A little more than 111 / 2 years ago, I started writing a personal-tech column for The Washington Post under the title “Logging On.” Today, I’m logging off.
This is my last column. The Post is taking its tech coverage in a different direction, and I’m taking some time off to decide where I’ll go next.
Eleven-plus years — on top of the five I spent working on The Post’s Fast Forward personal-tech section in its various incarnations as a monthly magazine and weekly component of Weekend — is a long time to spend on any one story. It’s allowed me to cover the Consumer Electronics Show for 14 years in a row, meet the founding fathers of the Internet and the Web,watch two dot-com busts and run down the batteries on what feels like hundreds of laptops, MP3 players, cameras and smartphones.
In fewer words, this job has helped me to learn — from my reporting, my reviewing, my readers and my mistakes. Here are six lessons I take from the experience:
Technology drives behavior. We often think of each new gadget or app as an easier or faster way to do what we did before, and then that technological advance rewires our conduct.
A camera on a phone once looked like a pointless accessory; now it’s turned picture-taking into a constant background activity. Facebook looked like a handy way to get in touch with college buddies, but it’s turned all of us into diarists and marketers of ourselves. Twitter was created to let nearby friends connect, but it’s become a real-time news medium.
Anything can look great in a demo. For many years, my signature bore the saying — a tweak on a quote from sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke seen online — that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from a rigged demo.”
While it’s not possible to make every botched product look good in a demonstration, a huge number of flops have looked fantastic and compelling in a precisely rehearsed demo. (I admit it: The Power Mac Cube looked magical and revolutionary at first.) And enough people will buy after that introduction to make the gadget look like a hit. As tech analyst Michael Gartenberg observes, “You can sell 50,000 of anything.”
Security is always more of an issue than we think. What eight-letter word is missing from my review of Windows XP? “Security.” I didn’t even think to discuss the issue that, less than three years later, would force Microsoft to ship the equivalent of a new Windows release to fix XP’s worst problems. We all have gotten smarter about securing our computers, I hope, yet we continue to be surprised by security threats elsewhere. This year’s proof of that gullibility may be all the phony videos hijacking people’s Facebook profiles; next year, it may involve our smartphones.
Technology bends before the law — sometimes.It’s tempting to think that Apple has done more to shape the digital-music market than anybody else, but the proper credit must go to a 1998 law, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, that set out restrictions not even Steve Jobs can disregard. You can credit or blame the DMCA for everything from the ads in Web radio to your computer’s inability to copy a DVD as it could a CD.
The catch is, the Internet isn’t too interested in national boundaries, and neither are many users who can create or use tools to work around limits imposed by the DMCA and its ilk. That gives rise to a weird parallel economy open to those willing to download unpolished software from unfamiliar sites.
Hardware always costs less, services sometimes do.A home user couldn’t buy four gigabytes of thumb-size storage at any price in 1999. Today, 4 GB of storage routinely comes for free in the form of a media kit’s flash drive. The same steady decrease in costs has made processing power, displays and other components more affordable every year.
If only the costs of our telecom services saw anything close to that trend. But even while Web hosting gets cheaper, the basics of home telecom either stay the same or, in the case of TV, keep going up.
People care about this stuff. These things that beep, blink and buzz are only tools, but they can also become part of our identity. We’re asked to self-identify as a Mac or a PC, while the choice of smartphone or Web browser can become a religious issue.
I see this passion in my e-mail and in comments all the time. But as angry as some of that feedback may get, there’s only one fit response you can give as a writer: Thanks for reading.
On Windows 95
“A novice would have to work hard to be confused: Just click on that big ‘Start’ button.”
On digital cameras
“Are these things now tools for everyday folks? No. They still cost more than they’re worth for vacations-and-parties snapshot artists.”
“12:01 a.m. Saturday morning meant a lot of things to me, but one of the immediately gratifying aspects of this New Year’s Day was seeing the lights still on: Woo-hoo! We won!”
None of the Y2K predictions of doom came true; the city stayed lighted, and the champagne continued to pour.
I saw the future of television Sunday night. It consisted of a $3,200, 55-inch, high-definition television and a $650 digital TV tuner -- plus a few cents’ worth of black tape that marked the best spot for a spindly, $10 metal antenna that looked like it had been pried off the Air and Space Museum’s Lunar Module exhibit.
On the iPod
On Instand messaging
Instant messaging -- the ability to zap text notes back and forth to people in real time -- is supposed to be the greatest thing since Coke in a can or beer in a keg.
Published on: Friday, 11/02/2001
“Shinier, smaller and pricier than the competition, the iPod is vintage Apple.”
Published on: Friday, 1/18/2002
“Some two years ago, I would employ an entire palette of search engines to find things on the Web: HotBot, Ask Jeeves, Lycos, Yahoo, AltaVista — plus a newer contender called Google. And I wrote a column advising readers to pick and choose among the best of these sites. These days, the how-to-find-stuff-online column could run a lot shorter. Maybe as short as two words: ‘Use Google.’ ”
On internet on your phone
Published on: Sunday, 2/24/2002
After years of waiting by frustrated Internet users, it’s finally happened: Cell phones have gone over the speed limit. They can finally connect to the Net faster than the 56-kilobits-per-second maximum of a land-line modem.
This has taken an amazingly long time. Up until last fall, cell phones maxed out at 14,400 bits per second, the same data rate that modems reached back in 1991.
Published on: Sunday, 11/14/2004
“Internet Explorer, you’re fired. . . . Tuesday, the answer to IE arrived: a safe, free, fast, simple and compatible browser called Mozilla Firefox.”
On the iPhone
Published on: Thursday, 7/05/2007
“The iPhone doesn’t look, sound or feel like other cellphones. With its smooth, almost button-free contours, it could be the product of an advanced, alien civilization.”
On analog broadcasting ending
Published on: Saturday, 6/13/2009
“Almost all analog television broadcasts ended yesterday, but the world refrained from following suit. No crowds rioted in the streets. So far as we know, nobody lit any analog sets on fire in protest. The Republic still stands.”