The Eight (Seven…Six?) Information Devices I Can’t Live Without

If you read Xconomy, chances are that digital information is a big part of your day. You spend quite a bit of time absorbing, manipulating, and repackaging it. So here are a few questions for you: How many different devices do you use to channel all those bits? Is the number going up, or down? And if—as I suspect—it’s going down, what’s the minimum set of devices that you think you could get along with?

Here’s my current list:

1. Apple iPhone 3G
2. Apple MacBook, OS X 10.5
3. Dell Inspiron 8600 Windows XP laptop
4. Amazon Kindle 2 e-book reader
5. Sharp Aquos 32-inch HDTV
6. Microsoft Xbox 360
7. Canon PowerShot S5 IS digital camera
8. Roku digital video player

Note that I’m not counting the key infrastructure devices, like the Comcast-provided cable modem and my Netgear Wi-Fi router, that support several of the devices above.

But even without those two indispensable items, there would still be 12 or 13 devices on my personal list, if it weren’t for the Internet and the creative geniuses at companies like Palm, Microsoft, Amazon, and Apple. I’m betting the same thing is true for many readers.

Here’s my tale of the disappearing devices:

Ah, the good old days. In 2005, just for fun, I arranged this group picture, which includes every device I owned containing a microchip.

Ah, the good old days. In 2005, just for fun, I arranged this group picture, which includes every device I owned containing a microchip.

The PDA. I used a series of Palm devices to manage my calendar and contact lists from 1998 until 2003, when Palm folded those functions into its Treo phones, allowing me to say goodbye to the standalone organizer.

The MP3 player. In 2005 or so, I had a running debate with a fellow tech journo named Eric Hellweg about whether there would ever be a successful music phone—meaning a cell phone with a built-in music player. At the time, the only examples were devices like the Motorola ROKR, which, to put it politely, was a piece of horse pucky that could only hold 100 songs. I argued that not only was the technical problem of building a more capacious music phone too hard (what manufacturer was going to put a hard drive into a mobile phone?), but people didn’t want such a device anyway, since they already seemed perfectly happy to be carrying around separate devices for these two purposes—an iPod for music and a cell phone for communications. Well, obviously Eric won that debate in the end. The Apple iPhone, which came out in 2007, is arguably a better iPod than the iPod itself, thanks to its larger screen and a multi-touch interface. And even the low-end models can hold four times more music in their solid-state memories than my first disk-drive-based iPod.

The DVD player. No need for it after I got the Xbox 360, which also plays DVDs.

The DVR. When I jettisoned premium cable TV back in March, I had no more need for the Comcast set-top box, which also functioned as my DVR. I now get all of my video entertainment through Internet video sites like Hulu, Netflix DVDs, and the Roku digital player, which connects via Wi-Fi and the Internet to Netflix’s Watch Instantly service and Amazon Video on Demand. (Because I got the Roku box around the same time I canceled the cable, this was technically a one-for-one swap rather than a subtraction.)

The land line telephone. The AT&T cellular signal in the neighborhood of my apartment recently improved to the point that I was able to cancel my Comcast digital voice line. The signal still isn’t great, and I can’t rely on it for important conversations or interviews. Luckily, there’s always Skype—which now has a great iPhone app, in addition to its trusty Mac and PC versions.

The death toll among information devices is likely to increase over time—with the iPhone and similar mobile devices as the perpetrators. As Dan Shapiro, CEO of Seattle-based Ontela, has argued in a perceptive column for our own Xconomist Forum, smartphones are crossing what he calls the GET, the “good-enough threshold,” in more and more areas, and consequently putting older information devices in danger of extinction. Clearly, phones have already crossed the GET as media players, and Dan thinks point-and-shoot cameras and game consoles are next in line. I would add GPS receivers, portable DVD players, and pocket-sized HD video cameras like the Flip.

My own list of eight devices could decrease to seven if I wanted to do without my Kindle 2. It’s the newest of my gadgets, and the current darling. But I can read all the same e-books using the Kindle app on my iPhone.

And seven would shrink to six if my ancient Dell laptop expired, as it eventually will. I keep it around for two reasons only: to store my digital photos, and to run Quicken, where I’ve built up about 10 years of financial and tax records. But both of these functions are rapidly migrating to the Internet. My camera’s Eye-Fi card sends all of my photos to Flickr automatically, and I’ve been experimenting with Quicken Online, which isn’t as powerful as the desktop version but is, in many ways, easier to use.

Six devices is probably my absolute minimum, barring some startling technological change. As long as I work for Xconomy, I’ll need the Mac laptop. And even the iPhone 4G or 5G or 6G isn’t likely to duplicate the functions of my HDTV, Xbox, Canon camera, and Roku player. (But I wouldn’t be too surprised if my next TV had something like the Roku built in—which would subtract one device, leaving me with five.)

So, what are your indispensable information devices? Would you like to have fewer, or are you perfectly happy juggling a dozen or more gadgets daily? Let me know in a comment below. I’ll compile everyone’s feedback into a future column.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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