0

Remember when gadgets were only for geeks?

From the archives: A look back at the dawn of the smartphone era, when better, cheaper tech toys started to appeal to the masses


 

Welcome to this week’s free story from The Maclean’s Archives.
Learn more or sign up now for your 30-day free trial.

Ring tones were a $4.6-billion global industry last year. Let’s do that again: ring tones—those irksome patterns of bells and beats sold for download to cellphones, on which they chirp and squawk in movie theatres, classrooms and other places that request silence—brought in $4.6 billion in 2003. They’re aural candy, frivolous in every way—and damning evidence that the age of the gadget is upon us. Something has definitely changed. The only feature first-generation cellphones needed to impress was the ability to carry a conversation. Their current descendants combine telephones, digital cameras, personal digital assistants, gaming platforms, video and music players, Internet browsers and text messengers. These so-called smart phones share a neat trick: they actually work.

Tech gadgets used to be gimmicks—unrivalled in ambition, useless in action. Computer companies set on ramming the maximum amount of function into the minimum amount of space turned convergence into a dirty word. It took a geek to love these devices, and a rich geek to afford them.

Today’s better, cheaper gadgets have breached the realm of popular culture. The information revolution of the 1990s birthed a global village; this decade’s information evolution is about miniaturizing yesterday’s successes into seems-like-sci-fi wonders. R & D has closed the gap with James Bond fantasy gizmos, and the next benchmark, Star Trek tech, is coming sooner than you may think. We already have wireless headphones that double as phone headsets, vibrating pillows that tell you ocean wave conditions, and watches with TVs. Disney recently introduced disposable DVDs that erase themselves 48 hours after being opened. Mission impossible? Mission already accomplished.

The pace of development is dizzying. Keeping up with the Jetsons used to mean a peek at Wired magazine’s Fetish pages; now commercial weblogs such as Gizmodo.com and Engadget.com race to provide up-to-the-minute scoops on the very latest in digital chic: “The SPFI-A700 is a nice enough clamshell, if a little too round and oddly coloured for my taste”; “we have seen the future, and it is tiny sombreros for consumer electronics.”

Peel back the hyperbole, and the big bang in pocket power can be traced to two sources: the BlackBerry and the iPod. Introduced by Waterloo, Ont.’s Research In Motion in early 1999, the thickset, rectangular BlackBerry was the first machine to satisfy the promise of the ultra-portable office. Originally a mobile emailer, now it’s also an organizer and a cellphone. Today, 1.3 million customers subscribe to RIM’s messaging service. (Oprah Winfrey’s review: “Love it! Love it! Love it! Love it!”) Many find its anytime-anywhere electronic tether addictive, and have rechristened it CrackBerry. I know of one professional who has a Velcro BlackBerry mount on his steering wheel, the better to type while driving. In May, the New York Times ran a story about a Capitol Hill employee who panicked while vacationing in Martha’s Vineyard - unable to locate a signal for his BlackBerry, he asked an airline employee to take it on a round-trip flight to the American mainland. It returned with 129 new messages.

While RIM remains the market leader in mobile emailers, some are switching to the likes of the Treo. Part of the reason: the BlackBerry uses proprietary software with limited applications; Treos can run up to 17,000 programs, with more coming every day. Size is another factor. Placing a call on the BlackBerry feels like talking into a pack of cigarettes. The Treo 600 is barely smaller, but the difference matters.

Apple’s iPod, on the other hand, has lost none of its cachet in the three years since its debut. If anything, the MP3 player’s fourth generation, out this summer, increases its reputation as the acme of digital leisure. The white-wired tribe is growing by leaps, with more than 800,000 units shipping in this year’s second quarter. That’s a 909-per-cent increase over the same time last year.

I consider mine a cocoon, a musical wonderland that packs 90-odd hours of sound into the palm of my hand. I caught the iPod’s second wave, lucking into a 10-gigabyte birthday gift from an ex-girlfriend. I came to it as a confirmed music nerd, that special type of idiot who brings 250 CDs on an hour-long car trip. I have taken my iPod rock climbing in Costa Rica and have the scratched screen to prove it. I cannibalized its remote control months ago to steady a headphone jack damaged by too many trips to the bottom of my backpack. With my iPod, I can bike crosstown blasting Iron Maiden at lawnmower levels. I like jogging with 2Pac, listening to audiobooks while grocery shopping and lounging in parks wrapped inside a reggae halo.

