This is the golden age for new gadgets

Back in 2002 when I started work on my PhD, I remember feeling in awe of all the amazing new devices being released.  Bluetooth had just come out, PDAs were getting wifi, and mobile phones were getting cameras.

A lot of the designs back then were kind of clunky, but a lot were pretty amazing.  I remember being amazed by the sleek design of the iPaq 3870.  The very cool (and thoughtfully ergonomic) T68 from Ericsson. The Sony Vaios were to be the coolest thing in laptops for the next 8 years (I still love the S58GP/B).

Since then I haven’t been nearly as excited about new devices, and I’ve often wondered if it was just a phase I was going through.  It was certainly better for my wallet.

This year though has been a pretty amazing year for design and technology.  Here are a few of the gadgets wowing me at the moment:

Macbook Air

When the Macbook Air came out a few years ago I was pretty impressed from a technology perspective.  However from a price/performance balance I was less than enthused.  Incredibly high price coupled with middling performance?  No thank you.  This year Apple suddenly releases an even SMALLER Macbook Air as well as a version of the original with bumped specs and much lower prices? Done.  Between the SSD, the higher resolution screen and the lighter weight/longer battery life, the Macbook Air ceases to be a novelty and begins to be a competitor as an every day computer.  Looking forward to the 15″ version hopefully some day soon.

Kindle 3

The first Kindle was of course groundbreaking, and the second was a worthy successor.  However, the Kindle 3 combined an impressive upgrade (smaller, lighter, and with a better contrast screen), with a killer price point – $139.  Suddenly the greatest ebook reader was a commodity purchase.  Until the Kindle 3, I knew of a single person with a Kindle.  Now, at least a dozen of my close friends own one.

iPad

There were rumours for years.  And tablets were pretty woeful too – so the jokes about a second Newton actually seemed pretty accurate.  However Apple did two really impressive things with the iPad.  The first is the price – they crammed in a really solid mix of tech in a beautiful device, yet without the design premium.  Already they’re ahead – but unlike Microsoft with their woeful tablet version of Windows XP, they successfully redesigned the OS paradigm.  They took the best of iPhone and OS X and figured out an all new way to use computers.  And it was an immediate success!  I’m still in awe that they achieved this, and with a 1.0 product too.  I somewhat regret my decision to be a late adopter to the iPad, but I am hoping 2.0 will justify my wait.  As someone who dreamed about ubiquitous computing becoming mainstream as an academic, I’m truly jealous of the designers and engineers at Apple for pulling this off.

Volkswagen Golf Mk 6

This seems a little odd.  Gushing about the design of a car?  Yes, cars are a fairly well-known format, but since having lengthy discussions with the Volkswagen Electronics Research Laboratory I’ve been really excited about the user-centred approach to design employed there.  I originally test-drove the latest Golf as one of several possible cars based only on its looks, but the attention to detail compared to the price point is amazing.  Subtle touches like a cooling glove box, consistent ambient reading lights, 12V chargers in the boot, and a well-designed “second dashboard” UI, give a suitable wow factor.  I’ve never enjoyed using a car as much as I have the Golf Mk 6 (well, except maybe the Audi S5 Coupe).

Canon Powershot S95

I was disappointed with Canon after the apparent peak of point-and-shoots with the Ixus 860IS.  I had just planned to get another Ixus, even though I had known there were issues with the latest sensors, however when I went to Best Buy to compare them, I stumbled across the S95.  I immediately knew I had to get one.  The S95 boasts a very sharp and clear LCD, a large sensor, high quality lens and nearly full manual controls.  Since buying this I have retired my Ixus 860IS (apart from for concerts, given its great audio attenuation) as well as my wife’s Rebel XTi.  Mr Pogue sums up my feelings pretty well in his love letter.

Ruby on Rails

Yes, I’m kind of late to the party, but I’m traditionally a Java man, having dallied in Struts and used Spring/Hibernate.  Writing a web-app used to be kind of a big deal.  With Ruby on Rails all the smart decisions have already been made for you.  Ruby is a fun language to write in, and Rails takes care of all the hard stuff.  This is what programming is meant to be like.

Everything, really

Furthermore, have you noticed how much more it feels like we’re living in the future at the moment? I think the mobile/ubiquitous computing nature of devices is fueling this.

  • Identifying a song on the radio using Shazam
  • No longer having to plan every detail of vacation.  Finding an amazing restaurant using Yelp, booking it on OpenTable and navigating with Google Maps – all on your smartphone.
  • Wireless broadband – how did I make do without you before?
  • Playing Xbox without any controllers at all – I still remember the weird feeling of just not having a cable and how disconcerting that was.
  • VOIP calling anywhere, anytime.
  • Fitbit, WakeMate, RunKeeper, Nike Plus – you can monitor almost all your everyday activities now.
  • Having applications in the cloud – find any computer, and you’ve got access to all your data and applications.
  • A mobile phone with a 960×640 display? The iPhone 4 wows me every time I use one.
  • WordLens – realtime OCR/translation and augmented reality for translating text – all on a mobile device.

It’s difficult to make strong predictions, but 2011 looks to be another amazing year for technology, even if it is “just” incremental (the S95 was “just” an update to the S90).  I’m looking forward in particular to what Apple do next (of course), and the continued innovation in web applications, particularly in the cloud.  Y Combinator continues to be very successful and with nearly 80 new companies likely to emerge next year that will be another exciting scene. It is hard to imagine a strong follow-up to a year which included Xbox Kinect, WordLens, iPhone 4, and the iPad, but I am optimistic.

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