Thursday, 5 December 2013

Smartphone killed off the Christmas gadget gift

Buying someone a gadget for Christmas might look harder than ever this year. In years gone by you might have bought the gadget freak in your life a peculiar alarm clock, that neat new voice recorder, or even a gleaming new satnav system. If you really loved them, you might buy them a video camera, or a digital camera.
Now? All those functions – the £100 functionality of a satnav, the £500 functionality of a video camera – have been rolled into, swallowed by, smartphones. A few years ago Vic Keegan, my predecessor, began trying to count the number of functions that mobile phones (what we'd now call featurephones) had begun taking onboard. There was the alarm clock, timer, world clock, address book, music player; quite soon the camera joined in. Then video came in too – blocky at first, but increasingly good.

But the arrival in force of the smartphone has accelerated everything. The smartphones available now are general-purpose computers, at least to the extent that developers can think of what to write for them. Satnav functions? Built in to all the major smartphone platforms now. Camera and video function? That's absolutely assumed, and while many phones can't compete directly with a top-end digital SLR, Nokia has set the benchmark until some time in 2015 with the 41-megapixel camera in its Lumia 1020 . But that's just how it is. Sales of digital cameras, camcorders, and satnavs are heading the same way as those of analogue cameras and film. Ask Kodak how that ended.

It's pretty obvious that the smartphone is going to take over any sort of function that can be digitised or computerised. Or, if the task requires a larger canvas – sketching, say, or writing a length, or examining images in detail – that they could be done on a tablet. Or, perhaps, a computer. But those are so cumbersome and hard to carry around.

Controlling lights and heating? Easy with a smartphone or tablet, through Bluetooth and other wireless control systems. Reading books? Yes, can do that too. (Amazon's Kindle app is available for smartphones and tablets – you don't necessarily need a Kindle.) And the app stores aren't underserved either when it comes to trivial apps which don't serve any particular function except to kill time, and aren't "useful" in the normal sense of the word.

So if you are trying to buy something for the person in your life who loves gadgets, you're going to have to think well outside the smartphone-shaped box. It's just over 10 years – April 2003 – since the Innovations Catalogue, that bazaar for the bizarre, was axed. It offered such wonders as revolving wine racks, heated eyelash curlers, and a hammock that didn't need trees. Now those were things and functions that you couldn't absorb into a computer. And no doubt they came from the wellspring of a very human imagination. A revolving wine rack! Of course!
Don't worry. A quick search suggests that there's no shortage of sites offering completely useless gadgets at entirely reasonable prices. Right now I'm looking at a Death Star cookie jar (£35), a Tetris light (rearrange the shapes and colours to your taste! £30), zombie head decanter (such a fine holder for that 30-year-old brandy; £20). And oh, so much more which can never be done by a computer. Because, apart from anything, who would want to?