My old iPod broke down irretrievably the other day. Well, I say irretrievably, but I'm sure someone out there knows how to replace the hard drive for a tidy sum, but in the meantime it's quicker and easier (and probably not that more expensive) for me to buy a new one. After all I've had it nearly five years - that's an eternity for a modern gadget."Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."Arthur C Clarke
It was good to finally have a proper reason to visit the new Apple store in Churchill Square. It had been sitting there between River Island and the Build A Bear Workshop for a few months now, a tempting technological candy store for the kid in me. And now I was finally going shopping there.
I decide to go for the middle of the range iPod Touch. With a capacity just over that of my previous iPod, I decided that it probably had what it takes for all my music and podcast listening needs. What I didn't realise was how many other productivity-destroying features it possessed. Once I'd negotiated the sales assistant (who wasn't that bad actually - he hardly patronised me at all) and got the thing home I discovered that it's basically an iPhone without the phone or the camera. The world of apps was my oyster and if I wasn't careful I'd find my bank account steadily trickling away a few pence at a time as I impulse bought software as spectacularly pointless as, for example, the Profanity App.
Never go app shopping when drunk.
However, the thing that most impressed me was the simple calculator. A fairly basic four function affair, it mimics the basic four-function electronic adding machines of the seventies such as the Rockwell 8R that I lusted after throughout 1975. It's not the functionality that's impressive - after all, if I'm concentrating enough I can do that sort of thing in my head - but the interface.
There's a little picture of a calculator tucked in between Notes and iTunes - poke that and it swims smoothly out to fill the screen, buttons and all. The interface is the screen - there are now controls where previously there were none. I'm holding a calculator in my hand. I can dismiss it in a second to be replaced with the weather forecast (or with a little program that generates useful phrases such as Hideous Potbellied Bum Lord).
Where have we seen this sort of technology before? Well, in Star Trek the Next Generation and its successors of course. It was called LCARS. For some reason it's arrived three hundred years early.
Even ten years ago this sort of technology in your pocket would have been amazing, magical even. To me it seems like just yesterday, but things were very different in 1999. I still connected to the internet down the phone line via a 56k modem, and it took me upwards of half an hour to download a grainy 1MB postage-stamp sized thirty-second preview video of the next episode of Deep Space Nine. Nowadays you can just click and watch high definition wide-screen TV on a pocket-sized device on the bus.
Where are we going to be in ten years time? Predicting the future is always a risky business if you're afraid of making a fool of yourself. However, I'm going to stick my neck out and predict devices that project straight onto the retina, and can be controlled by focusing your attention on them. SatNav will actually drive cars (on motorways at least).
And you'll be able to call someone a Hideous Potbellied Bum Lord by simply projecting the phrase directly into their audio cortex from a distance.