Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Phone Envy

I'm a victim of inconspicuous consumption ...

If a future historian ever reads this blog the way we read the diary of Samuel Pepys, trying to find out what life was like in the past, one thing that will no doubt prove amusing is the way I can rhapsodize about technologies that will soon become quaint.

This has happened to me before. Way back when I was in college I learned to program on an IBM 360 mainframe computer that ate punch cards, recorded its memories on reels of magnetic tape, and spat out reams of text on multipart green-bar paper. The room-sized beast had a face full of glittering lights and no video screen. It had less computing power than what is contained now in my watch.

Later I worked for a company that used just such a machine to process payroll records. Years afterward I wrote about my experiences there ... the room full of chattering keypunch machines like a nest of machine guns, the "bursting and decollating" room where printed reports were torn apart, the dumpster full of used data cards that were disposed of each night. One comment about this in a writing workshop was, "this might as well be Bartleby, the Scrivener." Just as Melville's quirky clerk, with his job (scrivening?) of copying documents in longhand, has vanished like a covered wagon heading West, so too this "modern" technology quickly passed into history almost while we watched. The next time I saw an IBM 360 it was behind glass in the Computer History Museum in Boston. The curators had recreated a programmer's office, circa 1965, including a scribbled note that said, "Bob - I can get you an hour on the machine between 3 and 4 AM tomorrow."

With all that in mind, let me tell you about my new phone (an HTC Aria running Android). One of the nice things about arriving late to a party like the smart phone revolution is the delightful experience of the "how long has this been going on?" feeling. Of course I've been reading about the developments all along, watching coworkers check their email on their phones, even listen to music and browse the Internet. And my own last two phones have at least had cameras built in and a way to send pictures out into the world. And yes, I even experienced some envy for the first iPhone adopters and their endless fascination with flipping through screens with their bare fingertips.

No more phone envy. My new phone has "apps" (more quaintly known as "applications," a usage of the word that comes from the idea of applying computer power to some task). It doesn't matter to me that the iPhone currently has more of them; there are already more than I can bother to find out about. This number is effectively in the "jillions." And unlike the painful, laborious, and sometimes catastrophic experience of installing software on a desktop computer, apps are designed to plug in like popping a Chiclet in your mouth. I was soon playing with a bubble level, a compass, and a map. The phone knows which way is up, which way is north, and where it is located - which gives it a leg up on many humans.

Naturally it has a camera, both photo and video, now standard equipment on any self respecting phone, as well as the ability to play music, and even a built in FM radio to tie me into NPR. (Hey, Apple - when will you let people play with the deactivated radios in YOUR phones? Oh, never mind - I realize that will not happen until there's a way to make them pay for it.)

But the thing that really brought me up short was pushing the little icon that said "Voice Dialing." A window opened up that said "Listening ..." like the ship computer on Star Trek used to say. I assumed I would have to record the sound of my voice saying a name and then train the phone to identify this with an entry in my address book. But when I said my wife's name a moment later her phone number appeared on screen ready to dial. The phone understood me!

Like I said. The "how long has this been going on" feeling. Last time I paid any attention to voice recognition software it was an expensive application that demanded a desktop computer with plenty of horsepower and didn't work very well even then. Apparently now a phone has all the horsepower needed for this, and it works pretty well. I guess I should have caught on from all the recent conversations I've had with phone answering robots when I call the phone company.

So, for you in the future, to whom Implanted Direct Cerebral Communication (or IDCC) is commonplace, and to whom the very idea of a "phone" is so arcane that it requires explanation, just remember where you came from. And remember too, that even your wonderful toys will someday become laughable.

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