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11/8/2004
03:23 PM
Mike Elgan
Mike Elgan
Commentary
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Let's Get Personal

The notion of "personal" technology harkens back to the introduction of the first personal computer (the MITS Altair in 1975) or maybe the first pocket calculators (the HP-35 or Sinclair Executive in the early 1

The notion of "personal" technology harkens back to the introduction of the first personal computer (the MITS Altair in 1975) or maybe the first pocket calculators (the HP-35 or Sinclair Executive in the early 1970s).

By today's standards, these gadgets were practically unusable. The MITS Altair had no monitor, mouse or keyboard. Input was the flipping of switches. Output was the blinking of lights. The calculators did nothing but math.

They nevertheless generated rabid enthusiasm for no other reason than that they were technology that was personal, and in the case of the calculators, portable.

They were real computers. But they weren't room-size, multimillion-dollar behemoths owned and operated by the Pentagon. They were affordable machines real people owned and operated.

During the 1980s and early 1990s, the PC became the quintessential "personal" technology. We learned to customize and program, optimize and control them. But in the past ten years, the personal computer has become, well, less personal — at least at work.

Since the mid-1990s, our employers have increasingly restricted how company-owned PCs could be used, dictating what hardware and software could be installed, locking down and monitoring what we do with them. It's not yours. It's theirs. The same goes for some other technologies, such as company-issued cell phones and PDAs.

Fortunately, the past ten years have also witnessed a revolution in the quality, variety and affordability of personal technology. Pocket GPS devices; advanced home automation, security and entertainment; intelligent sports gadgets; MP3 players; pager-based PDA communications devices; digital mobile phones; and — yes, the Mother of All Personal Technologies — the massively convergent smart phone, have all emerged in the past decade. And many of these have transformed our lifestyles and changed the way we communicate, learn and live. And we love them, don't we?

Why do these geek toys elicit such passion? I think the main reason is that, by definition, personal technologies are peripheral devices to our own brains. They give us power, freedom and pleasure, enhancing us as people and making us, well, super-human.

Mobile phones erase vast distances, enabling us to casually chat with people on the other side of town — or the other side of the planet. Digital cameras and camera phones give us photographic memory. With Google at our fingertips, we can conjure up almost any human knowledge almost instantly from almost anywhere. We can listen to music and watch movies whenever and wherever we like, program robots to vacuum our rugs and mow our laws, and navigate our cars via satellite.

We have evolved from the Flintstones to the Jetsons in a single generation. And the next few years promise incredible breakthroughs in personal tech. Low-cost, hi-definition TV; studio-quality camera phones; intelligent clothing; disposable mobile phones; exotic personal transportation machines; holographic entertainment — it's all coming to a store near you before the decade is out.

So fasten your seatbelts, fellow gadget freaks, and hang on. It's going to be quite a ride.

Culture-altering technology revolutions are always interesting. But this time, it's personal.

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