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Mossberg: When gadgets were king

Welcome to Mossberg, a weekly commentary and reviews column on The Verge and Re/code by veteran tech journalist Walt Mossberg, now an executive editor at The Verge and editor at large of Re/code.


For the past nine years or so, the smartphone has been such an amazing, versatile, powerful digital gadget that the industry’s desire to create other devices to complement the personal computer seemed to wane. The smartphone is still as awesome as ever, but it has matured, and even replaced the PC as the base computing device in many people’s’ lives. So other gadgets are coming back, often complemented by smartphone apps.

That’s why The Verge this week has started a new gadget blog, Circuit Breaker, to chronicle every little digital device, bad or good, important or goofy. The idea is to capture the excitement of what you can do with chips, sensors, screens and more — beyond the computer and smartphone. We’re talking everything from charging docks to drones, from remote pet feeders to wireless speakers.

But this isn’t the Golden Age of gadgets, at least not yet. No, that glorious era of rough-edged experimentation blossomed mainly in the 1990s, right up to around the iPhone and Android launches of the late 2000s. And I was around to track it for readers of the Wall Street Journal.

Of course, the PC (and, to a lesser extent, the Mac) loomed over everything. And tech reviewers like me covered their evolution assiduously. It was exciting. But equally exciting were the struggles to invent things we take take for granted today: Consumer digital cameras, portable digital music players, pocket-sized computers, decent smartphones, navigation devices and even modems to get online.

So here are a few examples of reviews I wrote showing just how big a deal gadgets were in those early days and just how many common digital tasks were being puzzled out back then. (Sadly, most of these predated the web or can only be found via paid archive services, so they lack links.)

None of these covers the PC itself, and this is only a small selection of what got us all excited in the golden age of gadgets — and if we’re lucky, we’ll see another wave of gadgets this exciting take off now.

Digital cameras

Dycam Model 1 / Logitech Fotoman

Via YouTube

In December of 1991, a couple of months after I became a tech reviewer, I wrote about what many consider the first consumer digital camera. It was called the Dycam I, though it also was licensed to Logitech, which sold it as the FotoMan. The Dycam took up to 32 black-and-white images and carried a list price of $995. The Logitech was $200 less. Even that lower price could today fetch the newest iPhone with a stupendously better camera and a lot more. At the time, I wrote: “In several weeks of testing both cameras, I found their photos to be far grainier and less satisfying than regular photos … the cameras’ optics are primitive … pictures often had badly overexposed and underexposed areas. Extreme close-ups are impossible … the Dycam unit attached to my Mac kept shooting pictures by itself, in the middle of the night.”

(Apple also brought out a digital camera, the QuickTake, a few years later, but it was built by Kodak and was sold for only a few years.)

For all their flaws, however, these cameras were an amazing leap forward.

Making Computers Sing

Back in the early 1990s, most PCs couldn’t make sounds beyond a few beeps unless you added a special sound card, costing between $100 and $300, that permitted the machines to emit real audio. At the time, the most popular and praised sound card was the Creative Labs Sound Blaster. But in 1992, Microsoft came out with a competitor tuned especially for Windows, as opposed to the DOS command-line system still in common use in businesses. It was called the Windows Sound System, cost $289, and was, I said, easy to install and came with good software. Microsoft’s idea back then was that the sound card could be used for something it called “business audio.” As I wrote, with considerable skepticism, “Microsoft is hoping executives will drop audio notes into their memos. When you get one of these memos, a little picture icon is embedded in the text. If you have the right equipment, you can click on this picture with a mouse and hear something like ‘Get on this right away!’”

Um, not so much. But audio became integral.

