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The Difference Engine

The geeks and the chic

By David MacNeill
October 1999, issue 30

Two colliding and mutually exclusive cultural trends are emerging in the world of personal technology. On the one hand, we have the geeks. They love to show the world their latest tech acquisition by wearing it proudly on their belt. On the other, we have the chic, who depend on their digital devices but don't want them to be visible. When they do use them, it is important that the device match their outfit.

Small mobile computing and communications devices are proliferating everywhere you look, and use of these devices cuts across all economic, educational, and ethnic lines. Everyone, it seems, now has some sort of beeping, battery-powered gizmo on their belt, in their pocket, or in their purse. From the Pinto-driving delivery kid to the elegant woman unfolding herself from her new Jaguar, a pager, Palm, or PCS are almost certain to be standard equipment these days.

Executive jewelry
The difference between the pizza kid and the rich lady is that these devices are status symbols to be either seen and admired, or not seen at all, respectively. We are only now witnessing the emergence of what I call executive jewelry: expensively cased and slightly overpriced digital devices that appeal to the Mercedes crowd. An excellent example is the Palm V and its matte black but otherwise identical twin from IBM, the WorkPad c3. You could say this sleek piece of functional sculpture was designed specifically not to be noticed until the user wants it to be. It is so slim that it is unnoticed in a jacket pocket or evening bag. Nobody wears one on a belt for all the world to see. To do so misses the point of executive jewelry entirely. It is only there when it needs to be there, after which it simply disappears.

In the working world, things are quite different. Contractors, salespeople, insurance agents, and other mobile types all have a variety of devices clipped to their belts and bags. They are starting to look like low-budget Batmen, with their utility belts crammed with "all these wonderful toys" as Jack Nicholson, playing The Joker, called the Caped Crusader's assortment of cool tech in one of the recent movies.

These devices are a fact of life for most mobile workers these days. They would no sooner leave home without them than an FBI agent goes on duty without his Glock. It's gotten to the point where you can get a pretty good idea about someone's line of work from assessing the kinds of devices they carry. Here at Pen Computing, we have the luxury of handling virtually every vertical market and industrial pen computer that ships, and some that don't. Familiarity with the Symbol datascanners, Telxon tablets, and Norand PenKeys of the world, along with their maker's target markets, makes it easy to guess how they are used when you see someone carrying one.

The trucker in the boardroom
While directing a photo shoot for a PCM cover several years ago, I got to spend some time with our "model" that day, a big-rig delivery driver for a national freight line. We got to talking about his Telxon pen tablet, which he invariably called his "board." It was a natural name considering it had replaced a battered old clipboard, and it turns out that the other drivers had started using the same name for their tablets. (I suggested that the utility room that housed the Telxon recharging/data transfer racks be called the boardroom.) He knew more about how to make that thing work that its designers, and he had a real affection for the thing. Why shouldn't he? It saved him many hours of repetitive data entry and unnecessary stops along his weekly route. It worked as hard as he did getting the job done, pleasing the customers and his bosses at the same time. He carried it like a sculptor carries his chisel and hammer.

Switch contexts now to your local high-class watering hole. When Mrs Gotrocks slides out of her black, 12-cylinder uber-car, will she have a gray plastic beeper hanging from the strap of her Coach bag? A hulking Sharp Mobilon under her arm? Unlikely. She will have devices, of course, but they will be invisible until they are used, and even then only briefly. A subtle flash of polished metal over which perfect fingernails dance momentarily, perhaps a word or two purred into the mouthpiece, is all you'll see. And that is as it should be.

David MacNeill can be reached via e-mail at

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