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David Pogue: Cycle of New Consumer Technology Is ‘Off the Tracks’

December 9, 2010 at 5:59 PM EST
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New York Times technology columnist David Pogue talks to Jeffrey Brown about this holiday season's most sought-after gadgets and how consumers can get the most out of their purchasing power.
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MARGARET WARNER: Finally tonight: covering the tech beat, helping consumers know what’s hot and what’s not. Jeffrey Brown has our conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: ‘Tis the season, once again, for the latest tech gadgets to be bought and sold, sometimes with breathless hype over their ability to change your life and rock your world.

It can be overwhelming to keep track, keep up, and decide if you really need that new camera, laptop, TV or smartphone.

But David Pogue has been doing just that for 10 years now as tech columnist for The New York Times. And he joins us now.

Welcome to you.

DAVID POGUE, personal technology correspondent, The New York Times: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, once again, here we are in the blitz of the season, and everything’s kind of thrown at us. Broadly speaking, where’s the action right now? What interests you?

DAVID POGUE: I would say all of the action these days is app phones, which I’m calling the iPhone and Android and the other touch screen phones –not smart phones, which are just like phones with e-mail, like BlackBerry, but app phones you can install your own programs.

In my column, I can’t remember the last time I wrote about a P.C. You know, like the Reagan administration.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID POGUE: But — so it’s all about app phones. I think there’s a lot of buzz about e-book readers this year.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

DAVID POGUE: There’s color ones for the first time and cheap ones for the first time. And then, the rest of the holidays will be the usual. It will be GPS units and cameras and camcorders and so on.

JEFFREY BROWN: How bout the TV as your — the TV-computer connection?

DAVID POGUE: Yes, the TV — putting the Web on your TV, they seem to keep coming back to this every five years.

This is something I think the industry wants more than the consumer wants. I do not know a single person in my life who uses the Web on their television set. I know they exist. Don’t write me the hate mail.

I know you’re out there, you nerds.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID POGUE: But in general, the…

JEFFREY BROWN: You think people want to keep these things separate, that sort of…

DAVID POGUE: Well, yes. When you watch TV, you want to turn off your brain and sit back and be entertained. When you use a computer, when you use the Web, you’re driving the show, and you’re in that active position.

So, I think there’s two different mental states.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, in this column you wrote, looking back at 10 years, which is quite interesting to think, big things about how people relate to technology, one thing you said was — that you have learned is that “Things don’t necessarily replace other things,” that is, they kind of splinter or somehow coexist.

But, at the same time, you also wrote about how most of the things you have written about don’t exist anymore.

DAVID POGUE: Well, most individual products.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

DAVID POGUE: I mean, if you look at the thousands I have reviewed over the years, individual products that were released with millions of dollars of marketing are just not there anymore.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t still cameras and still music players and so on. Yes, I mean, the thing I’m used to is, people say, oh, this new product is the iPhone killer.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

DAVID POGUE: This is going to be the iPod killer.

And it never happens. I mean, television was supposed to kill radio. Everyone thought it would. The DVD was supposed to kill going out to the theater. None of that ever happened.

JEFFREY BROWN: Somehow, they coexist.

DAVID POGUE: Things just splinter. They just add on.

I mean, there are certain exceptions, the eight-track tape, of course. But, in general, new technologies just sort of pile on. Everyone keeps saying, oh, my gosh, printed books are dead.

Oh, give me a break. Printed books are dead? No. They’re just – the e-book readers will just add on.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, another thing that you write is that it’s not that hard to tell the winners from the losers.

Now, this will interest a lot of people, because here you are. You have to review all of these things, right? So, you take all this in, and it’s not — it’s really not that hard to know what’s going to win and what’s going to lose?

DAVID POGUE: In most cases, it’s really not that hard.

I remember reviewing an e-book reader that was just terrible. And until I had time for it, I gave it to my 9-year-old daughter. And she came to me at dinnertime, tossed it back, said, “Dad, it’s horrible.”

She’s 9!

JEFFREY BROWN: The 9-year-old test, right, every time?

