Thursday 6 June 2019

The future's so blurred I gotta wear reading glasses

As a result of a trade-in offer that promised to accept any working Android phone, I went rummaging around my Museum of Technology (a box in a cupboard). Underneath a Handspring Visor, a Diamond Rio 500, a Sony Clie, a Tapwave Zodiac, a Sony Ericsson T610, a Motorola Razr, and a Nokia N810 Internet Tablet I found my second “proper” smartphone. Uncharacteristically I’d passed on my first (a T-Mobile Pulse) rather than consigning it to the Museum; the second was an Orange San Francisco (a badged version of the ZTE Blade).

The San Francisco is from 2010ish and has a 3.5″ screen, 512 MB of RAM, a 3 megapixel camera and runs Android 2.1, attributes that are (more or less) quadrupled in a current entry level handset, it’s pretty obvious to see the progress over the last ten years putting the two alongside each other. From another perspective, though, the basic functions have hardly changed. The San Francisco can still pick up e-mail, access the web, take (smaller) photos, watch (smaller) videos, play (less) music, run (simple) games, even mad stuff like send text messages and make voice calls. Comparing the San Francisco to tech from 2000 the differences are far greater – you’d need a separate digital camera, MP3 player, PDA and mobile phone (or something like a Nokia Communicator that combined the last two), each a pricey bit of kit. User experience was pretty variable as well; remember WAP? If not, consider yourself fortunate, it was like Ceefax (ask grandad) on a tiny phone screen with updates delivered by a sloth. Getting devices to talk to each other via Bluetooth or an assortment of non-standard cables often needed delving into the depths of arcane drivers and dead chicken waving with inevitable danger of shark attack. 2000 – 2010 saw the various functions being combined to greater or lesser success in a variety of ways before the iOS/Android stranglehold really kicked in. The Pulse and San Francisco were amongst the first handsets available in the UK for around £100 on a pay-as-you-go basis with packages that included data without paying an arm and a leg; iPhones had been out for a couple of years but were very much in the arm, leg and possibly kidney price range.

There’s a Douglas Adams quote that really rings true: “Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.” The exhibits in my tech museum were exciting and revolutionary indeed; for youngsters the smartphone in its current form is normal and ordinary. Now I’m firmly in the last of Adams’ categories I wonder what developments are going to seem against the natural order of things. Perhaps there’s a bit of a cushion, as it takes a while for inventions to become practical and then ubiquitous, or perhaps he slightly underestimated the upper age band; fellow early-Mac-adopter Stephen Fry seems to have maintained his tech-enthusiasm after all. There are signs, though; contactless payment falls into my “new and exciting” zone, and I’m happy to take advantage of the convenience, but I still tend to default to cash which seems like it might become rather anachronistic before too long, kids might look at those weird bits of metal and slips of paper like video cassettes or punched cards. Still, as long as I maintain a bit of dignity and don’t become too amusing and eccentric, eh?