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.comment: Freebies, Buzzwords, and Goofy Stuff - page 2

Live from the Javits Show Floor

  • June 28, 2000
  • By Dennis E. Powell

Maybe, probably, "Stinger...the stylus that fits your finger" is a good idea. There's no doubt that the miserable little plastic sticks with which users are supposed to manipulate data on pocket computing devices are in deep need of improvement. But is a colorful adjustable plastic banjo pick that cones to a very fine point the answer? (It makes a great banjo pick--I tried it out--but the material is soft enough that it wears out before people get tired of my banjo playing, which is to say very quickly indeed, though a Palm Pilot probably isn't as tough on it as a steel banjo string is.) It is attached to the finger via a strap, half of which has studs sticking out of it, the other half of which is multifariously perforated. Pull it around your finger, "Snap Only TWO Studs," and you're in business. Because this takes a little while to do, I guess one is expected to put it on in the morning and leave it there, perhaps until it wears out. Expect some nosebleeds, and maybe problems involving contact lenses.

Several companies now offer, um, unusual PC cases. One has "Kitten," "Doggie," and "Jeep" models. The first two are mini-tower cases with front plates that sport ears, nose, and so on, along with a label identifying the creature depicted, molded into the plastic. The last is a fairly normal case that bears only a possible violation of a registered trademark of Chrysler Corporation. Another company has cases in really odd, art-deco-meets-space-blaster shapes, in silver plastic.

For users of portable computers there is "Lapstation" from Intrigo. This is a folding plastic version of those little bed tables on which sick people are served gruel. It is roomy enough that anyone using one on, say, a commuter train is likely to get into a fight. It features sturdy construction and there is a carrying case available for it. Folded, in its case, it's only about twice as big and twice as heavy as a typical notebook computer.

A few years ago a product I first saw at PC Expo (and, come to think of it, last saw at PC Expo) was a keyboard replacement that had a half-dozen or so buttons; by chording different combinations a user was supposed to be able to produce all the keyboard scancodes and, with a little practice, actually type much faster. I didn't see any of those this year, but I did see possibly the goofiest item in computer history: the Flexboard Keyboard. This thing is a PC keyboard made of some sort of rubber-like material. It is "available in Light Grey, Dark Grey, Blue, Yellow, Green, and Glow in the Dark," and when I was at the Flexboard booth the demonstrator was wearing a yellow one draped over his head. (I swear--all of this is true.) It has the tactile feedback of a dog chew toy or a piece of carpet padding. It is sold by Man & Machine, Inc.

One constant at PC Expo is the presence of companies selling reclining chairs that vibrate; other companies sell foot massagers. These have nothing to do with computers, but the booths are popular, anyway.

Another thing that's pretty weird is the contests. Scads of companies that produce wonderful things have contests at which attendees have the opportunity to win things--but usually the wrong things. Everybody at PC Expo this year has big flat-panel displays, the kind of things you really salivate over. But their contests are for barbecue grills or something unrelated to the product. There are exceptions; OnStream's contest is for their neat 50-gig SCSI backup drive. (OnStream, by the way, told me that they now have full Linux support, something that many people I know had been waiting to hear.)

Buzzwords
As always, the computer industry tries to maintain an air of exclusivity and know-how by employing babble where simple words would impart understanding--the very thing the industry so often wishes to avoid. Thus we have "form factor" instead of "size and shape," and "solution" instead of "computer program." That which once was "essential" is now "mission critical."

"Internet-ready" was a winner in recent years, even for products that had nothing at all to do with the Internet, in much the way that "digital ready" was used to describe loudspeakers without anybody ever noting that there's no such thing as a digital-unready loudspeaker.

The new crop of technobabble includes some of the old--"partner" instead of "customer"--and much that is new. You no longer hire somebody to keep the computers up and running, now you hire a "Technical Solution Provider," or, if you can't afford one of those, a "Hardware Continuity Consultant," who charges more per hour but who has to provide his or her own benefits. Everything with the word "wireless" in it is now babble critical if you wish to get one of these jobs.

But the all-time champion, hands down, comes from Zack Network, which may well be an excellent company doing useful things. But how are we to know? Here is the "Company Overview" from its PC Expo literature:

"Zack network is the Internet's leading server-side infomediary. Using its unique ability to sit between users and the Web, the company has introduced a new paradigm of online content delivery: a next-generation enabling technology. Zack's server-side application platform, the Zack Engine, is designed exclusively for Internet Service Providers and content providers. The technology can deliver any type of content or functionality to users in real time anywhere on the Internet. Zack's first complete layer, the Shopping Zack Bar, offers a plug-and-play e-commerce suite that provides instant price comparisons and product reviews on more than 300 retail sites. In addition to shopping functionality, the Zack Engine and Zack Bar technologies can be applied across the Internet to create a true contextual experience for Web users."

To paraphrase a wonderful sentence in an Esquire magazine article about the actor William Hurt several years ago, the above paragraph sounds like someone who has just made his first use of the AMD roach clip.

The Wait-Til-Next-Year Stuff
There are some really neat things at PC Expo that are looking for a purpose, and I expect that by next year purposes will be found for them.

One is the Olympus Eye-Trek, which is a stereo headset combined with an eyeset containing color LCD displays. They're tiny, but they give the impression that you're watching a wide-screen television.

Another is the ZF Linux Devices PC on a chip.This little wonder has as its guts a souped-up Cyrix 586-133, but it extends the bus and contains just about all other motherboard functions. If you slow it down a little, it uses next to no power. It boots Linux from an EPROM almost instantly. The company is thinking of it in terms of controlling appliances and other home equipment, perhaps via the Internet. (Wait until the script kiddies get a load of that! Could make coming home at the end of the day a real adventure, don't you think?) But imagine: combine the ZF Linux Devices chip with some sort of storage, an ability to connect to the Internet when needed, the Olympus headset (with, now, a microphone), and IBM's ViaVoice. That, fellow users, could change computing in a big way. And it wouldn't take much to bring it about.

Though what I'm really eager to see is a subnotebook of the Jornada class running Linux. When KDE2 comes out this fall, it would be relatively easy to provide just about everything anybody would need with a relatively sparse Linux installation, KDE2, and KOffice. The thing would run forever on a set of batteries or a charge (and if it didn't, the manufacturer should call up ZF Linux and get its chips there) and would produce a really industrial-strength portable. I wouldn't be surprised to see one of these by next year. Along with freebies, goofy stuff, and a new attack on the language.

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