Shine On, You Crazy GadgetsS

I spent this decade hunting for the perfect gadget. I never thought I would end up with tech as good as this. But it's not the tech that interests me the most anymore.

In 2000, I was just another kid out of college in Boston escaping to the Golden State's climate and opportunity. The perfect job didn't present itself for six long months; four months later, it burst with the bubble.

It's not important what the job was. I was fired not just because the company was eating shit but also because I spent extraordinary amounts of company time online, obsessively reading about games and gadgets. That was fate, it seems.

My toys were nothing fancy; a leftover Dell Inspiron laptop with a 266 MHz processor, maybe 256MB of RAM, and no 3D graphics; a Motorola Startac variant on T-Mobile (300 minutes, no data plan—can you imagine!—or even text messages).

I don't think I even had a portable media player, playing Napster MP3s only at home on Winamp. For video games I had a first generation PlayStation, games rented from Kosmo and copied with a CD burner, played on an Aiwa 24-inch TV that was built around a Sony Trinitron CRT tube. At the time, these were important brands.

Since then the companies that made the gadgets I loved started looking old-fashioned, following that simple-minded formula of chasing more MHz, more pixels.

Then: iPod.

And I ignored it. It was pretty but I couldn't afford one. It almost seemed stupid, since lots of other MP3 players advertised more features for less cash. I didn't own a Mac, nor did I plan to. It was white—and who wanted a white gadget? Silver was my kind of cool. Fake plastic silver, even. Anything with a metallic flake in its finish. I didn't get it, conceptually or literally.

Remember Creative? They made better stuff than Apple for less money, and I wanted one of their players. Today, I don't know if Creative even makes MP3 players. I use iTunes and Amazon.com for music buying. I bet you do, too. It took more than a few failed experiments, but a lot of us are actually buying music again.

Digital changed cameras, too.

My first digital camera was a Kodak, because Kodak was the brand for imaging even through the late '90s, before the Canon and Nikon train barreled past Rochester, leaving Kodak a ghost town. Kodak was invested in the past.

This was the decade I got into PC gaming hardware—then got out. I wasn't even that into the games, but loved slapping cheap components into tall steel Taiwanese cases, looping wires through sharp-edged bays for fans, lights, optical and hard drives.

A year into this habit, I realized I was in an pointless upgrade loop. I'd get a few more frames per second out of a new video card, but the games weren't more fun at higher frames-rates or resolutions, especially when everyone got stuck playing Counterstrike for two years straight. (I was still playing consoles, but my fervor was waning; I waited in line for a PS2 and only to collapse onto my bed with the box, too tired to open it.)

One sweltering day my PC suffered a fatal crash and lost a lot of data. That was that. I gave in to Mactardedness—and not because I loved Apple, but because I hated inconvenience. Maybe using a Mac would provoke less cursing. I even got an iPod. Slowly, my brain released its desire to tinker, and I used my rebuilt PC less and less.

I noticed Friendster. Joined. It got slow.

Joined MySpace. It got filled with junk.

Joined that Facebook thing because Nick Denton made me. Man is it ugly. I didn't log back in for a few years.

Signed up for Twitter. No one I know in real life uses this thing. Didn't sign in for a few years. I didn't get the social web, at first. Google—not other people—was my door to the internet.

Got a PS3. Turned it on for Metal Gear. Squinted at menus. It asked me to log in for its store, but there was nothing in there. Beat Metal Gear twice, turned it off. Dust looks like a matte finish on a PS3.

Got an Xbox 360. Added my friends. Liked knowing where my friends were and what they were doing. Liked killing my friends on Xbox, even though PS3 has faster, quieter, nicer hardware. I guess I am not as anti-social as I thought—as long as being social involves assassination. (Twitter would be better if you could use it to murder your friends.)

Bought HD-DVD. Blu-ray won the battle the last physical media format ever. Now I just subscribe to 15 different movie services. (Wait, is that better?)

Ten years ago, Dell was shaking things up because it sold through the internet for cheap. Now they're shrinking. You can't tell the difference between an Inspiron or Latitude or XPS with a 15-inch screen. People who shop for computers now often look to Apple simply because it's easier to pick a size—small, medium, or large—and then pick the expensive or the cheaper version. (Do you want fries with that?) Dell's branding and model line up is an American heartland clusterfuck.

Sony stopped cooking up so many proprietary—often imaginary—formats, but only because they'd lost. The company that made the Walkman now makes iPod docks. Sony's hardware continues to be fantastic, but does it matter? They're the only gadget company with a music label and movie studio. Can anyone name the Sony iTunes alternative? Does anyone talk to their friends about their love for the TX-1234xZR? Or its cousin without Bluetooth, the TX-1234xZRnbt? Or the TX-1234xZRnbt2xz with an extra 2X zoom? Sony's branding and model line up is a Japanese megacorp clusterfuck.

