Do your own an electronic personal organizer? If you do, then you are one of a staggering 1.3 million gadget-oriented UK professionals who have gone from Eighties Filofax to Nineties Pilot or MessagePad.
We are spending more and more money on gadgets, toys for the boys and other black plastic electronic things that do some cool stuff. Magazines such as Stuff and Details that cover electronic gadgets are increasing their circulations. Mainstream magazines such as FHM and GQ allocate more and more space to new products such as night-vision goggles or underwater binoculars (presumably for watching fish having a party or researching the murky depths of you bath).
The reasons for the sudden surge of enthusiasm for gadgets has not been fully explored by the pop psychologists, and since I am also a victim of the trend, I thought I should examine what make us buy these things, often on gut instinct rather than on evidence of performance- and even more often just to have something new to play with.
One possible reason for our gadget mania is the changing nature of work. The trend towards a mobile work-force drives the need for personal organizers and communication gizmos. We move around, we need to pick up e-mail, send reports to the boss from the road etc. One of the nearest gizmos in the communications area is the Philips phone which has a little screen displaying incoming and outgoing e-mail- a nice design that combines two functions in one small plastic device. It takes up no more space on your desk than an average answerphone.
A lot of mobility-driven product development also focuses on minimising size, for example developing smaller and smaller keyboards that can accompany communication solutions, such as the Nokia 9000, which combines a mobile phone with a personal organizer. IBM researchers are developing keyboards that can be worn on your belt or on your body.
However, I know for a fact that many of the country’s top executives could not type if their life depended on it, so US Robotics’ Pilot approach of using handwriting as the means of input will go much farther than even the best portable keyboard.
The Pilot has recently acquired a bit of a cult status by allowing users to download new applications from the Internet, thus creating a market for cool applications. I am a big fan of Dinky Pad, which allows you to do a little electronic doodling when bored at a business meeting or quick prototyping of IT architecture during brainstorming sessions. Also, the ability to synchronise my Pilot with my secretary’s scheduler is something that will drive new applications. For example during the recent breakfast meeting in Claridge’s (the current deal-making hang-out of techno-tribes), I was trying to sort out a meeting with a potential key supplier. Instead of the usual ‘call my PA to fix a date’, we simply took out our Pilots and made a date on the spot, knowing that it would find its way to the central scheduler run by our offices. The next Pilot application surely will be an ability to synchronise with other Pilot owners just by pressing two Pilots together.
This evolutionary way of making improvements to our gizmos is also a result of the ‘play’ nature of the gadget- driven lifestyle. In order to discover customer needs, an electronics company can’t just do market research- we can’t, for example, ask for something that we don’t even know we can have. I would have never guessed my need for electronic doodling until I was given an application that matched my way of working on design. Thus the gadget evolves with the customer until it stops being an innovation and becomes a normal part of life.
Interestingly, the Internet is also becoming a guinea-pig playground, providing millions of willing experimental users for beta versions of any new technology, users who then give the manufacturers feedback before the products are launched on a large scale. Thus the loop between product designer and customer is getting tighter, cutting costs of product-testing and development, and leaving more funds for developing new ideas.
An example is the development work on home robotics. The new robots are web-controlled and can, for instance allow you to watch your kitchen from the office via a webcam and manipulate the robot remotely via your web page. You can make it put diner in the microwave, put out the rubbish or set the heating at the right level to make your castle nice and cosy when you get back from the office. The robot is still in the beta version, but the manufacturer and the MIT team which is working on it use the feedback from the web’s gadget- lovers to get the product ready for the market so that they can be confident that it is useful in the real world, and the control is simple enough for a non-gadget person to use. Since the remote- controlled home robot has a task list that bears the uncanny resemblance to a housewife’s job description, it might render the home-making profession obsolete overnight- at least for the early,’gizmo-oriented’ adopters. Costs of maintenance are unknown as yet, but something makes me think that in the long term it will be cheaper than a wife.
Thus it seems gizmo lovers are likely to play a substantial role in product development as well as act as agents of social change. So every time you see an article about the latest gizmo in a magazine, spare a thought for the experimental subjects who test the products of the future for us all, thus making the process of buying a new kettle or camera a whole lot less risky than it otherwise would be.