i finger gadgets

Damn, I thought I had found a Christmas gift for my wife that was not a gadget. You may love a gadget. You may tell your friends. You may keep using it for a year. Or not. But to me, a gadget is defined as something you don’t immediately replace when it’s lost. Gadgets aren’t game-changers that permanently alter how you live.

I think it was Christmas ’04 that I bought my wife a Palm Tungsten. Very nice machine. Her dad later bought a pair for himself and his wife. The way my wife played Bejeweled on it had a profound and lasting influence on the way that I think about direct-manipulation user-interfaces. But when it was stolen, it was not replaced.

Then I bough her a Palm Treo Smartphone. Very nice machine. Hotest/coolest thing around until the iPhone came along. Except the Cingular cum AT&T network sucked rocks. Less than half of her incoming or outgoing calls go through, no matter how important they are. That’s not the phone’s fault, but the net result is that she avoids using her phone. She actually leaves it home most of the times she leaves the house. The interface and sound on music playing is not very good, and she usually opts for our daughter’s iPod. The camera just isn’t good enough, so we’d rather lug around the family Nikon D, wich isn’t much heavier. (Very nice machine! It HAS changed the way we think about photography, digital or otherwise. With a flawless interface and picture quality, and a thousand pics per chewing-gum stick, we take pictures of everything, reflexively and constantly. No worries!) My buddy has the same Treo and it has changed his life – most of which is spent in client meetings at various offices and coffee shops. He photographs the cocktail napkins and has on-board software that corrects the parallax. But the thing just has not changed how my wife lives.

I though the iPod iTouch was going to change my track record. With the crummy network, an iPhone would be pointless — just a heavier iTouch that costs at least $60/month more. But I thought the iPod iTouch could be a personal full-time iPod/browser/game box.

I drape myself teenager-like over any surface in the house with my PowerBook G4 in my hands. It rarely leaves my side, and the rest of my family has to make do. My wife and three kids still watch some television, but they’re really right at the edge of going wireless. We just don’t quite have the right platform for them. The two crappy Windows laptops rarely leave their desks. The crappy Windows desktop sucks. I thought a personal iTouch would change that.

So I went to check it out at the local Apple Store. Two things keep this device from actually meeting the modest needs of my wife:

  1. Alas, while iPod classic and nano can have games downloaded, the store folks tell me the iTouch uses Web apps. That won’t work in the car or an airplane! And Waunakee, Wisconsin ain’t exactly wired everywhere like Cupertino! I’m not talking Half-life here, I just want her to be able to play Solitaire and Sudoku without jacking in to the ‘net. Why the hell can’t I just download any Web media – game, page, pdf, or otherwise, and store it like I would music or video? A possible alternative would be Apple “widgets” as used on the iPhone, but apple.com refuses to say anything about them for iTouch, and the holiday staff at the Apple Store don’t even know what Widgets are. (One store redshirt even told me that iPhone Web apps wouldn’t work on the iTouch.)
  2. Alas, I can’t find any information about printing. What the hell’s the point of finding a recipe on cookinglight.com and not being able to print it out? The tiny screen on the iTouch would be fine if she could print when needed! The need to stay connected to use, say, Google Maps, would be fine if she could print the map! There’s no good reason that printer drivers can’t be downloaded – maybe through iTunes. And failing that, why can’t content be sent to network/IP printer directly, in which the drivers should really be on the printer itself.

So close, and yet – just a gadget.

About Stearns

Howard Stearns works at High Fidelity, Inc., creating the metaverse. Mr. Stearns has a quarter century experience in systems engineering, applications consulting, and management of advanced software technologies. He was the technical lead of University of Wisconsin's Croquet project, an ambitious project convened by computing pioneer Alan Kay to transform collaboration through 3D graphics and real-time, persistent shared spaces. The CAD integration products Mr. Stearns created for expert system pioneer ICAD set the market standard through IPO and acquisition by Oracle. The embedded systems he wrote helped transform the industrial diamond market. In the early 2000s, Mr. Stearns was named Technology Strategist for Curl, the only startup founded by WWW pioneer Tim Berners-Lee. An expert on programming languages and operating systems, Mr. Stearns created the Eclipse commercial Common Lisp programming implementation. Mr. Stearns has two degrees from M.I.T., and has directed family businesses in early childhood education and publishing.

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