Sunday, January 15, 2017

Technology in the PALM of My Hand

There was a time when I took pride in being something of an early adopter. I remember the thrill of my first (used) Amiga 1000--an upgrade from the family Tandy 1000, the upgrades to friends' gaming systems, and envy over people with digital watches--some with calculators! I don't know precisely when my membership in this club ended, but at some point my school was replacing my computer more frequently than I needed or wanted. I'm pretty sure that doesn't happen to early adopters. During this span, I lived as many of you do now: knowing exactly how many months until my next phone upgrade, reading product reviews of upcoming devices, and knowing by heart the features that were promised in the new OS for several different platforms.

I got into the palmtop computing universe at more-or-less the beginning with the lauded Palm Vx. When the time came, I readily upgraded to the Tungsten T2-- a noticeable improvement in that it had a color screen, a slot for removable (and therefore upgrade-able) memory, and a cool slider-action that shrunk the whole thing when not doing text entry. You likely don't remember that text entry in the Palm world was by way of a handwriting recognition system called Graffiti--side note: I could still take you in a texting duel using this method. The Tungsten T2 included Bluetooth and an infrared-data-sharing method called "beaming", but not the at-the-time sketchy new wireless format called "WiFi". Its successor did have WiFi, as well as an improved Graffiti area that let you see your pen-strokes and use this area for general screen-expansion when not needed for text. I was certain I would make that upgrade soon.

Meanwhile I got a cell phone. Not right away, mind you. My wife and I fiddled around with a pager for a brief time, but a series of false alarms and resulting trips to payphones (where we needed to enter 65 digits just to call home) eventually spurred us to get a pair of phones and our first Family Plan. For years, I called it the "magic phone" because for a kid who grew up in the '70s and '80s, calling friends on the corded phone in the kitchen (which we just called a "phone", since all phones had cord) being able to call or be called while in the car (or, more amazingly not in the car) was like suddenly having a superpower.

By the way, we actually bought a car in the early-nineties that came with a car phone. We had the dealer remove it because we were worried it would increase the likelihood that the car would be broken into. Not kidding.

I never did get to upgrade to the Tungsten T3. Palm merged with rival Handspring, fought an ugly battle with Xerox over Graffiti, and shifted its focus to phone/handheld hybrids. I was sure this was a fad. Spoilers: it wasn't. Long story short: Palm had won the battle with Apple--with its overpriced and clunky Newton, had won the battle with Xerox over Graffiti--only after making us all switch to the less elegant Graffiti 2, and then dropped the idea of stand-alone handhelds.

Unlike Hillary Clinton, I never had any problem with carrying two devices. As has been the case from pretty much the beginning, I carry an aging flip phone to take care of all of my phone needs and a similarly aging iPod Touch--the first and only replacement for my beloved Palm Pilots--for the rest. Given that both of these devices are quickly coming to the end of their expected functional lifespan, I'm soon going to be stuck with a decision. I can try to replace these machines with decreasingly relevant editions, or join the smartphone universe.

At a certain point, lots of teachers (and other grownups) stop updating their wardrobe. We reach a point when following current trends is too much of a hassle and the clothes we have in our closet suit us just fine. We may change out the actual items, but often with replacements for what's already there.

I think I reached a similar sort of saturation point with technology. The machines I have right now generally meet my needs in that I can call and text (texting is pretty ugly, in case you've forgotten life with T9, but technically I can text). I have internet on my handheld at home, at work, at a good number of restaurants and stores, and very occasionally tethered to my wife's iPhone by making her a personal hotspot (I feel weird disclosing that to you). I do have a school-issued iPad, but for me it's pretty much a bulked up iPod. With my aging eyes, a bigger screen is welcome, but the way I use it now it's far from a game-changer.

What to do when your current device meets your needs, and you worry that the replacement will be worse. We were recently "upgraded" on our work laptops--which means that I have a scanner that no longer works (no drivers for Windows 10), can't read or write CDs or DVDs, and my old chargers no longer work. Apple recently made news when it "upgraded" the iPhone by not including an 1/8" jack. Now you can conveniently use only Apple devices to interface with your phone, and your collection of portable speakers, car aux inputs, and earbuds not made special for Apple are no longer useful. You're welcome.

It pains me to say, as a former early adopter, but all I really wanted was incremental improvements in the devices I had. My favorite cellphone was something like this:
It was small, light, had a front display, and nearly infinite battery life. Phones I've had since then have had cameras I almost never used, MP3 players I definitely never used, and internet capability I've never used on purpose. I play MP3s through my iPod, and don't really understand why I'd need my phone to duplicate this capacity.

Lasting contentment with electronics isn't really possible, though. Devices that spend their entire day with you are going to physically wear out through drops, scratches, dents, and losing battles with the keys in your pocket. Batteries can only be recharged so many times before they just can't do it anymore. Moore's Law says that each replacement is bound to be cheaper, faster, and have lots more memory. Whatever the equivalent of Moore's Law is on display technology means that you'll get better screens each time as well. Because of improvements in memory and display technology, the content these devices access is improving all the time too. I don't know what today's websites would look like on my Vx, but I'm guessing not very good. There was a time when the mobile versions of websites assumed you were on a phone like mine. Now I can't imagine that anyone's web-surfing on phones. In fact, I don't think anyone says web-surfing anymore.

It's been so long for most of you that you probably don't remember, but here's what you've given up:
Flip phones have a few built-in advantages that you've forgotten about:
  1. The device is smaller when in you pocket than it is when you're talking on it. Something the size of a car key isn't so good as a phone, something the size of a roof shingle isn't so good in your pocket.
  2. With this style, you answer the phone and hang it up with the same gesture as the old school Star Trek communicators, which means you can actually hang up on people by snapping them shut--this is much more satisfying than hitting a glowing spot on your screen.
  3. Buttons--remember buttons?--are protected in storage, and physical tactile things when in use.
  4. The phone screen needs only be large enough for a list of names and a phone number. You'll be doing your internet browsing on another device.
  5. Batteries last for days. You could even have a spare and swap them, though I never have.
Handheld computers that aren't phones also have advantages:
  1. They can be larger than you'd like to have in your pocket all the time--my daughter's Galaxy 6 phablet would definitely pants me in my jogging shorts, and that's not nearly the largest "phone" out there. Hold your iPad up to your ear to get a sense of where this is going.
  2. Sometimes being mired offline for extended periods demands can result in bursts of creativity (much of the early entries of this blog, plus a draft of a novel, were written when I had a computer and no Internet), and/or reading analog content (think: books and magazines).
  3. WiFi-only leads to frugality that people with data plans rarely bother with. I check for public WiFi whenever I try to access online content away from home/work. 
This post isn't intended to get you to do things my way. I recognize that I've lost this argument, and that the technology world has passed me by. What I hope I can do, though, is to ask questions that lead to "what's next and where does it end?" The holograms in Star Wars are pretty cool, but most of what they delivered could have been sent in a text. The video conferencing in Star Trek isn't so much better than what we can do now with Skype and Facetime. Alexis is getting us closer to Hal, which is great I'm sure by some measure.

The core question is, can technology be a growth industry when technology pretty much does now what we imagined for ourselves in science fiction. I don't know that I need social media to become more social, and I know for sure that it's full of way too much media. I write blogs in this format because my writing and thinking are stuck in 1999 when people actually communicated in paragraphs. I'm not convinced that all of the progress in technology in that time has improved things, and I'm not ready for what's next.

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