will consider the types of problems in identity, privacy, security, experience, and ownership. From there I’ll give dos/don’ts when framing, designing, and building these devices.

Hope this starts some interesting conversations on how many different devices really are communal ones!

Recap of all articles

  1. Communal Computing — How do we build devices that are shared by default?
  2. Communal Computing’s Many Problems — Where user-centric computing goes wrong
  3. A Way Forward with Communal Computing — Do’s and Don’ts when Designing for the Community