Seth Goldstein drops down into the sleek black office chair behind his Ikea-inspired desk. Little chunks of plastic are strewn all over the tabletop, thin wires snaking around each object. It looks like a child’s unkempt pile of toys, but in a more professional-looking black monochrome than the romper room colors we all remember. A few pagers, cell phones, and Palm Pilotlike instruments are carelessly placed about, the toys that are no longer fun.
“I’ve had a difficult week,” says the 28-year-old Goldstein, who works at Flatiron Partners, the Silicon Alley venture capital firm. He describse the many different gadgets he’s tried and thrown away, the flip-flopping between e-mail software— Microsoft Outlook and Eudora— and how neither seems to work well with his hardware. “I finally went back to Outlook for e-mail and it synchronizes well with my new devices,” he says. “The problem is, if you want to be wireless, it can get messy. My moods rise and fall depending on how seamlessly connected I am.”
This is a common feeling among many geek elites, or “early adopters” as they are called by those who rely on them to help the technology catch on. Early adopters are the unseen, unofficial beta testers in the gadget market. Emotionally connected to their technology, they often feel an intense need to have the newest shiny object on the market, from smartphones (a mobile phone that works like a Palm Pilot) and handheld PCs or Windows CE machines (really small laptops) to PDAs (personal digital assistants— Palm Pilots and similar devices) and two-way e-mail pagers (exactly what it sounds like). Usually, they don’t mind being called geeks, proudly displaying the many plastic objects on their belts, just like overstuffed pocket protectors.
“This is what it looks like when I leave the office,” says Goldstein as he stands up and starts grabbing devices. He attaches his BlackBerry two-way e-mail pager, a numeric pager, a Nokia 6160 digital phone, and his Palm Pilot to his person. “And sometimes I bring my laptop home with me too.”
Ken Li, 26, technology and business reporter for the New York Daily News, manages to carry his Nokia 6160, BlackBerry pager, Motorola numeric pager, NEC MobilePro 770 handheld PC, and IBM ThinkPad 560z laptop all on his skinny frame. “I also have a 1-800 number from a company called General Magic that I can use to access all my personal information on Microsoft Outlook in case I get mugged,” he says. “It’s a voice-operated system that allows me to access my datebook, calendar, e-mail, news, stock quotes. I mean, if you’re on a desert island and there’s a pay phone, at least you should know how your Amazon stock is doing.”
Eric Kopeloff, 28, an independent film producer, has also gone through myriad devices, testing and exchanging gadgets to find which works best.
“I’m really a techno junkie,” he confesses. “I have multiple phone lines in my apartment and a data line. I had a pager and two phones. I had a New York phone— a digital one from Sprint that only worked in New York because the digital service wasn’t available elsewhere— and a Motorola StarTAC analog phone for when I traveled. The pager was the first thing I had and it was hard to give up since everyone had that number.”
After parting with the pager and two cell phones, Kopeloff was able to settle with the Nokia 6160 digital phone through AT&T, “but I hate it,” he says. “AT&T oversold their lines and I miss a lot of calls. I’m going to have to get rid of it when I find something better.”
Despite the impressive array of mechanical accessories employed by the most wired people in New York, their technology doesn’t always work.
“It can be a problem,” sighs Li, who sometimes tests these products for review. “We’re not there yet. Technology should be a walk in the woods. Invisible. I don’t want to see it. I don’t want to have to download, upload . . . I don’t want to load anything. In the past, it was about us bending to the technology. Now, we judge technology in terms of how well it adjusts to us.”
But flocking to these toys is inevitable for early adopters like Li. Why does he have so many tech tools? It all starts with, “Ooh, it’s so shiny,” he says. “I was always interested in technology when I was a kid. I just couldn’t afford it. When you don’t have enough toys when you’re young, you feel like you never do.”
Despite the initial superficial allure of these mechanical contrivances, there are real advantages to this Gibson-inspired terrain, as Li discovered early last month. He received an e-mail press release on his BlackBerry pager detailing a press conference for a $16 billion technology agreement between IBM and Dell.