So what’s the next blockbuster in gadgetry? I’d welcome any marriage of the Treo and the iPod. The former already plays MP3s, but doesn’t look as good or store as much as the latter. But there’s no rush. The future is digital. The future is portable. The future is here.

***

Kids are the IT consultants to the increasingly wired home, “the most knowledgeable people in the family,” says Stacey Atkin of Toronto’s Solutions Research Group, who studies the teen lifestyle. Naturally, they have precise preferences in the gear they’ll tote to school. The good news: they aren’t oblivious to cost-Atkin reports that kids often seek out money-saving options in order to justify a purchase. With the help of SRG, we asked a group of teens to round up this year’s back-to-school necessities.

GAME CONSOLE

Warning: the compact Game Boy Advance SP, the most recent entry in Nintendo’s lineup, will be impossible to pry out of a 13-year-old’s hands. It comes in a range of colours, and is ubiquitous on school buses. The next generation of gaming handhelds is around the corner (page 45) and bound to show up on holiday gift lists. KIDS’ CHOICE: Game Boy Advance SP, cobalt, $139.95.

PERSONAL DIGITAL ASSISTANT

PDAs are being marketed to kids as young as elementary level now. Still, says Daniel, “anything with a schedule in it is the opposite of what teenagers are about.” But some took to study buddy PDA software, such as a measurement converter. Parents: stay away from feature-heavy models. If it looks like work, they’ll never use it. KIDS’ CHOICE: Palm Zire 31, $229.99.

MP3 PLAYER

Second only to a cellphone among must-havesand Apple’s sleek iPod tops the list of l-wants, hands down. “It’s my prized possession,” says Lily. Now available in a mini version, but get ready for requests for a faster computer, as kids will complain about how long it takes to get music off their CDs-or the Net-and onto the player. KIDS’ CHOICE: iPod mini, pink, $349.99.

SMART WATCH

The multi-tasking MSN Direct Smart Watch is a cool toy with grown-up appeal: once you sign up for MSN’s service, it gets news bites, sports scores, forecasts, horoscopes, even instant messages. “It’s awesome,” adds Daniel. “It can do anything.” KIDS’ CHOICE: Fossil Smart Watches, $199 and up (plus $14.95 for monthly service plan).

VOICE RECORDER

It only takes a visit to a lecture hall to see the popularity of digital recorders. “I can’t write very fast,” says Julie, “so it would be helpful.” Many units can download sound files directly to a PC, and some come with digital cameras. KIDS’ CHOICE: Olympus W10 recorder, $159.95.

CELLPHONE

“It’s unheard of not to have one,” says Julie. Most models double as calendars, calculators and more. Older teens want phones with cameras because, to quote a character from Fox’s The O.C., “Camera phones are the autograph of the 21st century.” KIDS’ CHOICE: Motorola T720, starting at $49 (plus monthly service plan).

PHONE ACCESSORIES

Who wants a phone that looks like everyone else’s? The growing bevy of add-ons ranges from snazzy faceplates and clips that attach to backpacks or clothing to colour screens, ring IDs for different callers, and images to dress up screens. KIDS’ CHOICE: Rivet Catwalk clip, $24.99.

USB MEMORY DRIVE

Flomework to go. Even the smallest of these portable memory devices can easily store several Word files, photos and a PowerPoint presentation. Some have tiny digital cameras. They’re compatible with PCs and Macs, as long as computers at home and school sport USB sockets. KIDS’ CHOICE: Lexar JumpDrive (64 MB), $49.99.

WEBCAM

Girls are, like, all about socializing, and instant messaging and webcams allow them to break —curfew without leaving the bedroom. If you do buy a webcam, beware that pleas for high-speed Internet access won’t be far behind. KIDS’ CHOICE: Logitech QuickCam Zoom, $129.99.

Enjoy more great stories from The Maclean’s Archives. Start your 30-day free trial today.


 

Sign in to comment.