For an all-too-brief moment, T-mobile was hip because they were cheap, had a phone called the Hiptop, and Catherine Zeta Jones was hotter than Ma Bell. You could get your problems taken care of in one call. Also: pink logo. Then we all got phones capable of doing real things that needed real pipes. AT&T was convinced by Apple to do some cheap flat rate thing on that iPhone. Sorry TMO.

Apple came back. It was Steve, a man who lost the first round 20 years ago and came back to fight the mobile war with all the old lessons from the PC war in pocket. Design, manufacturing, sourcing of components, marketing and maybe most importantly, software. He had almost everything under control. They went Intel, declaring that hardware wasn't the thing that defined a better computer.

And, this little thing called iPhone. We had an email debate at Gizmodo about calling this decade the "iDecade". Naming a decade after a gadget, no matter how great it is, makes me want to vomit. So does calling the iPhone the gadget of the year. It just seems too easy, too cliche.

But it was the one. It has been the culmination of decades of development across countless industries, all coming together into a single little slab of near-perfection. After a decade filled with so many aborted, ill-conceived clones and ideas tuned more for profit than progress, the iPhone was a rare gem. Just because it's obvious doesn't make it less true.

For years, the received wisdom was that specialized devices would always continue to progress at a rate that made all-in-one devices poor solutions.

Here are the things replaced by my iPhone: Mapping and GPS; point-and-shoot camera; Flip camcorder; Game Boy; calculator (okay, I didn't carry this around ever); calendar; organizer; any book-of-the-moment; phone; Playboy; newspaper; notebook; voice recorder; iPod; video player (can you believe this was a whole gadget category just three years ago?); weatherman; TV; wrist watch; radio; alarm clock; compass; pedometer; musical instrument; Bible, medical journals, dictionary, any reference book. Sometimes, even my laptop. Put together enough "good enough" solutions, it turns out, and they begin to outweigh even the specialized devices.

Thank goodness it's looking like it's not going to just be the iPhone. (Although credit where it's due; Apple pushed the whole industry forward by five years, easily, if judged by the rate the rest of the industry was moving.) Whether Android, Palm, maybe even Windows Mobile if Microsoft really buckles down, little portable internet computers with an ever-expanding array of senses we have (save taste/smell, but just wait) and little applications that make them more and more useful, are finally pushing gadgetry forward in ways we never fully expected.

None of this happened randomly. Those who ended up on top had luck and timing and resources. But why they came out ahead was predicated by several things, naturally highlighted in hindsight.

The four rings of gadgetdom in the 2000s were design, the social internet, powerful but inexpensive hardware, and a real software ecosystem.

Only five companies have a shot at nailing the home, mobile and work hat trick, from software and hardware to internet: Apple, Microsoft, Google, Sony and Samsung. They're all failing in some way. Apple's cloud services are a joke. Sony can still make great hardware but have no idea how people want to use it. Samsung can't write code. With Android, Google can't figure out if they want to be Microsoft or Apple. Counterintuitive as it may seem, I think Microsoft has a real shot at winning the next decade, if they listen to their entertainment group who have figured out how to do a platform right.

Little companies don't really have a shot at this level of unified, do-all gadget greatness. The age of the garage hardware start-up belongs to the web generation, not the next generation of gadget makers. Smartphones have become analogous to PCs of the '90s. There's little room for a new PC platform to come online, but a vast potential space for start-ups to use the big platforms as a springboard with new accessories and software.

Gizmodo has undergone fundamental changes in the last few years. It's really hard to get excited about copy cat hardware made from the same underlying chips and parts, often in the same factory. Any blog that covers press release after press release indiscriminately is doing readers a serious disservice instead of focusing on what makes a real difference to gadgetry: content, social context and applications. What gets us excited are evolving operating systems that pump the hardware full of new life and devices that continuously inhale new movies, music, and messages from friends through the internet.

Right now, I'm in Japan. It's already 2010. When I look ahead at this year, it's easy to see why the anticipation for tablets is boiling over, even though the idea of tablets, like smartphones five years ago, is perhaps old hat. Now that we've seen what happens when companies really nail a unified smartphone, we're projecting our hopes on the generation of tablets to come.

The best tech, as it approaches a zenith of purpose and polish, becomes invisible. It gets out of the way of the user, becomes just a portal to...stuff. One does not give much thought to a faucet as long as it provides water. Finally, at the end of this decade, we've had a taste of what it's like when network capability, slick software, sensors and—most importantly—content and communication come together in such tiny, shrinking hardware.

It's not shiny things that captivate me anymore; it's what they shine.

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