Getting online … slowly

U.S. Robotics Vintage Modem

Sheila Fitzgerald / Shutterstock

The next year, 1993, brought lower-priced modems, the add-on devices you needed to dial into online services. I highlighted the new U.S. Robotics Sportster‘s 14,400 bits per second — a blazing performer for the time whose price had dropped to an unbelievably low $200-$250 from up to four times as much a year earlier for models that offered that speed. “This modem set up in minutes and has performed flawlessly,” I wrote, “speeding up my sessions on services like CompuServe, Prodigy and MCI Mail, which all now permit users to log on at high speeds. The experience is so much better that it’s hard to imagine going back to 2,400 bps.”

Using that modem to stream Game of Thrones would be impossible. (Downloading a 1 MB file often could take almost 10 minutes, versus 5 seconds on even a slow cellular connection today.) But back in the day, it was one of the most prized gadgets a techie could buy, worth every penny.

Finally, a good computer in your pocket

There had been many attempts in the 1990s to build a mass-market pocket PC, including Apple’s famous, failed Newton. But the hallelujah moment for the PDA came in the spring of 1996 with the arrival of the $299 Palm Pilot. It synced your contacts and calendar with PCs and Macs, had workable, though limited, handwriting recognition (you needed to learn special ways to form some letters) and lasted months on AAA batteries. I wrote: “After testing the Pilot daily for a couple of months, I can say it is by far the best little computer I have ever seen and the only one I can imagine incorporating into my daily life. It has a few limitations, but Pilot is a breakthrough product.”

People loved the thing.

A good proto-smartphone arrives

Jeff Hawkins, the inventor of the Pilot, wasn’t done. Ensconced at a new company, Handspring, in 2001 he developed what I consider the best pre-iPhone smartphone product, the Treo Communicator. It used the Palm operating system, and had plenty of PDA functions, but was a flip-phone as well. Oh, and it could surf the web, sort of.

This was, in my view, the first really successful, simple product that merged the PDA with the phone. It was a harbinger of the end of the PDA, which eventually got swallowed up into every phone.

I wrote: “For the past week, I have been carrying around a new hand-held, wireless device that is simultaneously the best personal digital assistant I have ever used and the most capable cellphone. It looks like a flip-phone and makes and receives calls with ease. It has a large screen, and can surf the web and send and receive email. It also has a full keyboard that makes composing emails or memos a breeze. It uses the Palm operating system and can synchronize dates and addresses with a PC.”

Even at $400 and with 2.5 hours of talk time, the Treo led the way to the iPhone. It even had some apps. The company was eventually purchased by Palm, and several Treo models over the years were purchased by me. It was my daily device.

The greatest pre-iPhone gadget

By late 2001, there were many portable MP3 players. But some could only hold a few songs, and those that could hold a lot of music were big, bulky and weak on battery life. And then Apple brought out the iPod, and everything changed. The worlds of tech and music were revolutionized forever. And nobody could compete.

I was lucky enough to test an iPod before it went public and I was amazed. It held 1,000 songs in a body as small as a deck of cards and it a claimed battery life of 10 hours. In my tests, I actually got 1,300 songs into it and 12 hours of battery life. Sure, it cost $399, but I bought one right way.

In my review, I said: “For the past 10 days or so … I’ve been testing a terrific digital music player … It has massive storage capacity, is small and light enough to slip into a pocket and can be run nonstop for an impressive amount of time. Its controls are simple and clear, and it downloads music from a computer at blazing speeds.”

I added: “It’s a design home run. The iPod is simply the best digital music player I’ve seen.”

Later on, of course, the iPod gained the ability to hold your contacts, calendars and notes; to display photos; and to play videos. And that was before it morphed into the post-iPhone iPod Touch.

Bottom line: The thrill of it all

As a consumer reviewer whose columns weren’t aimed at enthusiasts, I was often critical of complexity or other flaws in these gadgets. But both I and my readers never stopped being excited by them.

Sure, the latest laptop, the latest iMac, got our juices flowing. But it was often the small, quirky, brilliant, little digital miracles that made life interesting. Whether from startups like Palm and Dycam, or big companies like Microsoft and Apple, gadgets fueled the digital lifestyle that led to the era of the smartphone. And now, to yet another big gadget era.

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