Sometimes, when I’m busy whining and moaning about all of the ways that modern gadgets disappoint me, I lose site of a larger truth – we live in an incredible time for technology. I think even Arthur C. Clark would admit that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish technology from pure, unadulterated magic.
Oddly enough, I've dealt out quite a bit of grief towards Apple for their iPad tag-line, "magical and revolutionary." I've sat on my high horse, scoffing at Apple and the Steve Jobs’ cult that blindly follows him like turtle-neck frocked, mocha sipping, so-hip-it-hurts sheep. But perhaps I need to step back, take a deep breath, and find a moment of inner clarity on this issue.
The thing that rubs me the wrong way about the iPad tag-line isn't that it’s untrue – but in a world of magical, miraculous, Star Trek tech gadgets, being "magical and revolutionary" often turns out to be pretty mundane and ordinary.
This moment of truth came to me while I was reading an online blog about the Microsoft Courier prototype – another "magical and revolutionary" gadget, especially for wedding planners, designers, and all kinds of other graphic-art professionals who would welcome the opportunity to dump scrap-books and binders full of clippings, notes on the back of napkins, and other bits and pieces of paper for a single, electronic, digital organizer that does all of these things. (See Engadget's Courier pics and details.)
A very hip, very coffee-shop sounding audio track was playing in the background of a video clip about the Courier, and it sounded perfect for a sunny Sunday drive through hilly green countryside with puffy white clouds on the horizon. I thought, "I should figure out what this song is, because my wife will love it." So, I did what any reasonable person would do when watching a Microsoft concept video with a neat soundtrack.
I grabbed my Droid phone and opened the Shazam application. Shazam is an interesting little Android app that will listen to a song and tell you what it is, as well as provide links to it on YouTube and the Amazon MP3 store. The best part is that it works really well. There have been quite a few times when I've actually had a real need to use this application, and in each case, it has met my needs – in a way that is mind-blowing if you think about how magical and revolutionary it actually is.
In short order, my Droid phone listened to the music on the Courier concept video (via Shazam), figured out the song, and provided the name, artist, and links. For all intents and purposes, I have a magic box that performs miracles. If I could travel back in time a mere decade, people would be convinced my Droid was reverse engineered Alien technology from Area 51.
So, when Apple tries to pass off their device as uniquely "magical and revolutionary," keep in mind that we're in a world where there are levitating snake-charmers turning lead into gold on every street corner as far as technology is concerned. The iPad may indeed be magical and revolutionary, but there’s a revolution in technology every 18 months, and my Droid can cast spells that would make Gandalf's jaw drop. Realistically, the iPad and Droid are just two of many spectacular devices.
However, we're hard on our technology. Our expectations are unreasonably high, and we take for granted the amazing things that modern technology delivers. The Droid is selling right now for $19.99. In 1984, a Sony Walkman that could hold about 60 minutes of music cost about $200. A Casio watch with a calculator and a built-in game cost another $35 (and tagged you as hopelessly socially inept in the bargain).
Today, my Droid can hold and play an entire lifetime's library worth of music and perfectly emulate an entire Commodore 64 PC at the same time. Heck, I haven't looked into it, but my guess is that my Droid could emulate a Commodore 64, an Amiga, and a Mac Quadra without even breaking a sweat – and probably play some generic gem-dropping game at the same time.
But when I originally wrote this post, my Droid couldn't read a Kindle eBook. You see, the real problem here is that I always want more. I’m not happy about the limitations of my device, and I've got a suspicion that many of those limitations are manufacturers keeping "aces up their shirt sleeve" to encourage me to buy their next round of technology. I think they could deliver all or more of the magic that I currently feel is missing from modern devices and gadgets, but they're afraid if they show me all their tricks now, I won't buy anything they make in the future.
More than any other manufacturer, Apple is obviously guilty of this kind of thinking. We've seen that technology has reached a point where people are putting down their core duo MacBooks for A4-based iPads that make an entry-level netbook seem like a beefy processor. Intel has been struggling with the fact that their bleeding edge tech is relatively stagnant, while their lowest margin products are selling like hotcakes. It hasn't hurt Intel yet and may arguably have helped them post some record numbers coming out of a really nasty recession, but I can understand why they see it as a disturbing trend.
Apple, of course, can get people to buy a machine 600 Mhz slower than a base netbook for double the price, but they're the anomaly in technology markets in this regard. They're the new "Greatest Show on Earth," and they're lining up suckers in droves. The rest of the industry has to figure out how to make their fortunes off of their lowest margin tech, and that means not selling the whole show to the first person who pulls their wallet out. Instead, they're trying to get us to come back, pay for the same thing over and over again, with small enhancements that they could have included all along – but didn't.
As a matter of fact, Apple is so full of hubris that before a single iPad was sold they announced that they had considerable margin to drop the price of the iPad if sales were sluggish. They flat out told consumers, "If you don't pay list price on day 1 in large enough numbers, we'll drop the price to just about whatever point it takes for you to start buying them." However, consumers lined up and paid the steep price anyway.
Regardless of what happens with the iPad, the Courier, the iPhone, or the Android – the one thing that I’m certain of is that, right now, we live in a time of outrageously cool tech. It’s a great time to be a geek.
Donovan Colbert has over 16 years of experience in the IT Industry. He's worked in help-desk, enterprise software support, systems administration and engineering, IT management, and is a regular contributor for TechRepublic. Currently, his professional role is as a Linux support engineer for a fast-growing Linux/FOSS consultancy group. You can follow him @dcolbert on Twitter or his personal blog, located at http://donovancolbert.blogspot.com.