Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Technological Law Of Gravity

Here's an example (in Gizmag) of why you should never succumb to the lure of technology before a little of the "new" has rubbed off the price-tag. Remember how the first VCRs cost more than your first car (that Datsun B210 with the dent in the right rear bumper), and cell phones had a price that matched their general enormity, only gracing the cars of the select few? Years ago, many people were faced with the choice between having a child or having a computer, because they couldn't afford both, and even the humble DVD player was at one time beyond the grasp of the average wage earner. How things have changed. Now they can't give VCRs away. Tiny cell phones have left the realm of the privileged few and have entered ubiquity--they do give them away, as long as you'll sign up for phone service for a year. Bill Gates' vision of a computer in every home has pretty much come to pass, and DVD players are the technological equivalent of Cracker Jack prizes. You can pick one up at Costco for $69.99, unless you want the portable laptop variety, which will still set you back at least a hundred bucks.

I use these examples because they are all things that are worth having, now that the price has come down to the point where people on a budget can realistically afford them. All except the VCR, of course. Who needs one of those stone age contraptions now that the DVD recorder is within the grasp of many a meager pocketbook? However, in its day, it was a central feature to modern home entertainment, so we should not disparage its place in history. Let us give it the respect it is due, before we toss it into the trash with the rest of yesterday's garbage. It is the fate of all things technological (and newly released DVDs, come to think of it) to go through a brief period of price ridiculousity before the eager beavers who just have to have a 25" flat screen computer monitor NOW pay off the R&D, and bring the price down for the rest of us. I am grateful for the eager beavers. They make life more affordable for the rest of us, and, in time, if we are patient, bring us all the same lovely gadgets they themselves enjoy--just a few months or years later, at a small fraction of the cost.

The latest gadget-du-jour that I predict will follow the usual and predictable path into the home of the common man is a nifty new keyboard (the brainchild of Russian designer Artemy Lebedev) that wealthy eager beavers the world over have been chomping at the bit to acquire for some years, while legal and production delays put off the great and wonderful day. That day has now been firmly established, and November 31, 2007 will be the glorious morning that brings the first 200 Optimus keyboards into the hands of the excited, toothy, flat-tailed technophiles who are willing to plunk down $1564 (American) to be the first to get their hands on this new computer accessory. They'll dribble off the production line for a few months during the massively over-priced introduction period, and then they will start appearing in more significant numbers. You and I will probably be able to find them at Best Buy soon enough, and those of us without deep pockets, who would nonetheless find the keyboard useful, might actually be able to afford one in a couple of years.

So, what's so special about the Optimus keyboard? Well, each individual key is a "stand-alone display" that changes with different settings. You can use the same keyboard for typing English, or Russian, or Greek, for example, and the keys will show the characters for the language chosen. Now, many of us here in the States are not bilingual, but lots of people in the rest of the world are. Their own language may be Korean, but the international business language is definitely English. A multi-purpose keyboard could be quite a boon. Wouldn't immigrants find this a useful little tool, too, an easy way to write that letter back to Grandma in the old country on the same keyboard that the kids write their term papers for junior English class. Even those of us who don't have use for another language in daily life might still find the added functionality a plus. I studied French for a number of years, and there are certain words that we throw into English vocabulary that bug me to write without the accents, but not enough to go to the trouble of fussing around to find out how to make the accents available to my keyboard on those rare occasions when I use them. However, if the cost of this new keyboard comes down enough so that the difference between it and a standard one is negligible (as it eventually must if it becomes popular enough), this new keyboard may itself become the standard. In a few years this keyboard could be universal, so that my laziness will no longer hinder my ability to add the accents to such words as facade. Doesn't that just look wrong?

This is my prediction: Like Jack and Jill, the price for this new gadget will tumble. Someday all computers will come with an Optimus keyboard, or one of the many inevitable knock-offs, and even those of us who have little use for it will have it nonetheless. (Kind of like the eighth teaspoon measure on a set of measuring spoons--who ever uses that?) Eventually we'll find new ways to need it, even if only for video games, and wonder how we ever got along without it--until some new technology comes along to make it passe (doesn't that need an accent?), like computers with voice recognition software that makes keyboards obsolete altogether. However this plays out, I have a request to make of you. If you are one of those people who could really use this technology, just don't buy it (or the voice recognition software for that matter) before the price dips. (I would like to think of Meow readers as being smarter than the eager beavers who bring the price down for the rest of us.) No signing up on the pre-order list. No standing in line at Circuit City just to over-pay for the privilege of being the first to own it. The rest of us will have it soon enough. Patience. The law of gravity is especially applicable to the price of technology.