May 8th, 2015

A Few Remarks about Gadgets

A Tale of Two Cords: the End of the Portable Pseudo Peripheral Era in Gadgets

As the Watch appears on wrists around the world, with 3000 apps “Watch Ready” in the App Store, it is high time someone looked back from the era of stuff on wrists that talks to phones and tablets, to a time not so long ago, when gadgets did one thing, and they all needed two cords (one for data and one for charging), and they mostly only did that one thing if they spent part of their time connected to a personal computer. The Watch gets power from a MagSafe connector that attaches to the back of the watch. And it gets data “over the air”. There is _one_ cord. And you don’t need to attach it to a personal computer. Ever. A lot has been made about whether it is worth having, after all, why can’t you just use your phone? Let’s take a brief look back at what gadgets used to do, and why those gadgets needed to spend at least part of their time hooked up to a computer with more memory, a bigger screen, and a few other odds and ends.

Here is a very partial list of the portable pseudo-peripherals that have been supplanted by the smartphone which has become the new hub of our gadget-y world.

Mp3 player
Digital Camera

The Digital Camera is a particularly interesting case study. One early, pro-only digital camera came with its own, enormous digital storage unit, sold as a system, connected using SCSI cables. Then there was one that used Firewire on the Mac and RS 232/the serial port on PCs (the most typical gadget connection to PCs, as that port had been standard since the original IBM PC design, and unlike the parallel port, Windows was still letting Just Anybody read from and write to it); I suspect that camera would have required you to power down the computer before plugging in the camera and again before unplugging it because that’s how the serial port worked. If you’re thinking, but I didn’t have to power on and off my Palm and it connected to the serial port, well, that’s what the cradle was for. It was the True Peripheral, and the gadget came and went. Flash memory cards became available just as digital cameras took off as a consumer item (price dropped far enough and memory got cheap enough), and everyone who took pictures with film cameras was accustomed to remembering to load up the camera and then unload it when it was full, so flash slipped into a pre-existing cultural category and the data cable/transfer cord stayed proprietary and more or less vestigial.

The Handspring had an expansion slot, to provide additional memory, programs, etc. It made the Handspring a lot less dependent on the computer it was nominally a peripheral of, but it was ultimately folded into the Palm Universe. Being hooked up to a computer at intervals became a lot less onerous once USB became available. USB was the first connector that worked across laptop/desktop and Apple/PC divide, and was truly hot-swappable, “Plug and Play”. You might get a message saying you forgot to disconnect that properly, but you weren’t going to realize you made a mistake by seeing smoke come out of the back of the computer and learn you’d fried the port, the card that connected to it and possibly other items in the box as well.

The world of two cords for every device -- one for charging and one for data, usually both of them with at least one proprietary end and thus expensive and/or difficult to replace -- was compressed into a single cord world, often NOT proprietary at either end, once USB 2.0 took off. Later e-ink ebook readers such as the kindle, for example, sometimes didn’t bother to ship a power cord with them. They supplied the USB to USB cord -- not at all proprietary -- and left it at that. 1.0 was a little too slow, and a little too low power to take over the world, thus giving Flash memory in card, stick and thumb drive for years of time to run. I know you young people are about to ask, so I’ll bring it up for you: why did it take 802.11 so long to replace the data transfer problem for gadgets?

Well, that’s a question I have, too. One of the biggest initial hurdles wifi had to overcome was interference with a bunch of gadgets that weren’t pseudo-peripherals (baby monitors, wireless handsets for landlines, microwave ovens) but were widely deployed. Another hurdle was cost of equipment. Finally, there was the usual chicken and egg problem, in which gadget makers (well into the 2000s -- the first couple versions of kindle had cell radios but no wifi) were reluctant to support wifi connectivity when it was not yet widely deployed in households and households saw no reason to support a wireless LAN when they didn’t have (m)any devices which relied upon it.

So the two cords -- power and data -- which once tethered our gadgets went away in fits and starts. Gadgets had batteries (first AAAs and occasionally AAs, then lithium ion packs, then charge-in-equipment-never-replace mysteries) to replace -- temporarily, anyway -- the need for a power cord. Gadgets got put on “sneaker net” with storage cards, sticks and thumb drives, to replace the need for a cord to transfer data. Even when the gadget got wireless connectivity, it still had to have a router to talk to, and that router was attached to a computer.

