May 28, 2009

Technology on the move - a personal history

Most technological inventions need some time to get acquainted to and settle in. Although I consider myself an early adopter for general technology and gadgets, at the current rate new technology and systems are being introduced it is a real challenge to keep up tacit knowledge by using and adopting all the available technology. In this short personal history I will review some changes in technology (related to games, music and available networks) I experienced in the last 25 years.

Around 1984 I had my first walkman (for playing my home-recorded cassette-tapes with music) that I used in the early mornings on my newspaper delivery route. We had a Commodore 64 computer (64 kByte that is) with a cassette tapedrive for external memory that I used for loading games. Before turboloader a large game could take up to 45 minutes to load (possibly limited by the maximum lenght of a tape?), later an application called 'turboloader' brought it back to a minute.
Back then you had friends at school who introduced and helped with using new gadgets and technologies. Handheld pocket games like Donkey Kong (from Nintendo) and PacMan were a real rage back then, to the point that it was forbidden to take it to school. Surprisingly these games are still very popular today on several gaming platforms. Parents now would probably call it peer group pressure since the result of playing with a technologically privileged schoolfriend was also getting or begging for one yourself.

In 1985 I got introduced to 27 MC (CB) and bought one 22 channel (0.5 watt), in 1986 I started buying and experimenting with larger CB (4 x 80 + more lineair power), FM transmitters (building them) and pirate stations (with a few CB friends) since I was inspired by the story of Radio Veronica. My vinyl recordcollection grew these years from 3 to more than 800 12 inch album records mostly from Koninginnedag (Dutch Queensday) and fleamarket sales. In the early 90's I added some more to my current 1200+ vinyl record collection (about 80% various artists albums). The reason I bought second hand LP's on fleamarkets initially was that it was affordable. An average between € 0.50 - 1.50 per record. An interesting observation for me is that the perceived value of a secondhand Compact Disc (CD) is still much higher (€ 1.00 - 5.00) than that of an LP even if it is the same album. Same is true for secondhand and even more supprisingly new VHS-tapes (low price) and DVD's (high price), it is even more interesting because the productioncosts of a DVD's are less than 25% than that of anVHS-tape. Yes of course do I know VHS is phased out in favor of DVD-R and memorycards but my point is it seems to follow a common trend when substituting old with new technology.

Around 1987 I bought myself an autoreverse walkman with external mic-recorder and FM radio-receiver. There was no music-station on the Dutch radio during my early morning paperroute, so I had my personal FM music broadcasting station (Radio GoGo) in Hilversum during my paperroute. The whole idea of creating a music compilation on tape as my personal radiostation with jingles and then broadcasting it to myself appealed to me. The radio broadcast was fulfilling my personal need for early morning uptempo music but possibly serving a much larger audience of spontaneous listeners who just happened to scan for radiostations from 5:30 to 7:30 a.m.

In 1988 the media-laws in the Netherlands changed and commercial radiostations were permitted to broadcast the ether, including these early hours. There was no explicit need anymore and of course no way I (or any of my friends) could compete with these commercial stations. The RCD (Radio Control Service) also became more strict and held frequent coordinated razzia terminating all amateur pirate radiostations. Some larger / professional pirate stations applied for FM-frequencies and continued legally. Radiolegends Adam Curry and Jeroen van Inkel have their roots in the Amsterdam radio-piracy scene.

I continued making thematic cassette-tape compilations from my record- and growing CD-collection untill I went to college in 1992. To me it is still a real art to compile a lineair 90 minute tape (or CD for that matter) with a fixed moodsetting or theme and still have an interesting but balanced set of songs. You're searching for a good complete experience, like a composer. You need a strong beginning and end, variation in vocal vs. musical, man vs. woman, solo vs. group, fast vs. slow, rhytm-compatibility, and familiar (popular) songs vs. unknown jewels. Creating a playlist on an iPod (CD / MP3-player) is much easier because it is shuffled automatically and you can skip a song with one click.

