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Friday, January 20, 2012

All I wanted for Christmas (technology-wise)

When I was a kid, after I reached the age of about 13, I really got into gadgets. The electronics and computing marketplace was just taking off and everything was really exciting. Remember, this was 1973 - only a mere 38 years ago!

My first purchase was a Sinclair Cambridge calculator which was an amazing gadget that put my slide rule to a serious test. Of course it wasn't perfect, and it did take a while to calculate a few things. Then there was 'rounding error' to contend with too. But the best 'feature' was that if you tried to divide anything by zero, it tried to calculate the result for you! Something that would leave the calculator happily engaged forever if you let it.

Next up was the Sinclair Scientific, an amazing calculator that introduced trigonometry and log / anti-log functions. It was a little faster overall than the Cambridge, but when you asked it to perform trig functions you could actually watch as it tried to calculate the result! Oh, the good old pioneering days of pocket calculators.

In my later school years I purchased my first programmable calculator, only to find out I couldn't use it in my school exams! Still, the slide rule and log tables actually sufficed and got me through. Kids today have no concept of a slide rule or log tables. I guess that's something that has been lost to the void forever now. It's a shame really as these were really good 'gadgets' and you actually had to understand things before you used them in anger, unlike modern calculators that just do things mindlessly, even when you don't know what it is you're really trying to do.

Anyway, I finally left school and started work in 1978, just as technology was burgeoning. My first purchase about a year later was an Acorn Atom computer which I put together from a kit. It used the TV as output and a cassette recorder as input. Its 2kb (yes, 2 kilobytes of memory, or 0.0000019 of a gigabyte!!) of memory served me well. I was able to write all sorts of multi-level player games and eventually added another 4kb of memory and had the world's best PC! Those were the days.

Time moved along and better PCs were invented, phones became mobile (well to be honest transportable with huge battery packs) and gadgets continued to fill my house. Then somewhere in the early 2000's I suddenly lost the urge for new gadgets and stopped spending all my waking hours looking at new things. At the time I didn't know why, but time has given me an explanation.

The simple reason is that the technology market got itself into a mess up. Although there were a few new technological breakthroughs, on the whole there was nothing really exciting being launched. The iPhone changed all that. Suddenly a device was available that was part phone, part PC, part music player, part movie player, and part entertainment machine. This was indeed a technological breakthrough.

Me? Of course I got my T-Mobile G1 phone a couple of years ago. T-Mobile was an early adopter of the Android OS. To me this phone was the next generation 'swiss army' penknife of gadgets. A device that plays Youtube videos; will give you step by step directions from your home to some other destination, with street maps along the way; will let you send and receive emails when you are away from your desktop PC; will keep your calendar and contacts up to date in one place; will allow you to wile away a few hours playing pac-man; will display a compass on screen in case you get lost; will scan barcodes so that you can make sensible buying decisions. The possibilities were endless. This device is about the same size as the Sinclair Scientific of 35 years ago and a lot smaller than my Acorn Atom PC. But its power was so deceptive. It was a 1970's mainframe PC in a matchbox.

A few years later and I'm now a converted iPhone user and those pioneering days of Android have also now been lost to the void.

So, what do I want for my next technological Christmas? I would love some kind of Heads Up Display (HUD) for my phone so that I didn't have to wear my reading glasses to read the ever decreasing text size. A virtual 20" display on a phone would be amazing. Maybe also a virtual keyboard where you could 'tap' in the air and effortlessly write your text messages. Throw in much better battery life and a better more intuitive index and retrieval system and we would really be cooking on gas. Oh well, I can but dream.

There are also a few improvements I would love to see on the transportation front. In the 35 years or so since I bought my first calculator the roads are still littered with the same types of cars as were around then. Sure they're a little more fuel efficient and robust in accidents, but there are millions more of them around. Getting from place to place is a real bind. What I'd really like for my technological Christmas would be a better form of long distance transport. Where are the transportation devices of Star Trek and Stargate SG-1? Surely if mankind can deliver multi-purpose electronic gadgets it can now work on long distance transportation. We can fly into space, we can return safely in a reusable spacecraft, yet we haven't solved how to go 50 miles without sharing the roads with thousands of other like-minded drivers, determined to make our particular journey a misery.

When I was a kid I used to have dreams where I could levitate and then take a journey under my own power, zooming across the countryside, quickly getting to my destination. If I had my choice for a technology gift for Christmas, I think that's exactly what I would wish for right now. It doesn't seem so far fetched as it did when I was a kid. In fact I might even trade in my multi-gadget phone for an early model!

As we embark upon another year, be safe in the knowledge that humans are not only the most dangerous beings on our planet, but also the most inventive and at their core strive to make things better for the rest of humankind. Now where did I put my iPhone?

1 comment:

  1. My brother used to buy old pc's in the early 80's, used to tear them apart then rebuild to increase the specs and memory! He had all the latest gadgets (bought broken from a cheap electronics shop and then reconditioned by his 11-year-old self!)He's a bit of a genius! I even used an old Amstrad 'portable' pc...a big grey computer with a tiny green flip up 5" screen, complete with green LCD font...I wrote my whole first book on that almost 15 years far we've come!