That’s “ennui”, not “envy”, and I’m writing about the fairly dull times we are living in. From an awesome new gadget perspective, that is.
The Age of Enlightened Gadgets spanned the first half of this decade, where a virtually continuous stream of new and fascinating toys were built by both large manufacturers and new upstarts. I’d probably look back at the launches for the original PalmPilot and TiVo as the Big Bang moments. The first generation digital cameras also helped kickstart the gadget world.
A couple of weeks ago I was chatting with Ryan Block, former Editor-in-Chief of Engadget and cofounder of gdgt.com, he was actually the one who first commented to me about the changing gadget world. I asked him why he felt 2001-05 was a more exciting time, he said “It’s the point in which non-geeky people started buying personal technology in droves. Cellphones, digital cameras, laptops — they became tools of mere mortals, not just tools of the trade.”
Today, however, I feel things are a little more… boring. Phones, cameras, MP3 players, etc – they are all fairly well-defined. The netbook category is probably the only really exciting new entrant we’ve seen in recent history. Sure there are oddballs along the way (Slingbox, LiveScribe, USB Humping Dog, etc), but for the most part our categories are almost too well-defined (which is a huge part of why I got involved in working with Bug Labs). I find it hard to get excited about a new, slightly better phone, or higher-resolution camera, flatter screen, etc.
I’ve had the opportunity to build and market consumer electronics products with about a dozen different companies, from the biggest to the smallest manufacturers. They all face the same set of challenges, including a very high failure ratio (for experimental products), a high barrier to entry (engineering, manufacturing, sourcing, support, etc), a rapidly changing technology landscape (wireless standards, codecs, etc), and a lack of sufficient expertise in dealing with all these matters. To clarify: there are tons of experts at these companies, but few of them deal with the sum of all these issues. The guy who was in charge of building AV receivers in the 80s is now dealing with on-screen complicated GUIs, and these are radically different skill sets.
My prediction is we’ll continue through another couple of years of playing the current game. Apple will remain the pioneer in enthralling us (like it or not) with their product evolutions. The majority of other players will continue to attempt to copy Apple, and continue to fall short (the quantity of poorly designed touchscreen phones is amazing to me – here’s a hint: stop trying to clone it, start trying to out-do it). We’ll continue to see the same categories of gadgets, each with minor evolutions occur (adding WiFi to an MP3 player or camera is not a revolutionary enhancement).
And then something interesting will happen. Breakthroughs in material science will create radically new opportunities. Pervasive Internet will change the way we think about storage. Location-based services might actually find a use. Modularity will gain mainstream use and appeal. I don’t know when. I don’t know exactly how. But it’s going to be a fun ride when it starts.