On my refrigerator hangs an old cartoon in which Dilbert, extolling the freedom his laptop computer and cellular phone give him, is questioned by Dogbert as to where he might use them. One by one, locations are shot down until Dogbert concludes, "Basically, you lug them around and worry that they'll get stolen or broken."
On my refrigerator hangs the current state of the digital camera market.
Digital cameras have overcome several barriers in the past few months. Quality has improved (with a growing number of high-resolution "megapixel" cameras), and prices have dropped (an entry-level digital camera now is less than $300). But at least one huge barrier remains: the oops—or "What happens if I break it?"—barrier.
I collided aperture-first into this barrier last month while evaluating an Olympus D-500L. I was in awe of the three levels of resolution, zoom lens, built-in flash, and color LCD screen. But when deciding whether to take this digital marvel to my son's basketball or soccer games, I realized if anything happened to it, I was out almost $900. The camera stayed at home, where it could commiserate with the laptop computer, first-edition Harlan Ellison hardcovers, and assorted Beanie Babies.
Other digital devices have had to cross this largely psychological barrier to reach the masses. Cellular phones, laptop computers, audio CD players, and handheld organizers had to prove themselves "cheap" to fix or replace before they were taken everywhere—or of such unquestioned utility that it was worth taking the risk. This might prove a Mount Olympussized obstacle for Olympus and its brethren to scale: Their biggest competitor is the combination of a $10 disposable film camera when used with a $70 color scanner attached to your PC.
Yet the oops barrier could be breached from an unlikely direction: kids' products. In June, Nintendo will release a $50 cartridge for the Game Boy with a swiveling camera head, holding up to 30 black-and-white digital pictures. This fall, Mattel Media unveils the Barbie Digital Camera, an approximately $60 device that stores up to six digital pictures.
Cheap? Yes. Low-quality? Undoubtedly. But don't be surprised to see a lot of adults borrowing Barbie and Game Boy cameras from their kids and, before vaulting the oops barrier, amassing experience by being on the receiving end of two kinds of cheap shots.
Slade of hand
An op-ed piece by Sen. Slade Gorton recently appeared in newspapers bemoaning government attacks on Microsoft and quoting numbers that "prove" Microsoft has no monopoly in the software industry. Among the many stats cited by Gorton: Microsoft represents less than 4 percent of total worldwide software industry revenues, and the top 20 companies in the industry account for only 42 percent of total packaged software revenues.
The first appears true only if you include software such as that used in mainframes, fax machines, anti-lock brake systems, and baby monitors, simultaneously ignoring Microsoft's dominance in desktop computers, which is how most normal, non-Beltway residents define software. The second is flat-out wrong or hopelessly outdated, based on numbers reported here ("Think Small," 2/26).
So where did these "facts"—without an attributed source in Gorton's essay—come from? It turns out,admits Gorton press secretary Cynthia Bergman, from Microsoft itself.
Many attacks on Redmond do seem spurred more by self-interest than public interest. But before jumping on a bandwagon, Slade ought to make sure it has wheels—and find out who manufactured them.
A press release for May's Electronic Entertainment Expo in Atlanta struck a duplicative chord by referring to the upcoming game-software trade show as "E3Expo" instead of "E3," the nickname of the past few years. A rep for the show's PR firm told me, "We are legally obligated to refer to the show as E3Expo from now on, although it does make it somewhat redundant." Or, alternatively, settle on E2Expo.
Last month's Internet World in Los Angeles proved that tech reporters, too, are nearly human. Many writers used the dozens of public PCs in the trade show's press room to read their e-mail. While most closed the Web browser's e-mail program when finished, my quick check found that quite a few didn't clean up after themselves: on several machines sensitive incoming messages, e-mail addresses, or passwords were left undeleted, ready for perusal by the next user. Even if they don't know more than the rest of us, they can write.
Frank Catalano, a Seattle-area analyst for interactive multimedia and software companies, can be reached at email@example.com.
Complete Byte Me archives are available at www.catalanoconsulting.com