The Year in Preview
Bananas by the Drop
Geeky Gadgets Galore
“Like most Americans, I have everything I need …”, said Anna Quindlen, writing for the December 3rd issue of Newsweek magazine. Yet she provides her wish list, for Christmas “… a box of my friend Ronnie's homemade peanut brittle, the sight of my children gathered around the fireside and the assurance that the next plane on which I fly will not have a plastic tail that detaches upon takeoff.”
Unlike most Americans’, Anna’s list did not include store-bought material goods. Even though American consumers have everything they need, the appetite for things that are new, improved, quirky, humorous or just plain gimmicky is huge. Every year, inventors, manufacturers and marketers gang up to sell more trinkets and gadgets to the consuming public. A sizable part of the consumerism is in consumer electronics, estimated at about $10 billion a year.
Consumer electronics for decades have consisted of radios, music systems and televisions. Not any more, the convergence of electronics with computers, memory, LCD screens, sensors, wireless and satellites have produced a dizzying array of eclectic things. These are truly toys for the adults. And adults lust for them with more gusto than a little boy for his model cars.
The appetite for consumer electronics is schizophrenic. Since people do not actually need these things, they do not want to buy them, but yet they do. Bridging the schizophrenia of do-not-want-yet-want is the machinery of marketing, hype and peer pressure. When a new electronic gadget is created the marketers promote it, the trade publications create the hype and then the “must have” crowd join the parade. The must-have people are those that who would rather go hungry than not possess the latest toy. They not only buy them, they create the market. They tell everyone about how useful and wonderful this thing is and how it has changed their lives. Soon the next set of people (who have already been primed by the media), who do not need the gadget, develop a fiery need for it
So strong is the penchant for consumer electronics that this industry has been dubbed “recession proof”. Even in a time of discontent and doldrums, the sales of consumer electronics has not slowed down much. The combination of hype, intense marketing, peer pressure and a love for technology has ensured that the adults get their toys.
The starting point of the marketing machine for consumer electronics is a huge extravaganza called the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). CES is the convergence of gadgets and hype designed to whet the appetite of every techno-lover to the extreme. CES is held at the glitzy strip called Las Vegas every year. Here the manufacturers show off their latest and greatest innovations. About 100,000 people turn up at the show to gawk and soak up the hype. This year’s show started January 7th, and the buzz of things to come is heating up.
CES is the showcase of things to come. Soon after CES, the products showcased start arriving at the store shelves and by next Christmas the successful ones reap huge benefits. This year’s hottest product seems to be the flat panel digital television. These are TV sets that are about an inch deep, and can hang on a wall or look pretty in a bookcase. Thin and light, yet large and elegant, they sport an unrivalled picture quality. Instead of a bulky “Cathode Ray Tube” they use a thin film of plasma—little glowing dots of light—to create the picture. Coupled with the emerging standards of HDTV (high definition TV), the picture sparkles. HDTV enlarges the number of dots on the screen from about 200,000 in conventional TV pictures to over 2 million. This ten-fold increase in information transmission is of course made possible by digitizing the signal, compressing it and then transmitting it. The receiver does the opposite and the result is quite remarkable.
Adding GPS (Global Positioning System) to things ordinary has created the next generation of position aware thingamajigs. A GPS receiver in a cellular phone allows the owner to track their location, get directions or call for help in emergencies. A GPS in a watch allows parents to locate an errant child lost in the crowds at an amusement park. Small handheld GPS units can provide street level guidance for tourists and delivery people. While GPS has been around since 1990 the range of GPS based products has finally hit the high point.
Things that play music or show video have always stirred consumer interest. The latest all-in-one is about the size of a pack of cigarettes and has no moving parts. A model from Panasonic has no description—it’s a camcorder, it’s a music system, it’s an audio recorder and it’s a digital camera. Small enough to fit comfortably in the pocket, and weighing less than 200 grams, it comes complete with a lens and a flip out TV screen. It can record and playback 30 minutes of video, take 880 pictures or play 2 hours of music and its batteries last 50 hours. For a price lower than most camcorders, is that not a “must have”?
The list of gadgets adorning the stalls at CES can fill volumes. Satellite radio circumvents the limited choices from broadcast stations and can tune to your favorite programming even when you are in the middle of the wilderness. Portable DVD players provide entertainment regardless where you are (they have built in screens). Video cameras have shrunk to sizes unimaginable with quality surpassing anything available currently. Wireless networking abounds in all shapes and forms and built into many of the gadgets to provide seamless connectivity while you roam. Microwave ovens can look up recipes and guide you through food preparations. Just to name a few.
The dazzle of CES was almost overshadowed by another event, held at the same time, in San Francisco called the Macworld Expo. Normally, Macworld Expo is a ho-hum event populated by the faithful religious followers of the other parallel universe of computing. This universe is totally managed, controlled and fed by one company—Apple. Macworld is the confluence of lovers of the Macintosh computer. The Macintosh does everything that a standard PC does (and more according to some) but does it differently and does it with style. It uses a different software standard and hence PC software cannot be run on the Macintosh. Compared to the PC, the Macintosh is slower, more expensive but it beats the PC hollow, in appearance.
This year, Macworld was different. For months the streets were abuzz with purposefully leaked rumors from Apple promising that something big was about to happen at Macworld. Eventually we learned that the quirky, charismatic CEO of Apple, Steve Jobs, would make an announcement that will make the world stop. Whatever this was, was kept top secret. Some people guessed what it was (the guesses were correct) but all that Apple would say was “Count the days. Count the minutes. Count on being blown away”.
The faithful Macintosh users waited with baited breath and until January 7th when Jobs blew the lid off of the cliffhanger by unveiling—a computer. Yet another new computer, a Macintosh, that is, as usual, overpriced, underpowered adorned with a smallish flat digital screen with lack luster resolution. It bears a resemblance to a table lamp, the screen is attached to the base with a pivoting arm and Jobs called it “the ultimate digital hub”. The faithful went crazy—they had just seen God.
To its merit, the “new iMac” as it is called, is extremely pretty. Instead of the box that most computers come in, the iMac is housed in a dome-like enclosure, the size of a medium turtle. From the top if the dome an arm extends and holds up the thin and light screen. The screen can pivot around in many directions, making the computer fit a lot of differently configured desks. Elegant and pretty? Yes. Revolutionary? No.
The mention of Apple has to be countered by the mention of Apple’s arch-enemy Microsoft. Why is Microsoft the incarnation of evil, according to the world of Apple, is a mystery to me. The whole reason that Apple can sell the overpriced toys is that Microsoft supports a version of its popular software product called “Microsoft Office for Macintosh”. If Microsoft did not do that, the iMac would be as useful as a good-looking doorstop and Apple would be in bankruptcy.
Microsoft was not left out of the hype machine. Bill gates delivered a keynote speech at CES holding up his gift to mankind—Mira. Mira is the final version of the much touted “tablet PC”. Essentially Mira is a laptop computer without a keyboard. Mira interacts with humans via handwriting recognition, voice recognition and sports a wireless connection to the Internet. Bill Gates showed a video clip demonstrating how a family could use Mira: a father using it in the living room to work on a report; a teen-age daughter using it in her bedroom to listen to music; and the mother using it on the kitchen counter to check the weather.
While Bill Gates’s video clip did not charm my jaded heart, I would find Mira rather useful. She would enable me to read the newspaper in the toilet, without having a severe case of achy elbows.
Partha Dasgupta is on the faculty of the Computer Science and Engineering Department at Arizona State University in Tempe. His specializations are in the areas of Operating Systems, Cryptography and Networking. His homepage is at http://cactus.eas.asu.edu/partha