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More Useless Stuff

A recent article in the New York Times and a discussion on Radio New Zealand both covered the same subject: which devices are now useless? Technology changes quickly and it’s interesting to note which previously useful gadgets have become unnecessary, or obsolete, or even useless. So what falls into this category today?

Maybe the first would be the desktop computer. Obviously this is a bit premature because there are still plenty of desktop computers being bought and in many cases a desktop machine is the only logical choice. But laptops are becoming so good now that the majority of people would be a lot better off with one instead of a desktop.

Desktops do have a lot of advantages still: they are usually cheaper, they are usually faster, they have bigger screens, and they tend to be more reliable (because making the components of a laptop – especially the hard disk – smaller and more energy efficient does have side effects) but the trend to portable computing cannot be denied, especially if netbooks and tablets (like the iPad) are included in this category.

I switched to using a laptop many years ago and I have never regretted it. My laptop does have a quad core i7 processor though so it’s certainly at the top end of portable performance. Oh, and it wasn’t cheap!

Still I think it’s worth it. I am writing this blog entry at Starbucks and I often use my laptop for various tasks in odd locations when I have some spare time.

So what’s next? How about the compact camera? The cameras now included in phones are improving rapidly and many people find they are good enough for most uses. In fact the iPhone camera is OK as long as the light is fairly strong. It’s typical of phone cameras that they perform badly in low light but so do many compact cameras.

There’s an old adage amongst photographers: the best camera is the one you have with you. Sure I would prefer to use my Canon SLR but it’s too big to carry with me everywhere. The iPhone really does go everywhere with me (even more than the laptop!) so it’s always available.

So after owning 4 compact digital cameras I no longer have one. I use the iPhone camera for casual use and my SLR for serious photography. Sure a compact camera would give better results than the phone but, like the laptop, its the ubiquity of the phone which is useful. The number of photos and videos taken on phones being used on the news today is further evidence of this trend.

What about computer media? I rarely use CDs and DVDs any more. I still use flash drives but less than I did in the past because the internet is an ever present (well almost) source of anything I could need.

I think this trend is less well advanced but again it is apparent when the change in recent years is examined. Services like Dropbox are very popular and netbooks without optical drives are very common. The iPad has neither an optical drive nor a USB port for a flash drive and that is rarely an inconvenience.

What about music playing hardware? Clearly tape and disk players are almost unheard of now but even dedicated MP3 players are becoming less common. The iPod is the only Apple product which is declining because the iPhone is a better iPod than the iPod itself. I haven’t found another type of phone which is as good but other MP3 players are poor as well so the overall conclusion is still relevant.

Other devices which the phone has assimilated include the stand-alone GPS and the digital alarm clock. I have a GPS in one of our cars (because we bought it before I got the current iPhone) but the TomTom GPS app is so good I just use my iPhone in the other. And I do have an alarm clock but it includes an iPhone dock. The iPhone is just everywhere!

Last night I had to collect something from the bottom of our section and I suddenly realised it was quite dark down there. But the “iPhone catch phrase” immediately sprung to mind: “there’s an app for that!” And yes, there is an app which uses the iPhone’s flash to turn it into a surprisingly powerful torch.

Undoubtedly the iPhone is killing off many other devices. This is not a new phenomenon because phones have been trying to do this for many years. The difference is that other phones have created poorly implemented, compromised copies of the other device. The iPhone in most cases is actually better than the device it’s copying.

By the way, I blogged about useless stuff almost 2 years ago in blog entry number 1055, “Useless Stuff” on 2009-07-17. It’s interesting to see how things have changed!

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