Saturday, October 15, 2005

Reverse Gadget Evolution

Historians flag the start of a culture's decay when everyday artifacts move from increasing sophistication to increasing coarseness. If they're right, we're headed south - here are four examples.

Credit Card Calculators

Back in the 80s these were everywhere - solar powered and wafer-thin, using no more space in your wallet than a Visa card. Gas stations gave them away and a fancy one cost a few bucks.

Now they've gone. The calculator functionality in cellphones, organizers and PCs has not replaced them - these clunky objects are useless when you're stuck in the middle seat in Economy trying to dissect a balance sheet or balance an expense claim.

The next stage in this negative evolution will be the extinction of the credit-card format but 1/4" thick remnants of this once useful species.

Belt-Carried Cameras

We all eventually learn that the key to getting good pictures is not a big fancy camera, but having any camera conveniently available whenever you need it. So, starting 15 years ago, suppliers switched to compact models which fitted neatly in cases that slipped on your belt. Then, when baby took its first steps, you just drew, pointed and shot. The most refined version was the Canon Ixus.

Then we went digital, and cameras got clunky again. A few years back, after failing to find one with with a belt case, I bought I bought a fat Fuji6800Z. I tried to live with the wrist strap and the severe injury risk of cramming it into a chino pocket. I never did adapt, and my rate of picture taking has tanked. And, confirming the insecurity, one of the folks at the wedding we recently attended had their camera ripped from their wrist strap by a thieving kid in downtown Mexico City.

The next stage of negative evolution is this accessory, which goes with the neat Sony DSCP200 - can you imagine wearing one of these monstrosities?

Ergonomic Cellphones

Remember the cool Nokia phone in The Matrix, with the cover that slid down to expose the keyboard and position the mike close to your mouth? I had one for several years in the late 90s. It was great - affordable, big keys, screen visible when it was closed up. The phone was slightly curved, so it fitted neatly into chino or shirt pocket. And the protected keyboard meant no need for a keylock.

Then Nokia switched to their mini-coffin platform. Clamshells survived in Moto, Korea and Japan, for folks who hated to waste time taking off keylocks. But clamshells need an extra display on the outside for caller ID - horrible engineering. Plus, for manually challenged folks like me, clamshells need two hands to open, so making calls while driving becomes difficult (yes, I know it's illegal).

Now the only sliders are Nokia's expensive and clunky 8800 and Samsung's D600 for for girls (ahem, I mean the tiny-handed).

Given this rate of negative evolution, expect Bakelite handsets with dials any day.

Laptop Pointing Sticks

I'm hammering this out on my 3 year old Toshiba Tecra laptop. It has a full sized keyboard, because it uses a pointing stick mouse. For those of you brought up on touch pads, the pointing stick is a little, er, protuberance between the G, H and B keys. It's easy to use, and means that the keyboard is over 1 inch deeper than if you had to fit a touch pad onto the palm rest area.

Now I'm thinking of an upgrade but Toshiba has moved to touch pads and itsy-bitsy keyboards. The only pointing stick left is on the Thinkpad, and that means buying from commies.

In the next evolutionary step, the 2 guys in Taiwan who design the world's laptops will decide they need to make keyboards bigger so will drop the touch pad and give you an external optical mouse.

Which means that when you're trying to catch up with your mail on the red-eye, center seat Economy, the tiny female in front of you reclined into your lap and a 6' 6" Texan behind you stopping you similarly reclining, you're stuffed.