“I got a regular page from the PR person early in the morning but I also decided to check my e-mail from my BlackBerry, just in case,” he says. “The PR person sent an e-mail press release and I was able to find all the info. I just went directly to the conference instead of having to stop by the office and check my e-mail. Having the full press release with all the information was more efficient than getting it over the phone.”
Kopeloff, who handles a lot of the nuts and bolts of film producing, uses his small PDA made by Psion for spreadsheets and taking notes. “In a crunch, instead of pulling out a Post-It and having it fall by the wayside, I have everything here,” he says. “I’m just the guy who’s looking for the next tool to make things easier.”
While location scouting under the Manhattan Bridge for an Infiniti commercial, Kopeloff used his spare time to figure overtime costs with a spreadsheet application on his Psion, and also created maps to the location. “It used to be people did everything on paper,” he says. “This works much better.”
But when asked how the technology has affected his personal life, he admits that it has its pitfalls.
“I dated a girl who worked in the magazine industry and it drove her nuts that I was so invested in the technology,” he says. “It bothered her that I never stopped working. It’d be one in the morning and the pager would go off. She’d look at me like I was the devil. I would sometimes feel guilty when my cell phone rang.”
Both Li and Goldstein relate similar problems when their significant others were confronted with a battery of buzzes and beeps at the dinner table. Perhaps it is the idea that plastic and silicon take precedence over flesh and bone that’s offensive— part of the deep, dark fear people in general have of technology.
“I saw The Matrix,” says Li. “The irony is that they needed to invent the [special effects] technology to show how bad technology is.”
On the flip side, though The Matrix ultimately comes down hard on technology, it not-so-subtly pulls at the gee-whiz strings in your heart, drawing repeat audiences who want to see the technological wizardry behind its pioneering F/X. People have become more enamored of gadget culture, embracing the technology that once befuddled the masses.
According to figures produced by industry analysts at International Data Corporation (IDC), a market research firm, there were 2.5 million handheld devices— Palm Pilots and handheld PCs— shipped in the U.S. in 1998. “We’re projecting that figure to go up to 6.9 million in 2002,” says Jill House, an analyst at IDC. “These products are simple and compelling and easy to use. It’ll drive other gadgets and more people will buy them.”
Goldstein looks forward to increased choices for consumers. “It’ll get better and better for the average buyer as time goes on,” he says as he plugs one of his old cell phone chargers into an outlet in his office. “They’ll find things that are more useful to them.” The cell phone fails to charge. He shakes the wire. The light goes on.
How Wired Are You?
What You Need to Join the Gadget Elite
Analog cell phone: Get rid of it.
Alphanumeric pager: Get rid of it.
Numeric pager: Keep it. Probably the one reliable device anyone has.
Digital phone: Everyone’s got one now; where’s yours?
PDA (personal digital assistant): The reigning device is the Palm Pilot, which basically is a fancy date-and-address book. Look out for the Palm V and VII, which look much cooler and which you can use to send and receive e-mail.
HPC (handheld PC, a/k/a CE machine): Basically a smaller laptop that uses the Windows CE platform, a smaller version of Windows. Unless you travel a lot, not necessary.
Laptop: Get one instead of a desktop.
Smartphone: Though not on the market yet, it integrates Palm Pilotlike features into a digital phone. But don’t give up your phone or Pilot just yet— it could suck.
Virtual assistant: General Magic in Sunnyvale, California, has come out with Portico, a personalized 800 number that synchronizes with your per-
sonal information management program, which you can access by phone using voice commands.
Two-way pager: Research in Motion, a company out of Canada, has produced the most esoteric tech toy of the moment, the BlackBerry pager. It synchronizes with Microsoft Outlook and Exchange, can send and receive e-mail using your current e-mail address, and can even send “text to voice” messages through the phone using a synthesized voice program, though that tends to freak people out. — E.L.