Over time, we all switched from desktops to laptops, and now we were carrying around the computer, too, along with all the gadgets. That damaged the market for some gadgets. PDAs, for example, had a limited market to begin with, but once you could bring the laptop to the meeting, it was no longer clear what you needed the handheld extension for. People who were buying a PDA and using it as a standalone device were abandoning them in droves as soon as feature phones started adding rudimentary calendar features and contacts lists to those phones. Once phones with flip out keyboards became widely available, the PDA was probably doomed, altho it took a while for it to completely die. It tried to grow a phone, but was never completely successful at the endeavor.

Reaching much further back into the past, remember the lowly pager. In its earliest incarnations, this radio required a lot of backing telephone infrastructure to do anything at all. Blackberry changed it from being a receiver that told you to go find a phone and check your messages (or warn you to stop whatever you were doing and listen to your message right fucking now) to a two way devices (that relied upon a packet switched wireless data network) that let you send and receive texts and email. I don’t think the original Crackberry connected to a desktop, but later incarnations that took on features of PDAs (contacts lists and calendar) and grew a PC application that they could synchronize with.

The original mp3 players -- Diamond Rio -- were a classic PC portable pseudo-peripheral: a handheld selection from a much larger music library living on a huge drive in your PC so you could listen to music on the go. The basic idea -- a drive loaded up with ripped tracks, software to label them, rip them, and shove them out onto a player -- was old hat by the time the first iPod launched. The original iPod connected using FireWire, so while you could get PC software to let you use it, you’d have to install an expansion card to get your computer to talk to your device. But never mind: USB came along by the time the iPod really took off in 2004, and iTunes mushroomed out to become an evil and unreliable monster that chased customers over to the nascent Android universe.

Why did iTunes become so painful to use? Well, the iPod was followed some years later -- in 2007 -- by the ultimate (And I Mean That Literally, the very last) portable pseudo-peripheral, the last personal computer oriented device. It contained all previous devices within its myriads, if not in the first iPhone then surely by the second. It played music. It held your contacts and calendar. It had an arbitrarily extensible App store. It had a browser, so you could access maps (in v2, it had GPS). You could take pictures (only 1 camera in the first one!). It had a few problems, and it took a while before most people figured out that this is what they were going to own, but it destroyed the market for iPods and other portable music players, point-and-shoot digital cameras and GPS devices. There are still niche versions of all of those devices around (music players that revolve around much larger music file formats, DSLRs, ruggedized GPS units aimed at snow machine users, hikers, bicylists and similar), but the mass market doesn’t need that bag full of portable pseudo-peripherals and their associated cords any more. Their kids inherited their old phones, and have mostly forgotten that the world ever _had_ all those fucking cords in it in the first place. Because the display on the iPhone is so good, and the processing power and memory more than sufficient, it has never been necessary to be do some functions on a desktop in order to get at enough screen and/or processing power to accomplish a task. The only reason anyone ever synched these things was as a backup (well, or to fix something messed up with a playlist or similar), and the kids never had to deal with that part. By the time the kids were old enough to be managing their own phones, updates were being done over the air and the pseudo-peripheral part of the 1990s and early 2000s era gadget age was Done. If you needed more space than the phone gave you, you got that space in the Cloud. Data traveled back and forth exclusively wirelessly.

The cords may be gone, but the underlying reality has changed less than you might think. We do still have to power these devices (even the Watch, as magical as it is, still has something clunky that needs to click onto it). And in a way, the data situation is as complex as ever: wireless and cellular? Why do we need both? Google Fi is exploring VoIP everywhere. And cellular broadband would love it if you just paid for moving all your data over the cellular network and skipped all that pesky wireless stuff who needs it anyway. The digital hoarders who were accustomed to managing all their data on their own computers and migrating it from one to the next are busy freaking out because now everything is in separate clouds controlled by separate corporations, none of whom they trust to not do something ridiculous with it like allow hackers to steal it (or sell it themselves), never mind what happens when the company is bought, decides to get out of that line of business or goes out of business entirely. Also, what happens to my data when I die?

But look on the bright side. You don’t have to buy two fucking proprietary cables for each device you own any more, and even if you did, you could get it cheap on Amazon or eBay.

As a former Amazon employee, I hesitate to mention this, so I’ve left it to the very end. But I cannot help but point out that the original kindle, by including an on-device store that remembered your purchases, and including a cellular connection to that store, nearly skipped the Portable Pseudo Peripheral Era entirely. It went straight to the (proprietary) cloud, blazing the way for the next generation of gadgets that followed not too long thereafter. But it did still ship with two cords: USB for data to the computer for when you didn’t have cellular coverage (which I needed, because I lived in southern New Hampshire at the time and we had terrible cellular AT&T coverage), and a separate power cord, because the USB was a mini-B with no power. At time of writing, the trade-in value for an original kindle was $10.25 in Amazon GC.