We'll carry the information age with us—in our pockets, purses, and briefcases
Let's get small. Seems a lot of folks in the computer business are adopting Steve Martin's non sequitur from the early 1980s. But this time it's no joke. Little computers have a big future, whether they're serious productivity tools or fun-and-games machines.
By now you've probably read about Sharp's Wizard, a wallet-size personal organizer. (OK, so it's one of those big, trucker wallets, the kind with all the chains and clips and snaps.) Now when you hit the road, you can carry phone numbers, memos, and sundry other informational gems, all in an easy-access, nifty, eye-catching piece of hardware. And, thanks to companies like Traveling Software, those little notes you enter into your Wizard can be uploaded to your personal computer. It works the other way, too—from desktop to coat pocket.
Sure, you could write all that stuff down in a daybook, But what's the fun in that? Devices like the Wizard and Casio's B.O.S.S. and even Franklin Computer's spelling checkers aren't substitutes for paper. They are paper—the paper of the 1990s.
When did this rush to Lilliput begin? The television I watched as a kid was the size of a small refrigerator. I could see the dull orange glow of vacuum tubes through the ventilation slots. When the picture went out, my Dad would unscrew the back of the set, remove the tubes, and we would drive over to the drugstore and stick them, one by one, into the diagnostic machine. Today you can get a TV that's smaller than a paperback book; Sony even has a VCR-TV combo that's about the size of a cordless phone.
Transistors, chips, silicon, and ingenuity. When my dad told me about the giant IBM computers, huge monoliths that covered an entire wall. I imagined slowly spinning tape wheels, blinking lights, the low hum and the dull glow of tubes. I wondered how they ever found the faulty tube when the computer broke down.
Progress dwarfed us, Little electronic gadgets sprang up everywhere. Hand-size football games. Thumb-size digital clocks. Computer makers started using phrases like small footprint, as if the future we were tracking had left some mark that we might follow. When Intel's 80386 chip found its way into personal computers in the mid-eighties, PC pundits talked of putting minicomputer power on the desktop. No one bothered to ask whether we needed that kind of power; it could be done, and so we would darn well use it if we wanted to keep our grip on the ragged edge of technology.
Small is big. Big is small. It's a brand of technological newspeak with a difference: These products carry a real message. And that message is that in the coming years we'll be carrying the information age with us—literally. It will travel in our pockets, purses, briefcases, and book bags. Handheld scanners and copiers have been around for a few years now. A company called Reflection Technologies has developed a tiny monitor that, when worn on a headset, projects a full-size display in front of the user. We can probably expect to see miniaturized fax machines. And what about laser discs? Already we have palm-size audio CD players. Can miniature CD-ROM readers for laptops be far behind? Imagine your son or daughter taking an entire library of books to college—packed neatly into one slim attaché case.
Little computers aren't relegated just to business or education, though. They're also designed for fun—no matter where we are. Both Nintendo and Atari plan to market portable videogame systems this year. And before them, several companies manufactured hand-held arcade games that are now sold as stocking stuffers in Radio Shack, Toys "R" Us, and hundreds of other retail outlets.
Some of us might cringe at the thought of kids playing California Challenge or Mario Brothers during the family camping trip. After all, an LCD screen can't compete with the view from Mount Washington in New Hampshire or Hanging Rock here in North Carolina. (Some kids might think otherwise.) And the thought of someone playing a game while driving down the freeway (Atari's game system has a cigarette-lighter attachment) would make anyone weak in the knees. But the point of these portables is that, if you're hooked on arcade entertainment, you never have to leave home without it.
All these miniature electronic devices give new meaning to the phrase You can't take it with you, a perfectly good adage shot to hell. Maybe that's also part of the message that these gadgets are sending. We have to rethink and reconsider the ways in which we operate in these days of instantaneous communications, annotated information, and technobabble obfuscations.
Another adage: It's a small world. It's a small future, too. You're holding it in the palm of your hand.