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So Many Gadgets, So Little Time

Innovation happens so fast now that it's harder and harder to keep up with the pace. But is it really innovation?

How much technology is too much? Image courtesy of Flickr user caribb

If you haven’t already, sometime in the next week or so you will buy a gadget or some electronic device and you’ll likely have one of two reactions: Didn’t I just buy this? Or, when did this thing happen?

Not that the sprint of technology kicks into another gear this time of year; it’s just that this is when most of us get loopy with gadget overload and wonder how we’re going to keep up with the pace.  And at least some of us still aren’t sure if change at warp speed is such a good thing.

Take the group of people who were surveyed recently in the U.S., Germany, India and China by Underwriters Laboratories, the product testing firm. Almost half of those who responded said they think high-tech manufacturers bring new products to market faster than people need them.  That would suggest that the pace of innovation is too fast for a lot of consumers.

Or we may not be talking about innovation at all. There is so much emphasis, particularly in the U.S., on pushing stuff to market that more often than not, what we’re getting are tweaks of existing products. Face it, we now live in a beta world where there’s always another fix coming along. Case in point: Only a month after launching its Kindle Fire tablet, Amazon announced it soon will roll out a software upgrade to make it work better.

Rob Chandhok, president of the Qualcomm Innovation Center would agree. In a recent blog for Fast Company, he wrote, “…I think people often confuse the pace of innovation with the pace of change. What has clearly accelerated in the pace of change. Is this pace producing better stuff? Or just more stuff?”

Will you miss losing your keys?

Then there’s the persistent dilemma of technology racing ahead of rules. It’s become a familiar pattern: A new device or software allows us to do things we couldn’t do before and, just like that, we’re invading someone’s privacy. The latest flap is over face recognition software tied to a mobile app called SceneTap. It tells someone, based on images from overhead cameras in bars, the breakdown of men and women in a place, plus the age mix. That’s right, in real time, someone can get that kind of critical bar-hopping intelligence before he even leaves his couch.

This has Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va) so worried that he’s asked the head of the Federal Trade Commission if the agency should regulate face recognition software. The cycle goes on.

Another sad consequence of rapid-fire change is that a lot of perfectly decent devices will soon be doing fast fades. CDs didn’t even last 15 years; vinyl LPs lasted 80.  Soon on the hit list, predicts tech writer Rajiv Makhni, will be car CD players, credit cards, wallets, keys, TV remotes, wrist watches, gaming consoles and, of course, landline phones.

So take a moment to pay respect to what remains of your old-school devices, the ones from the days when you replaced something only when it was way beyond repair. Hug your toaster today. You may want to unplug it first.

Just what you needed

I bet you didn’t see these coming:

  • Your goose is cooked: The iGrill is a wireless meat thermometer that sync’s with your iPad and tells you, from as far as 200 feet away, if your meal is done.
  • Does that include face plants?: Recon Instruments has created goggles that record all the data from your day of skiing.
  • Your pizza smell enchants me: Scientists at the University of Singapore have come up with something they call a Sound Perfume, but it’s been described as a “ringtone for your nose.” It’s a pair of glasses that sends your selected sound and smell to anyone else wearing the glasses.
  • Remember, always round down: Also from Singapore, a computer that can estimate your age.
  • But can it cut off crust?: A team at the Technical University of Munich has invented a robot that can make sandwiches.

Video bonus: Take a trip down memory lane with Walt Mossberg,  who’s been writing about personal technology for the Wall Street Journal for 20 years now.

The Question: What old-school device do you hope never changes?

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