Star Trek fans are a talkative bunch. In particular, they love to tell the world about Federation technology that’s subsequently turned up in the real world. Mobile phones with flips? The communicator, Earthman. Labs making photons disappear from one side of the room and reappear on the other? That’s the transporters coming on line, Captain.
But they never mention the huge shiny metal device constantly protruding from Lt. Uhura’s left ear. Which is odd, because the real-world descendents of Uhura’s lug plug are all over the place now as Bluetooth-connected wireless phone earpieces Could it be there are some things just too hideously geeky for even a Trekkie to love?
Alas, yes. We’ve looked at a few by now (for more information, click here for a review of the Plantronics M3000): they do a good and useful job and the underlying technology is dead clever. They all have one common feature: wearing one makes you look like a dolt -- at best, if you pose in front of your dead expensive flat screen monitor and look eager, like an insurance call centre operative. Outside space opera, there is nothing acceptable about having a massive plastic slug clinging to the side of your face.
What might seem like just another abortive gadget has much deeper implications for the industry. Remember combined PDAs and mobile phones? Despite huge amounts of R&D effort, massive marketing efforts and a good five years of people like us writing about them, the masses haven’t been convinced. Everything’s ready for the smart communicator revolution -- gorgeous miniature screens, superfast processors that barely nibble at their batteries, multi-megabyte memories in fingernail-sized cards -- except that you can barely give the things away.. Treo’s been bought by Palm, nobody remembers Pogo and the only people making money from Microsoft’s Windows Powered Smartphone are Sendo’s lawyers.
The reason for this wholesale rejection is simple: you look at a PDA and you listen to your phone. Trying to make one box do both is like creating a symphony orchestra of supermodels: the best you can do is a mix of people who are quite pretty and quite musical, satisfying nobody. You either have something that’s a good PDA, like the Treo, but looks and feels horrible when pressed to the side of your head, or stuff like the Smartphone, which is an acceptable form factor for mobile talking and texting but crippled for the sort of complex, intensive keyboard work that you always end up having to do.