I didn’t find an iPod nano in my Christmas stocking this year, but rather than scream until I was sick, I put on a brave face, bit my trembling lower lip and reminded myself that I already have a 1GB MP3 player that’s nearly as small (if not as pretty) as a nano and takes a single AAA cell instead of requiring a recharging cradle. And I still haven’t filled that up, despite cramming all the Goldbergs and the St Matthew Passion on top of a mess of jazz, blues, Mozart, Schubert, Chopin and Beethoven.
My player’s only problem is a lousy, illegible one-line LCD that makes selection so tedious I usually take pot luck (while dreaming about that lovely, bright white menu on the nano). There’s no doubt in my mind that I’ll succumb, and probably soon, but even then it may not be soon enough, because at the rate things are moving Apple may have done away with the nano in favour of a video version before I get there.
It feels as if the world of pocketable gadgets has gone mad over the past 12 months. A walk down Tottenham Court Road now exposes you to whole new shops with windows crammed full of tiny silver (or black, or pink, or orange, or turquoise) boxes. The range of functions such devices can tackle has increased enormously, but no single device covers them all, and the overlap between them now generates so many different permutations that rational choice is no longer possible. Even thinking about it makes your head hurt.
It’s now possible to distinguish these main categories of function: PIM (that is, address/calendar/to-do/diary/calculator); voice communicator (some call them mobile phones); web browser; mail client; digital still camera; camcorder; FM radio; television receiver; games player; music player; video player; document viewer; USB data backup drive; reference applications (say maps or language dictionaries run from a card); GPS; remote terminal; and universal remote control.
I make that 17 functions, but I’m sure I’ve missed a couple. In fact, on reflection, I’ve missed an infinite number, because all PDAs, if not all phones, are universal programmable computing devices that can run any number of third-party applications. I use several, including the Bonsai outliner and a VAT calculator I wrote myself in CASL.
No device that I know of does all these jobs, some do only one or two of them, while the best – such as the Palm Treo and i-mate smartphones – may manage seven or eight. If you needed all these functions, working out what combination of devices to buy, what’s the minimum number of boxes you need to carry and the least you need pay would be a problem on a par with allocating berths in an international cargo terminal.
People haven’t yet really got their heads around exactly what you can do with these devices, and as they do so the boundaries between business and leisure equipment are crumbling. In the Real World Mobile Computing column this month, a reader in a video-related business tells Mark Needham that his firm might upgrade from Palm devices not to Windows Mobile, but to Sony’s PSP or a video iPod!
Podcasting is an application invented at street level that wasn’t part of Apple’s original design brief. And never forget that, while texting has become the dominant communication channel for the under-30s, SMS was added to phones for the convenience of maintenance engineers. Digital gadgets are opening up so many new possibilities that one can no longer expect their manufacturers to promote them all.
This creative ferment has a downside, and that’s the problem of interchange standards. To be sure, the major data types have settled around well-defined standards – an MP3 will play on any device – but simple things such as transferring contacts from phone to phone isn’t as easy as it should be, while cables and connectors can become a nightmare even within the same manufacturer’s range (to mention no Palms). We’re still some way from being able to swap data painlessly by Bluetooth between any two devices.