In 1991 I bought a secondhand 80-286 PC with MS DOS on 2 720 Kb floppy-diskdrives from my school and used a spreadsheet (Lotus 123) and database (dBase) for the first time. That's when I understood the real potential of computers. In 1994 I created my first free mailaccount from DDS (a so called 'digital city' or virtual community) which I could read twice a week from the University Library computerroom. I also made my first homepage in DDS. Software was shared through BBS. For messaging (me) I had a Seiko Message Watch a 16 character pager, the prequel of SMS. My roommate had a computer running windows 3.1 a 80486DX50 with 8 MB RAM and a 4 speed CD-Rom with a 15" monitor. Around that time we played all the levels of Lemmings and Wolfenstein3D.
I bought my first greyscale handheld scanner to scan pictures and OCR textpages from books for college and my first 16 bit Gravis Ultrasound (full duplex) soundcard with wavetable and oncard memory. Although clipart in documents was very hot, printing real (greyscale) pictures was not very common then. Around 1995 I assembled my first PC, a 80486 DX 66, all the components were bought on a computer fair. Unfortunately the intel processor was dead (I had traveled to the supplier of the motherboard, that board was tested OK and he sold me a new processor after which my PC worked). Months later I went to another computerfair and located the supplier of the original defective (DOA) processor who gave me my money back, the price had dropped 30% in 3 months. Moore's law still seems valid. The 56k6 baud modem was introduced (for a faster dial-up connection to the Internet). Storage devices also became larger. I have used the portable iomega Zipdrive (with 100 MB disks instead of 1.44 MB floppydisks) for several years untill I had my own CD-burner. Nowadays most people use USB-flashdrives. Interestingly not all input devices change: I still use my single line OCR penscanner from 1996 occasionally; I did needed to upgrade the driver and OCR software from Irislink so I also bought a USB version. A pen scanner is still recommended for students and researchers quoting lines from (paper) books and magazines.

In 1996 CD-burners (CD-ROM) and inkjet color printers became popular. The new operating system Windows 95 boosted sales and multitasking (more than 1 program open and working on your computer desktop) became common use. Wordprocessor WordPerfect 6 became ancient and MS Word became the new standard in the computer room. Midi and Mod audio-files were replaced by .wav and MP3 after ripping whole CD-collections using CDDB for track info. In 1997 I bought a Sony MiniDisc-player/recorder with optical I/O and USB as a possible non-lineair (random-access) replacement for my cassette-tapes. Since transferring MiniDisc recordings to a computer took a lot of time (only real time single speed transfer, meaning a recording of 80 minutes takes 80 minutes to transfer) and some optical output limitations for consumers probably resulted in the fact that MiniDisc didn't make it as a new audio-medium. I really liked the ability to edit MiniDisc tracks and recordings with a portable recorder and add track info (Text) to an audio-track. Unfortunately it was not possible to tranfer this MiniDisc trackinfo directly to the audio-track on the PC or to CD-text when burning it on a CD-Rom. MP3 as an alternative did have the ability to add track info like: artist, title, album, genre, tracknumber and comment (read: Meta-information) to a file with the ID3-tag preferably added automaticly through CDDB.

I'm still using MP3 as my primary audio storage-format today. Since 1987 I ripped most of my CD-collection to MP3. I stored it by putting it on CD-Rom, later on DVD-Rom and now I have an audio collection of more than 300 GB. At first only PC's and some DVD-players could play MP3-files but nowadays almost all audio-hardware can play MP3. Portable MP3-players became popular around 1999. I know that around the year 2000 I bought a portable NAPA MP3/CD/VideoCD player with ID3-display. This player definitely substituted my walkman and tapes, the MiniDisc was only used for recording.

I had my first portable GSM cellphone around 1998: A large Motorola 8800 with only a day of standby time, but what a freedom feeling being able to call while riding a bike. Before my gsm I had a portable housephone with large (extended) range around the house (approximately 2 km range, somewhat illegal but effective). After the pocket-pagers hype around 1995 with short text-codes, GSM introduced text messaging to the masses with SMS.

Currently (june 2009) Twitter (on twitter.com) is the hottest trend introducing gps tagged broadcast messaging by cellphones, smartphones or pda's connected to the Internet. Twitter is mostly used as a micro-Blog (with only 140 characters in 1 message) but also as a social networking application. Twitter is a logical follow up of instant messaging or chat (irc) which was a popular application from the early 90's on the Internet.
Other popular Internet applications from around 2000 were ICQ, MSN. and peer-to-peer MP3 filesharing Napster (P2P filesharing later evolved to Kazaa and torrent-sites). Videochat or videoconferencing became more popular when broadband Internet (by ISDN, Cable and ADSL) and webcams became affordable. Skype (introduced in 2003) set a standard (by reaching a critical mass of users) for connecting Internet-telephony to normal PSTN telephone-lines. Voice over IP (VOIP) is now offered by ISPs as an acceptable alternative or substitution of the (old) analog PSTN telephone system.

