Wednesday, August 10, 2005


I hold some small measure of pride that in 1994 I was ahead of the curve on converging technologies; I predicted the scanner/printer/copier/fax machine. I was part of a group that was so on top of things technologically, in fact, that we were unable to create an online magazine because we needed technologies that didn’t yet exist — at least, not in user-friendly form.

The only thing we accomplished was buying an America Online e-mail address, which I wound up keeping for more years than I care to admit. What we could not do was figure out a way to post multiple pages of a magazine called Cruel World Online (on the brand-newish Internet) so people could print out whatever pages and articles they wanted (via the yet-to-be-released Adobe Acrobat). We cleverly spotted the reality that the Internet meant no printing or distribution costs, and we just as sadly couldn’t take advantage of it.

This early prescience has settled into a reflective crankiness as I have come to expect things to converge better and faster than they are. Two decades after Betamax and VHS competed for the tops of the giant cubes we called televisions, Blu-Ray and HD-DVD are competing to be built into the video screens we will soon hang on our walls. A couch can turn into a bed, but Apple’s Address Book can’t even dial the phone for me by emitting tones to play into a mouthpiece (a feature its progenitor had in OS 9).

Okay, that’s not really an example of convergence. It’s just a complaint.

But worst of all is my landline telephone, which has absorbed the worst features of cell phones (downloadable ringtones) and added ridiculous new ones (the antenna can light up in any of three colors to reflect who’s calling) without paying attention to what’s most simple and valuable — namely such things as recent-call logs with redial. My fancy new Panasonic KX-TG5571 is fancy without being very impressive, and for all its buttons and gimcrackery, still offers only a feature that’s as old as the first touch tone phones: redial of the most recently called number.

Meanwhile, cell phones offer downloadable ringtones and all the data you’d care to know about a call (what time it was made, how long it lasted) without guaranteeing you can even hear the person on the other end or speak for longer than a few seconds. They record video that’s not worth looking at and want desperately to take you online, but still rely on a keypad that demands you hit 2 three times to get the letter C.

This decade will probably see the end of the landline, which is one way to solve a problem: Converge it out of existence. The question is whether cell phone reception will improve significantly as landlines die off, especially as they absorb more and more of the functionality of PDAs and computers.

Let’s hope so. Our scanner/printer/copier/fax machines are chintzy, half-assed heaps of plastic. Our brave new world of convergence offers a lot of things done badly rather than one thing done well — and paying for one thing done well (a standalone fax machine, for instance) costs as much or more as the combo.

It’s become all too predictable. I know, because making predictions is one of the things I do in a half-assed way.


Indri said...

I was in a focus group recently for a new kind of cell phone/game/video thingie, and people raised exactly the same point you are, Marc; how about one tool that works the way it's supposed to?

I am often bemused that things don't work the way I think they should. Why can't I ask my cell, for example, how to get to a specific address? It would make my life a lot easier, and lessen my friends' suspicions that I'm a complete flake.

Ditto with the recent space shuttle mission and the attendant spacewalks. I've read so much sci-fi where going EVA is commonplace that I was a little surprised that it still requires so much planning, that the astronaut doesn't just jump into a suit and go out to take a quick look around. Robinson got a twelve-page email about how to pull out those gap fillers, for heaven's sake.

And it wasn't even an email from me, in which case the length would make a little sense.

Scape7 said...

It's nice to hear that your focus group rebelled a bit. That's feedback the convergers need to hear.

One thing I know: The space shuttles aren't being equipped with those crappy combination tools! (Swiss Army knives excepted, although I doubt the shuttle's getting them, anyway.)

Indri said...

Oh, we rebelled a lot; when they asked which newspapers and magazines we wanted to be able to read online and offered USA Today and People on the multiple-choice, we wrote in the WSJ, Al-Jazeera, and the Economist. Big fun. But mostly, yes, people kept saying it would be nice to read BoingBoing on my phone, but why if the phone doesn't work as a phone?