Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Death of the Dedicated Gadget

I have always enjoyed gadgets. Google's new dictionary ( defines gadget as follows: "A gadget is a small machine or device which does something useful. You sometimes refer to something as a gadget when you are suggesting that it is complicated and unnecessary."

For years, specific items were engineered to perform a specific function. A hammer is a hammer. A screwdriver is a screwdriver. A saw is a saw. Every profession has its own gadgets, whether you're a doctor, accountant, road paver, carpenter or musician.

But most people nowadays refer to gadgets as being electrical in nature, such as cell phones, measuring devices, games and toys, and more.

Most gadgets do one or a very few number of things well. For example, GPS devices are great for helping you navigate. Some even work as a speakerphone for your mobile phone and will give you turn-by-turn directions.Other gadgets let you solve puzzles by using mechanical parts, buttons, lights or other challenges.

The very nature of gadgets is that they do one or just a few things really well. Gadgets can range from just a few dollars to thousands of dollars, depending on their complexity, marketability and other consumer-oriented forces.

The problem with gadgets -- just like any other new shiny object -- is that they tend to be used for a little while and then are relegated to a shelf or drawer somewhere. Even if you needed to use them, because they're all separate, they're hard to carry.

But as computer technology has shrunk, we now have mobile computing platforms that fit in your pocket. Most notably, the Apple iPhone and its "App Store" allow people to toss a large number of their gadgets and carry them in their pocket. The new Google Android operating system that's out on the Motorola Droid as well as RIM's Blackberry and Palm's devices have similar application capabilities.

Instead of mobile phones that have the ability to run applications, we've now moved to mobile computing platforms that have a telephone function. But where the telephone used to be the primary function of a mobile phone, in many instances, it's now a secondary or tertiary function.

Some of the gadgets that I think will go away almost immediately are the dashtop mounted GPS devices. I have one and it's pretty nice, but it could soon be replaced since my next telephone will have a GPS chip in it and be able to connect to a map source such as Google maps (which is constantly updated), as well as real-time traffic data. Plus, most GPS companies charge for map updates and real-time traffic data.

My daughter plays the piano, violin and harp. She has a gadget that she uses to tune her instruments. But with the iPhone's built-in microphone and the iPod touch's accessory microphone, she no longer needs to carry her electronic tuner gadget.

For carpenters and do-it-yourselfers, there's a level much like the old spirit levels to tell you when something is horizontal or vertical " -- or anything in between -- all with digital readout.

There's no need to go on about the different applications these platforms have. Apple claims to have more than 75,000 such applications available for download. The important point is that the computation power people carry in their pocket -- as well as its inherent flexibility -- is nothing short of astounding.

Your mobile phone is not just a phone. It's a full-blown computer.

While many gadgets required you to carry them around in your pocket, a carrying case, or some other method that takes up space, many new gadgets are just a screen click away.

I remember when the original Leatherman multi-tools came out. They combined pliers, a knife, screwdriver, saw and more into one useful gadget. The benefit was that they put a whole bunch of tools into a single tool. The problem was that I still like the strength and control of the individual tools.

But with mobile computing platforms, there's very little that one gives up by putting these gadgets on them. In fact, most of the gadgets are improved by the new platforms.

For people who love gadgets as much as I do, I'll miss the shelf and closet full of gadgets. Yet, having them all in my pocket everywhere I go will also be a lot of fun.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 9 December 2009.
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