palmOn The Verge, consumer gadget reviewer Walt Mossberg introduces a new Verge gadget blog, Circuit Breaker, by reminiscing on the gadgets that launched us into gadget-craziness back in the ‘90s and early 2000s. His essay discusses early digital cameras, Windows sound cards, higher-speed modems, and—most relevant here—the Palm Pilot PDA and its Handspring successors, and the iPod MP3 player. I’m actually a little disappointed he doesn’t also touch on the Rocket eBook and other early e-readers, but I suppose he only had so much room in the column.

It’s interesting to consider how these early products effectively set the stage for the multimedia-in-your-pocket present-day. The Palm Pilot was the first popular e-reader, after all, offering an intriguing glimpse into the digital future even if it didn’t have any actual Internet connectivity yet. The iPod put hours and hours of music in people’s pockets—it wasn’t the first hard-drive music player, but immediately became the most popular one. This, in turn, led to the ability to listen to audiobooks without having to cart along a suitcase full of cassette tapes, and set the stage for Audible to launch and eventually get purchased by Amazon.

And Mossberg makes a key point that I have to admit is absolutely right: for all the flaws these gadgets might have had, and the newest generation of gadgets still do have, they’ve never stopped being exciting. Every time you get some new gimmick in your pocket that can do things you couldn’t have imagined doing before, it’s amazing. For me, that first thrill was reading all my favorite e-books and catching up on news and events via a succession of PalmOS powered and other devices. Later it was retiring my cassette tape carry-alls and letting my iPod, and later my iPods Touch, carry the tunes. Getting my first cellphone, eventually getting my first smartphone, then getting a better one. Getting tablets and e-readers (then better tablets and e-readers). Snagging a MiFi, then later a Karma Go, and being able to take them all online with me wherever I went.

It’s crazy how much we take for granted now in this gadget-laden world. Maybe we should try to get back in touch with our memories of the sheer excitement we felt from first being able to read a whole book—even a tree-killer like A Fire Upon the Deep—on a grainy little LCD screen with an Indiglo backlight. Think of that same excitement now when you can carry entire bookshelves around with you on your Kindle, or pick up your smartphone or tablet for an instant face-to-face chat with a friend halfway around the world.

Perhaps that’s the real thing people miss when they’re concerned we might have reached “peak smartphone”—not so much being able to do something new with their gadgets, but the sheer excitement of finding they can do something new with their gadgets. But there should always be more gadgets and more excitement around the corner. I look forward to finding out exactly what they’ll be.


  1. I guess I’m older than you are.

    I remember my first gadget. A Texas Instruments SR-10 calculator that could add, subtract, multiply, and divide, and could do squares, square roots and reciprocals as well. I believe that I paid 110 Canadian Dollars for it in 1973. The inflation calculator that I just used online says that that is the equivalent of 617.06 Canadian Dollars today. The online exchange rate calculator that I use further tells me that 617.06 Canadian Dollars is equal to 490.14 US Dollars today.

    This calculator predates the first Sony Walkman by 6 years. Wikipedia says that the Sony Walkman TPS-L2 “the world’s first low-cost portable stereo” went on sale in Japan on July 1st, 1979. Obviously it also predates the Palm Pilot, cell phones, and MP3 Players.

    There was, however, a calculator price and features war between TI and Hewlett Packard during the 1970s, and every few months a new and improved calculator with more functions would be available for purchase at a lower price than the previous model.

    I used to look at these improved calculators in the store and wish that I could afford to replace my SR-10 with the newest, latest and greatest model. My buddies and I also used to argue as to whether TI’s ‘Algebraic Operating System’ of HP’s ‘Reverse Polish Notation’ was better. (This was similar to the Windows / IOS debates of later years.)

    Eventually, we hit ‘peak calculator’. That is, new models couldn’t really add more features, because the existing models already had every feature that could be imagined, even if most people (including me) didn’t know what these new features were or how to use them. Furthermore, mass production had driven the cost of a new calculator down so far that further price reductions were not really a big selling point.

    I have seen many, many devices that were introduced, grew in popularity, and eventually become part of normal, everyday life. It doesn’t surprise me to see eBook readers and smartphones follow the same trajectory.

    I just wish that I could predict what completely new and revolutionary device will be introduce next year, so that I could buy some stock in the company today while it is cheap.


    Thinking about it, land-line telephones had a similar trajectory even before calculators. The first phones had cranks that you had to turn, and all calls were placed by an operator. Then you could dial a phone number for yourself. Then phones were introduced that could connect to two or more lines, so you could put someone “on hold” on one line while you talked on the other line. Then touch tone phones came in in 1963. And so on, until land line phones had every conceivable feature.

    I suppose you could even claim that it happened with steam engines, as each succeeding year saw improvements in power, relibility, efficiency, and reduced cost, although these weren’t really “consumer” products.

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