Sunday, April 01, 2012

In Praise of My Smart Phone

When I was in my teens, I was interested in science, specifically weather. I even toyed with the notion of becoming a meteorologist. I eventually chose to be a science teacher. But back when my hobby was weather observing, one of the instruments I dreamed of having was a weather radar. Of course, nobody had their own weather radar, except NOAA. Nobody has their own radar even today, but nobody really needs one. They have the next best thing: The Internet.

Around 1990 I discovered that there was a piece of software I could buy for my computer that would allow me to display weather radar images on my screen. I just had to dial up the service and wait several seconds for the image to load. It was a highly-pixelated, 30-minute-old map image of radar echos, but it was better than nothing.

Today, of course, anyone with a smart phone can access up-to-the-minute radar images in high resolution from anywhere they happen to be at the time. It just takes the right app.

During the same period of time that I was pining for my own weather radar, I was listening to my favorite music mixes on a newfangled medium called 8-track tape. Dad was a musician and he liked to record his music in his home studio, so he actually had an 8-track recorder, so I could easily create personalized song mixes. I listened to 8-track in my car, but while at home, I played vinyl albums. But in my fantasies, what I dreamed about was a sort of home jukebox where I could just push a number of buttons to schedule playback of my albums in whatever order I wanted without having to get up and change the disc.

In the mid-'80s, along came CDs to replace vinyl. The 8-track had long been gone, having been replaced by cassette tape. But that forced me to always listen to the songs in the same order. So the CD was a vast improvement because most players allowed me to shuffle the playback. It was closer to my jukebox wish, but I still had to get up and change CDs every once in awhile, even with my 10-disc changer.

One of the other music-related fantasies I had right after I got my first CD player was to have a player that didn't have any moving parts at all. I figured the only thing holding that up was that computer memory was incredibly expensive back in the late '80s. Not anymore. Today, of course, I can take my entire music library with me on my smart phone and listen to it anywhere in high-fidelity. It's a far cry from my old 8-track player that was installed under the dash of my green pick-up truck.

Back in the late '60s I had a portable transistor radio. It would pick up only AM stations and you had to hold it in a certain position for best reception. It came with an earphone, a single plastic speaker-like device that fit in one ear and sounded awful. But that's what we had to work with. Today, on my smart phone, I have an app that lets me listen to any of thousands of terrestrial radio stations from all over the world, and the reception is always perfect, as long as I'm within the 3G reception range or within reach of Wi-Fi. And with a pair of modern ear buds the sound is quite awesome.

I once played the game of Pong on my black-and-white TV with a Coleco game machine whose only sound effect was a beep. Today, I can play Angry Birds on my Smart Phone with MIDI music and in color. I once thought that having a cordless telephone in my house was pretty cool. I could almost walk around the block without losing reception. Today, with my cell phone, I can start a conversation in the living room and continue talking while I get in my car and drive for miles, even across the country. When I was a sophomore in college, I thought our electronic calculator in the science office was fascinating. My smart phone has a calculator that will perform even better tricks of mathematics. When I was in high school I loved to take pictures with my new Polaroid camera I had gotten for Christmas. The film was expensive so I had to be careful what I took pictures of. These days, I can take high-resolution pictures on my smart phone, even video in HD. When I first started driving I liked collecting road maps. I would go to the filling station and get one of their free ones every time I would visit another state. Today, I can call up a map of anywhere in the country and get driving directions. I can also view 3-D map images of almost any place on earth, all with my smart phone.

None of this is news, especially to anybody who owns a smart phone. I haven't commented on any of my phone apps other than to just list and describe them, because smart-phone technology is awesome enough on its own. But I compare them to the things I could only dream about having in my youth because the comparison is striking. The smart phone has fulfilled almost all of my youthful technology fantasies plus it has things I couldn't have imagined back then.

I don't think most people think much about the capabilities of their smart phones. I use mine to pay my bills, transfer money to my bank account, read the news, watch video, play games, check movie listings, listen to music, communicate using text, communicate with face-to-face video, keep track of appointments, surf the Internet, pay my parking meter, look up word definitions, listen to pronunciation of words I've looked up, look up things in the encyclopedia, take pictures, record video, read books with my Kindle app, find movies at Redbox locations, record memos, get map directions, and even talk on the telephone. All this can be done with a piece of electronics that can easily fit in my hand and is no thicker than a slice of Spam. While I'm busy doing all that with my cell phone, I also typically just take it for granted. But as a real geek when it comes to technology, when I think about it, it never ceases to fascinate me that I can carry that much power in the palm of my hand. I think back to the pre-computer age that I grew up in and I can appreciate what science has wrought when it turns into technology. It amazes me so much, sometimes I just have to write about it.

1 comment:

Beth said...

Haha! Ken and I recently joined the smartphone gang, and one of the apps I got recently was a radar app! We have similar tastes and experiences. :)

If you don't have it, I recommend the Google Sky Map app. Super cool.

I resisted getting one for a long time, but I would have a hard time giving it up now!