Year of the Gadget: DLT's Tech Guide 2000
by Gareth Branwyn for Digital Living Today

Personal tech in 2000 was all about the gadget. Computer sales were down and sales of handhelds were up. Cell phones became more ubiquitous, with telcos finally offering the Internet to their customers as well as service plans designed to put a "cellie" in the hand of every family member. Though Microsoft tried--with its new, improved Pocket PC operating system--it still couldn't catch up with the hot-selling Palm PDA, especially with the craze for the Palm-licensed Visor. This was also the year of Napster and MP3, with high-profile trials and Senate hearings trying to put the finger back in the dike while MP3 players flew off store shelves and trading digital music became a popular pastime. In 2000, "always-on" Internet, thanks to widespread availability of DSL and cable modems, also became commonplace. It wasn't a year of many big breakthroughs, but there were some advances and innovations worth celebrating. Here are some of our favorites:

Personal Video Recorders ("PVRs") - ReplayTV boasts that their device will change forever the way you watch television. That might sound like hollow ad hype, but hook one of these hard drive-based video recorders (or their competitor's TiVo PVR ) to your television and see if they aren't spot on. A touch of a button and you can pause live TV, rewind, skip commercials and record shows. Manufacturers are apparently having a hard time getting PVRs into the consumer's family room, but it's only a matter of time before this is the way we will watch TV. The PVR gets our vote for "Tech Innovation of the Year."

Visor/Springboard Module - One of the most exciting gadgets of the year was the PalmOS-based Visor PDA and its Springboard technology. The Springboard slot lets you plug different modules into your Visor to turn it into a cell phone, MP3 player, GPS, eBook reader, etc. [See "Gadget Convergence" [gadget convergence] article for more on the Visor.]

Optical Mice - Y2K will be remembered as the year we said goodbye to our mouse balls. Optical mice, such as Microsoft's awesome IntelliMouse Explorer, use light instead of mechanics to translate hand movements into cursor movement. Optical mice never need cleaning, glide effortless across the mousepad, and look appropriately 21st century.

CD-R and removable HD-based MP3s - MP3 was all the rage this year, but players were still expensive, mainly because of their high-end flash storage technology. To bring the costs down, several manufacturers released MP3 players that use CD-R (Compact Disc-Recordable) and removable hard drives (such as Iomega's HipZip). [See "CD-R Makes MP3 A-OK" ] article for more info.]

Personal Robotics - Sony's AIBO robotic pet continued to garner lots of attention and its success spawned a personal robot craze. The real innovations in home robotics are likely to come from systems like LEGO's Mindstorms. These affordable robotic development systems offer online communities where ingenious garage developers share their inventions and ideas.

CueCat - What started out as an advertiser's dream gizmo has turned into something truly interesting. The CueCat, developed by Digital Convergence, is a barcode scanner that advertisers and media companies are giving to consumers for free in hope they'll swipe barcodes in ads and magazine content to access related Web sites. Within days of the gadget's release, hackers were creating other applications for the scanner so that it could catalog your CD collection, make instant shopping lists (by scanning food carton barcodes), and other useful applications. This device earns the William Gibson "The Street Finds Its Own Uses for Things" Award.

Internet Radio Tuners - In time for the holidays, a number of manufacturers are offering Internet radios. Most of these devices work by plugging into your PC's soundcard and transmitting MP3 music or Webcast radio to other rooms in your house (via a stand-alone receiver, your FM radio, or your home stereo). We didn't get a chance to test any of these radios, but the technology looks promising. Manufacturers include Kerbango, which makes a stand-alone, non-PC-based Net radio.

Affordable & Accurate GPS - This year saw a profusion of small, affordable GPS (Global Position System) for navigating on foot or in your car. In 2000, the Clinton administration also discontinued Selective Availability, a form of intentional signal degradation that kept civilian GPS less accurate than the military's. Now all GPS users can enjoy navigational accuracy within 1-5 meters. [See "Pilot to Co-Pilot" article ]

Web Technology:

Weblogs - Weblogging (or "blogging") proved an ingenious way to encourage reader-contributed news items and other content on Web sites. Blogging generates unique and fresh material and greatly increases site loyalty, which is what the Web is supposed to be about-community building.

Peer-to-Peer Networking - Another form of community-based networking that broke big in 2000 was peer-to-peer networking ("P2P"). Exemplified by the embattled Napster, P2P is a technology that allows Internet users to share the contents of their hard drives with others. While MP3 music is an obvious type of content to share, P2P developers envision a future in which any type of media can be shared. The whole thing scares media companies and artists, but it's only a matter of time before someone figures out how to collect due royalties while continuing to allow P2P networks to flourish.

Anti-Tech of the Year:

Punch Cards - Who would have thought that, at the dawn of the 21st century, the future of our presidency would rest on the eyeballing of old fashion punch card dimples? Many Americans didn't know that manual voting was still so widespread. DLT's modest proposal: Take all of those old PCs that pollute landfills, convert them into simple computer voting machines, and ship them off to south Florida.

Withering Human Tech Support - If you've tried to get tech support recently, you know that it's in a sad state of affairs. You have to navigate through a giant voice jail system before you reach an actual human, and increasingly, you have to pay big bucks for real answers. Email support is a little better, thanks to the increasing popularity of robo-response systems that attempt to parse your problem and send back the appropriate tech info. We don't know about you, but all this makes us pine for the bad ol' days of user-surly human techs.

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