Mobile phones became more advanced, starting with WAP (only textbased) and and specially designed WML Internet pages. After my 2 relatively cheap Motorola phones I invested in a (more advanced) Nokia 6210 with build in 9k6 modem so I could fax and email with a laptop. A bit later around 2003 the pocketPC with Windows mobile became the new standard for handhelds. Personally I used an HP iPaq 4350 with wireless connectivity: bluetooth & wifi and a seperate (bluetooth) gps receiver for use with the TomTom Navigation Software.

Portable music became a new lifestyle with the Apple iPod. I personally ignored and even rejected the overhyped adoration of the early iPod adopters for a long time but I got more acquinted to the idea of thematic playlists. And lists based on specific ID3 metatags. USB-stick MP3-players were only able to shuffle and play folders (usually an album). Also Apple Inc. introduced a music marketing and purchase model through iTunes. The popularity and maybe also the acceptance of iTunes as a music store and library environment on Mac and PC was hugely enhanced by the easy way to find and subscribe to (free) podcasts. FYI: A (current) comparison of online music stores.
The iTunes musicstore introduced $0,99 per song in the USA, frustratingly this was copied to the European countries to €0,99 (with the current exchange rate Europeans pay more than 40% extra!). It was not until 2007 that I bought an 80 GB iPod video, now referred to as iPod classic (the 5th generation) which makes me late mayority in gadget marketing and innovation adoption terms. My main motivation for buying one was the long playing time (over 20 hours) and the fact that iPod is the industry standard (a leading example for others) which means several accessories are made specially for- or compatible with the iPod like docking stations, speakers and microphones (this is my favorite mic for recording with iPod:griffins italk pro).

When Apple marketed (and hyped) the long awaited iPhone in the summer of 2007 I was even more sceptical than with the iPod. I decided to wait and see. That fall of 2007 I did buy a new HTC P3300 smartphone running Windows Mobile with 2 MegaPixel camera, wifi, touchscreen, and build-in-gps to replace my Nokia 6210 (after almost 8 years).

And yes, I finally bought an iPhone 3G 16 GB with a T-Mobile business package deal in march 2009 and I must say: I really like the iPhone. I am a great fan of the App-store (more than 50.000 apps available in less than 2 years on the market). The intelligent use of the build in sensors and features makes the iPhone so unique. Somebody just thought of the idea that a Multitouch-screen feature creates the opportunity of playing multi-finger piano on the iPhone. That is creativity and brings back the fun to technology.

Personally I am not a gamer but throughout the years I have played some PC based computergames. My favorite game was a turn based strategy game named Civilization 2. I was not really into shooters like Doom and DukeNukem 3D although I liked the idea (concept) of modifying and creating your own levels and putting your own pictures on top of the monsters. The adventure shooter TombRaider had nicer graphics but I never took the time to play the whole game. Black & White was the last big (God)game I spend serious time on. I liked this game for originality and for the AI-features in the game. About two years ago we bought two DDR dancepads which I liked for fitness and interactivity (this gaminggenre is now referred to as Exergames). Recently we got the handheld Nintendo DS (now mostly used by my 6 year old daughter) and the interactive Nintendo Wii using the Wii-remote and Nunchuck with build-in 3-axle motion-sensors. I extended our Wii-system after a few weeks with the Wii Fit + balanceboard. My wife uses the Wii mostly for fitness and training.
[On the side: A really thought provoking TED-talk about the history and future of games]

Skipping to conclusion:
What I think we need is a gadgetized playground or sandbox to get acquinted to gadgets and new technology first before we use them as new tools, but what we get is a mass marketed, overhyped, interconnected network of electronic stuff with unpredictable spinn-offs and possibly unwanted symptoms like information stress. Too much info and stuff without a real (physical) context or place to put it. Don't get me wrong, I like gadgets and technology a lot, but we need to put things in perspective. Aim for ideals and goals that really matter. Use technology as a tool and not as a target. I'm trying to make a point here but I am unclear about the form. I will stop here and leave this writing as is. Later I will write more about connectivity, technology and the iPhone as a technological milestone in particular.

Extra: Just a Meta-Idea
While writing this piece I realized a personal gadget history (or going through your past by telling stories about your stuff) could be an interesting cultural or sociological perspective indicating (technology driven) changes.

If you publish(ed) your own technological or gadget (toy)-driven personal history just put the link in the comment.
Thanks, Toine.

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