Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Racing Gadgets to the Future

Here's some disclosure: I own, and fairly regularly use, a VCR. Well, to be fair, it's a combination DVD player and VCR, but even those are difficult to find these days - I've only ever seen the same brand over and over. You may wonder why I still stick with that "ancient" technology - but have you seen how cheap VHS tapes go for these days? Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade for a dollar is a deal you'd be hard-pressed to find in DVD. Still, the world of personal technology has changed a great deal since we were earnestly exhorted to be kind and rewind - changed for most of us, that is. With my stack of videotapes and my lack of a mobile phone, except for my always-on broadband internet I really don't live much differently than I did in 2000.

Yet there are always those who want to push ahead - people who want the newest, latest gadget, like those who camped out for the latest iPhone, and people who wnat to make sure that people keep buying these gadgets, again and again and again, shelling out dollars upon dollars for incremental improvements. I'm told, for example, that the new iPhone has improved cameras and a new voice-recognition system that allows you to talk at it and tell it what to do, like closing the pod bay doors. I don't know if that, along with the additional new programs and gizmos on the new iPhone, is enough to warrant an upgrade. A lot of people believe it is, though; in its first weekend of availability, more than four million of them were sold.

Plenty of people seem to have reason to believe that this sort of trajectory will only get steeper into the future. More and more folks will get more and more sophisticated smartphones, so the story goes, and that steadily increasing sophistication will effectively eject devices from the marketplace as phones incorporate their functions - this is the thesis behind an article that ran in the Globe and Mail a couple of weeks ago, "Gadgets that won't be around in 2020" - or, at least, which will be as common then as VCRs are now.

What gadgets? Things like self-contained GPS systems, ebook readers, point-and-shoot cameras, and CDs and DVDs as storage media. They're fairly tame predictions, in their way, though I am as always greatly suspicious of the movement away from physical to digitial distribution models, as the latter has the potential to place a hell of a lot more power in the vendor, and the recent back-and-forth about bandwidth caps in Canada demonstrate that for now, that digital distribution future is still very unevenly distributed.

There are two things that concern me about this trajectory. Consolidation, and choice. Sure, it'd be convenient to have all of your devices in one, wouldn't it? You wouldn't have to fumble through pockets for one or the other if your phone was also your camera, your map, and your on-the-go computer, wouldn't it? Great, great... but what happens when it breaks?

Such as, say, my old digital camera, which had a rather unfortunate encounter from elevation with a hard concrete floor in Los Angeles? I know I've used this photo before, but the truth is I just don't have that many broken cameras.

For me, it was a fairly straightforward solution - a trip out to a West Hollywood Best Buy to obtain a replacement, because I'll be damned if I'm going to be out and about in a city I've never been without a camera to swing around. What if it hadn't just been my camera, though, but essentially everything I'd been relying on? Granted, since I've never owned a mobile phone I have no experience with how difficult it is to replace things, but with what I've seen about the prices and contracts and fine print, it doesn't strike me as being quite as easy as poking through the big box store's camera department, when replacement is necessary on short notice.

Consolidation amplifies convenience, certainly, but it also amplifies risk - and with payment functions starting to migrate to smartphones as in the case of Google Wallet, more and more people seem to be making them more and more central in their lives. Which isn't bad, as long as everything works fine. But things never work fine all the time.

Yet this stampede also cuts against choice. The more people who have decent point-and-shoot cameras embedded in their phones, the smaller a market there is for stand-alones, and the harder it gets for people who want them to get them. Sure, it's still possible to get a VCR/DVD player like I've got, but it costs twice as much as a pure DVD player, and I've only ever seen the one model by Toshiba for sale anywhere. How long is it going to be before people are forced into that model of consolidation, simply because they can't afford the alternative?

I know that technology always advances, at least in our current frame of development. It's just I have this thing about people constantly crowing about the future of technology without really stopping to think about what's implied.

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