Looking Backwards for the Future

Yesterday I saw something in the New York Times that got me really excited. It wasn’t a preview of Vista or yet-another-article about the Apple iPhone. It was a story about something distinctly low-tech and backwards looking, and that I’ve wished existed for a long time.

The subject of the story was a turntable that sends audio output directly to a computer.

Now, this isn’t for those of you who have already converted your vinyl collection to CDs or MP3 files, like my friend the satellite communications engineer whose idea of an exciting weekend is reconfiguring his home network. This is something for those of us who like to talk to friends on a telephone, watch video on a TV, and listen to music on something we used to call a “stereo.”

In other words, someone like me.

There’s a reason electronic entertainment and communications a hundred years ago grew around single purpose devices. It’s not because those people were less smart than we are now in the Internet age.

As a matter of fact, in one way they were smarter.

Inventors of the gramophone, telephone, radio and television intuitively understood that ease of use was key to the widest possible market. Thee more things a device does, the harder it is to use. How many of us ever learned to program our VCRs?

If using a telephone required the same level of technical knowledge as using a PC, I doubt the number of U.S. homes with a telephone would be the 98 percent that it is.

Because I write about technology, people are surprised to discover that I use a single-purpose Uniden cordless VoIP phone for my interviews rather than a soft phone on my computer. There are two reasons for this. First of all, I hate being connected by a cord — I want to be free to walk around, get a cup of coffee, or even let the cat out while I talk.

Second, it keeps me focused. Because I prefer written notes to recorded conversations — it takes too long to get to the statement or information you want — a single purpose “appliance” plus my detailed note-taking keeps my mind on the subject, rather than letting me get distracted with incoming email or other phone calls.

And that’s the point. The physical device provides a clear delineation for activities that keeps your attention on the task at hand. Even if the activity is relaxation, aren’t we better off not answering email or installing software upgrades at the same time?

It’s possible that my attachment to single purpose devices is just an anachronistic fetish having more to do with age than some innate characteristic of human psychology.

So consider my 16 year old who never owned or played a vinyl record and grew up connected to the Internet. It’s true that the computer is his music appliance. Or was until he got an iPod. Now the computer is merely a conduit.

Another telling piece of evidence is that one of the first things he saved up his own money for was a…TV. Which is where he prefers to watch South Park and play Grand Theft Auto.

That’s why I vote for the Linksys iPhone over the Apple iPhone. The Linksys phone is designed around what ordinary non-techies do with a telephone, like ordering pizza. And it does what it needs to at a price tag that doesn’t bust the family budget. My son is squarely in the Apple iPhone demographic and his comment when I asked him if he wanted one was, “What for?”

It’s certainly interesting to see how the Internet’s unifying technology enables us to combine many different ways of communicating and entertaining ourselves; as well as letting us take entertainment and communications wherever we go.

This richness of innovation definitely can make life easier. For example, replacing my overflowing Rolodex with a Treo made my life so much better (despite its awkward user interface) that I can’t imagine how I lived without it. It’s so much a part of my life that I sometimes have anxiety dreams about losing it.

But my attachment isn’t because the handy little gizmo can surf the Internet, read email, film video, play music and a host of other things that in two years I haven’t even attempted to do. It’s because I can do three important things with it: talk on the phone, keep my calendar, and carry a copy of my address book. Occasionally, when I forget my camera, I take a picture with it.

There is one thing I wish it did: record. It’s telling that designers of this device didn’t think of that. Perhaps they would have, had they consulted a few writers and journalists.