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Future Hangups


Older readers can pause for a moment and gloat. They know that the phone companies have been promising "picture phones" for 50 years now, and have always run up against the reality that the public didn't want them.

Women, in particular, balked at the idea that whenever they answered the phone, the person on the other end might see what they looked like at that precise moment, or the condition of the housekeeping in the background.

Men, no strangers either to vanity or a bad case of "morning hair," were skeptical as well.

It became unlikely that any sane person in America would answer a telephone before 9 a.m. or after 7 p.m.

The principle behind the combination of a phone and a camera is called "convergence" — the combination of several technologies into a new product that serves multiple needs. The point is not so much a new technology, but a reason for you to buy a new piece of equipment to replace the "outdated" piece of equipment you bought last week.

Think of it as an electronic version of the Swiss Army Knife, which provides a blade, a corkscrew, nail clippers, rasp, saw, file, punch, crowbar and a dozen other tools.

Cell phones are no longer just cell phones, they're a telephone, Rolodex, personal organizer, computer, e-mail portal, game console and portable music box. And now, a camera as well.

There are two problems with cramming all this technology into a device that's about the size of a Snickers bar. One, it becomes so complex that it's near impossible to master all of its functions.

And, two, the miniaturization required to compress all these functions results in a screen and a keyboard that cannot be read or manipulated by, ahem, adults of a certain age. You need the eyes of a goshawk and the paws of a ferret.

An airline scheduling catastrophe the other day caught me short. I needed to quickly use a cell phone while my reading glasses were packed away in a bag that was, at that very moment, being kicked and pummeled by a gorilla in matching airline togs and a name tag that said "Lennie." With Lennie busily mauling my goods, I tried to use the shrunken phone without my glasses. I had to hold it so far from my body with my left hand that I couldn't reach it with my right. I stabbed away at what I thought were the correct numbers, and eventually I got through.

Unfortunately, on the first attempt, I didn't get through to the right party. I don't know who it was that I reached, but I seem to have awakened him, and his English was a little rough around the edges. If there's a call to Botswana on my next bill, I won't be able to contest it with good conscience.

At that moment a camera-phone hookup might have been kind of amusing. A guy in Botswana gets a phone-photo of a lost American at the Third World puddle-jumper counter in the basement of the Fort Lauderdale airport, and the lost traveler gets a photo of an angry Botswanan who's been rudely awakened before his tea has set to boil.

It's been difficult to avoid ads for these new "convergence" cell phones this season, as they seem to account for every third commercial on television. My favorite is this one: A crafty wife, trying to lure her husband home, interrupts his poker game with live photos of the sumptuous dinner she has just laid out on the table.

Fat chance. More likely he'd get pictures of the three kids who need to be bathed, fed and put to bed, a picture of the pile of trash he'd forgotten to haul to the curb and a "reminder"' photo of the meanest, ugliest, nastiest divorce lawyer ever to flare his nostrils from the back cover of the Yellow Pages.

I never thought of myself as a Luddite, but "convergence" has gone too far when a guy can no longer draw to an inside straight without his wife, peering at his cards over the phone, yelling, "Throw the deuce, you idiot! Throw the deuce!"

When it gets to that point, please deal me out. S

Dave Addis is a columnist for the Virginian-Pilot. This column first appeared in that paper. The Virginian-Pilot © Dec. 4, 2002

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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