SMART COOKIES: New devices, new desires - Something odd is happening in consumer electronics. Devices are sexy again. After a long slumber, consumer lust is stirring

SMART COOKIES: New devices, new desires - Something odd is happening in consumer electronics. Devices are sexy again. After a long slumber, consumer lust is stirring - What's your evidence for this ugly prospect?

by ANDREW WILEMAN, a strategy and organisation consultant;
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

What's your evidence for this ugly prospect?

On a recent flight, I was flicking through the business and in-flight mags. Since this was December, there were lots of 'hot new personal tech products for 2001' features. Normally these deepen my in-flight coma.

But I found myself tearing out one page, then another, then another ... pretty soon I had a briefcase stuffed with tear-outs.

I was sweating and hyper-ventilating. I wanted to rush to Dixons, get onto, and start comparing price/values on C-Net. It took me a while to recognise the symptoms, because, frankly, it's been a long time: I was in the grip of consumer electronics lust.

This is obviously not a common experience.

I haven't had it for years. I just replace stuff when it breaks down.

My TV is pretty much the same as 20 years ago, although now I've got three around the house. They've all got VCRs, but the basic pounds 99 versions. I've got stereos scattered about, but they haven't changed in 15 years, since I went CD.

My home office is different. I've got a decent desktop and a great laptop.

But that's about work. Consumer electronics hasn't set my heart palpitating since the VCR and the Walkman in the early 1980s - well, except for mobile phones and laptops, but we'll come back to that.

Is there a point to this consumerist ramble?

My hormonal flushes are in reaction to what Silicon Valley-ites calls a deep paradigm shift. Let's draw out some themes.

A key theme is portability. Over the past 20 years, that has been the attraction of the Walkman, the mobile phone and the laptop. You aren't tethered any more to a home stereo, a fixed-line phone or a wired-in lumpy desktop. Your music, communications and computing go with you.

The sexiest new devices are pushing this theme to new levels. Handspring, Blackberry, internet-enabled mobiles and next-gen Palms are delivering combinations of audio, mobile phone, digital camera, wirefree e-mail and WAP internet, on top of old functionality. Since I travel a lot on business, I prefer all that portable functionality to be built into my next-gen laptop. I love the idea of being on a plane watching my personal DVD movie library, or listening to my personalised CD. I love the idea of live webcam voice-over-internet wirefree chats via my laptop. I like the idea of e-books that handle and look like magazines, so I can lose weight from my carry-on bag ...

I get portability. What is another key theme?

Control and access. In the old paradigm, TV channels decided what you watched and when; music labels decided which tracks you listened to, in what order; film studios dictated release dates. VCRs, CDs, cable and satellite started to break this down - they were sort-of sexy in their time, but limited.

In the post-internet, mega-powered home device era, that old paradigm is smashed to pieces. I love the idea of DVD devices like TiVo that allow me to create my own TV schedules, replay in real time, and cut out the commercial breaks. I love the idea of home CD-burners, so I can create my personal CDs, with the artists and tracks I want, in the order I want.

I'd love the same for DVD video.

These new devices are interacting with the internet's global reach. Internet radio lets me tune into salsa stations in Miami and country stations in Calgary. I can swap music, video, photo and info files with a million other net users via Napster-type peer-to-peer networks. (And I honestly don't mind paying - it's about control and access, not money.)

What's the third theme (there are always three)?

The focus of device power-progression and innovation is switching from the employee in the workplace to the individual at home or on the move.

Three years ago, a home desktop PC was cheap compared with a workplace PC. Today, top-end home desktops are built to deliver power- and memory-sucking broadband multimedia. A Sony PlayStation 2 has more processing power than a dollars 10 million Cray super-computer of the 1980s (as used by the Pentagon and NASA, and you couldn't ship one to Iraq or Libya). Meanwhile, workplace PCs are beige boxes - 'thin clients' connecting to corporate networks and servers.

And it's form as well as function. Design and fashion values are oozing out of the iMac, Nokia phones, Vaio laptops - and the flat-screen home PC monitors that are replacing TVs as the centrepiece of the first-time-buyer bijou pad.

What are you asking Santa for next Christmas?

These obscure objects of desire - I want them all, please.

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