The Free Press, Mankato, MN

September 21, 2013

Murray: Remember the pre-iPhone days ot tech?


The Mankato Free Press

---- — I was among the lemmings on Wednesday, dutifully downloading the latest Apple iPhone operating software, the one that would dramatically change the way I use my device and, hence, transform my life again.

Am I proud? Of course not. But as so many people say when they can't think of an intelligent comment for a given situation, "It is what it is."

The software came out, everyone will download the new version, and it just makes sense to be on the same page, even if it means descending further into the cult of Apple. I shouldn't complain too much about my phone. Without it, I'd never know where I'm supposed to be, or what I'm supposed to be doing. So there's that, to abuse another say-nothing cliche.

But as I sat there dumping tons of content that I actually use to make room for a gargantuan software upgrade I was hoping I'd like, I got to thinking about gadgets over the years and how they changed my life.

There's no doubt this iPhone is a good device. It's sleek, feels good in your hand and occasionally spits out a few surprises. But there's more to a good device than good looks.

It has not, however, had the kind of profound impact other devices have had.

Remember your first VCR? (Kids, just hold on a moment; the grown-ups need to talk.) Our first VCR was a piece-of-crap Sharp. It was a freebie my dad got from his work and looked like a silver boombox, complete with handle on top. It played the videotapes we'd rent from the new stores popping up all over the neighborhood, but it didn't have variable playback speeds like the VCRs my friends had, the ones that came from Sears and Montgomery Ward.

So when someone gave us a tape on which they'd recorded something of a different speed, we were out of luck, and we had no idea why. Consumer knowledge of the finer points of playback speeds took a while to catch up, and I remember cursing that thing and scouring its every inch so I could play the copy of "First Blood" my buddy gave me.

Eventually, I figured out that my dumb VCR could record television programs, and from that moment on I had a date with "Friday Night Videos" every week until we got cable, which rendered "FNV" irrelevant. (Although, if it were on today, it would be considered pioneering television, an odd outlier that dares to actually show little movies set to a song ... weird.)

The Sony Walkman was also a real game changer. Imagine being able to walk around, far beyond the reach of your stereo's speakers, and listen to your favorite music as loud as you wanted and not bother anyone. The Walkman and every imitator changed how people listen to and consume music.

It sounds novel now, but in the 1980s, a snot-nosed kid walking around the East Side of St. Paul with headphones on and listening to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five was an alien concept. All these kids with their Beats by Dre headphones on (which, by they way, make them look a little like those guys on the airport runway waving light sticks around and telling planes to go here or there) can thank Sony and their '80s breakthrough smash hit Walkman. Without it, you're entertaining yourself with your own thoughts, and who knows how dreary that could be. And while I'm mentioning precursors, the Walkman made the iPod possible, which was the precursor to the iPhone.

My favorite device, though, is a relatively new one.

A couple of years ago my family got me a Nook, one of the many e-readers available. This was a first-generation Nook, not the high-def version, not the kind that lets you go on Facebook and Twitter (which is good, because with my ADD, distractions are major time killers.) It's just a simple e-reader, no bells, no whistles. Words are the focus. As a word guy, I appreciate that. Because of its simplicity, and because it can hold, like, a bajillion books, the Nook has helped me read more. Which is good.

But if you'll excuse me, I have to go. My iPhone just informed me I have a new e-mail, that it's time to log in to Facebook and that I should probably check Twitter.

Robb Murray can be reached at (507) 344-6386 or rmurray@mankatofreepress.com.