Consumer Electronics and Opinion and Return on Technology

ALTOM: Remember, what's new isn't always what's best

November 5, 2011

As regular readers of this column know, I have a different take on technology than most columnists in the business. I don’t glorify new devices just because they’re new, and I don’t advocate buying or using a Tim Allen gadget when something simpler will work. I’m a technological curmudgeon and proud of it.

A pair of scissors is still perfect for a job that a pair of scissors can do. I’ve made this point repeatedly in this space, but it’s always worthwhile to re-post my Business Technology Motto: When considering a new piece of technology, ask yourself what you can do with it tomorrow that you can’t do today. If it lets you expand your productivity, get it. If it simply does the same thing you’re doing now but at greater cost, pass it by.

Every so often, I get into an argument with somebody about this point of view, where he or she tries to convince me that something expensive that uses lots of batteries is better than how my ancestors handled things. Case in point: GPS.

I still have my old street-finder booklet in my glove compartment. I don’t think these are even published anymore. The most recent one I could find was a used one through Amazon.com and it dated to 1997. For my money, the street finder is a marvelous aid for getting around town. It lists all the streets in the county along with their starting and stopping coordinates, and how far east, west, north or south the street runs, counted in blocks from the conventional grid zero points for Marion County. “Narglgarf Street” might run north-south at 3000 east, starting at 4500 north and running to 6200 north. Given those coordinates, I can find Narglgarf Street with no trouble at all.

Why, then, pay upwards of $150 for a device that tells me the same thing? I also have a map of Marion County, so I can trace out a route while I’m on the road. That plus the street finder are all I need to find any spot in Marion County, any time of day or night. This method works no matter where the car is at the moment, and paper devices never die from lack of battery nourishment.

Now, perhaps if I were regularly navigating through trackless wilderness where one godforsaken mountain road looked just like every other, a GPS might be helpful. But I don’t, and neither do most business folk.

One of the arguments in favor of GPS is that if you’re driving a complicated route, it’s better to have the GPS glowing next to you or even talking you through it than to keep looking down at the map. Fair enough. But glancing at the GPS is just as risky as looking at a map, and unless I’m driving through an ancient Third World slum, I’m probably going to be able to remember a half-dozen streets and turns with no trouble.

All in all, I’ve never been convinced to buy a GPS for myself because it violates my Business Technology Motto by not granting me capability tomorrow that I don’t already possess today. It just adds a gloss of modernity to a basically age-old task. I’m not contemptuous of those who like their GPS; I just don’t need one.

Don’t think that I’m a Luddite. The word processor is one of the finest inventions of the 20th century. After writing for years on various typewriters, both manual and electric, I seized onto the very first word-processing software I ever found, and I’ve been blissfully productive ever since in ways I couldn’t have imagined in my early days.

LCD solar calculators are immensely better than the old LED models that had to be recharged every 15 minutes (full disclosure: my most-used scientific calculator is an old TI-30 SLR+ that was introduced in 1989). Bluetooth is a wonderful invention that frees me of having to keep track of wires. Wireless headsets are also magnificent advances over the old handsets. They let me get up and access files and other office items without missing a conversational beat.

Sometimes it’s a close call. I still fondly recall the old stalwart word processor WordPerfect 5.1. Today’s Microsoft Word is better in nearly every way, but that old WordPerfect was simpler and actually more reliable. Microsoft Word wins the productivity derby on points, but just barely.

My motto didn’t spring fully formed into my head as a youth. I had to learn it the hard way, buying stuff that ultimately sat unused while I continued stapling, writing, designing and talking with my old, reliable devices. The motto has worked out well since I finally realized I had no interest in keeping up with the Joneses unless the Joneses had a lot more productive business than I did.•

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Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

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