DAVID POGUE: And she was right. That’s right.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID POGUE: So, yes, I look back at the things that I have given really nasty reviews to. And you don’t wonder, will this succeed in the market?

What you wonder is, how on earth did this ever get out of the company alive?

Was there nobody whoever tried turning it on? They would have known it. So, it has to be an emperor’s new clothes situation.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is your sense that we want technology to make our lives easier or more interesting, even if it also complicates our lives?

What — what — how does it strike you and the people that you’re hearing from all the time?

DAVID POGUE: Well, there’s a lot — a lot to why people buy gadgets. So, I’m not even sure if people think, will it make my life easier or more complicated?

I think they’re thinking style. What statement does this make about me? One thing I have learned these 10 years is that people associate so heavily with their gadgets that, if you insult the gadget, you get hate mail as though you insulted them.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s very personal, right?

DAVID POGUE: You wouldn’t believe, and — and the same thing in reverse. I will praise some camera or something, and I will get all this e-mail saying: “I love you. You’re so great, the way you like this camera.”

I’m like, “Why?”

“Because I bought one.” So…

JEFFREY BROWN: It really goes to their self-image, their sense of who they are?

DAVID POGUE: It is, because they’re making a risk by buying it. They’re paying and hoping that it’s the right one. So, there’s some kind of psychology going on there, that they get invested in its goodness.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, of course, the marketers know that?

DAVID POGUE: Oh, yes, Apple, especially. Wow.

JEFFREY BROWN: And this notion we were talking about earlier, the passive vs. active or interactive, now, you were talking about the television and the computer and how we approach these things.

But I wonder, is that changing at all, when you look at touch technology or the new — the Xbox Kinect, right? I mean, you think about the way we interact. So, it’s sort of passive, but not quite as — I don’t know if I’m saying it right, but I just wonder if our thinking about these — our approach to them, our connection to them is changing at all?

DAVID POGUE: Well, funny you should mention touch screens and touchless manipulation, this Microsoft Kinect thing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, you explain what that…

DAVID POGUE: So, it attaches to your Xbox, and it lets you play games without a plastic controller in your hand. So if you want to play tennis, you just mimic holding a paddle, and you go like this, and it reads where your arm is. It’s amazing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right, no remote, no instrument at all. You are the mover.

DAVID POGUE: That’s right. You are the remote. That’s their slogan.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

DAVID POGUE: But what’s hilarious is, again, the thing I enjoy most about these 10 years is learning about human nature more than tech. And human nature is to say — is to make technological leaps that aren’t justified.

And what I hear about the Kinect is, oh, my gosh, in five years, this is how we will interact with our computers. What, by swinging a tennis racket?

What are you talking about? No, you’re going to have to be able to type. You’re going to have to be able to move the mouse.

People said already that touch screens would be the next big thing. When the iPhone came out, they were like, oh, put that on a computer. That’s the future.

Can you imagine? I tried it. They came out with touch screen laptops. So, here’s the keyboard. Here’s the screen. You’re typing here and you’re dragging the mouse like this. Oh, my gosh, you will be seeing a chiropractor in one day. It’s a horrible experience.

And, meanwhile, the buttons and controls are too small, so its very fussy. No, sorry. Touch computing, the mouse and keyboard, are not going away, my reputation on television — you’re hearing it here first.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, last thing.

How can anyone — and you wrote about this, so — how can anyone keep up with all this? So, what was kind of reassuring in your article was, your 10-year review was, even you have a hard time keeping up — keeping up, right?

DAVID POGUE: Right. The answer is, you can’t keep up, and I can’t keep up. I read all the magazines. I go to all the trade shows, I listen to all the P.R. pitches. I do two columns every single week. And, sometimes, they’re columns that involve roundups of 16 cameras or whatever.

It’s still impossible. I mean, you would need a full-time staff, and you would still miss stuff. Somehow, we have gotten into this cycle now where technology advances so fast, and comes out so quickly and becomes obsolete so quickly, it’s out of control. It’s off the tracks. So, what…

JEFFREY BROWN: What’s a person to do?

DAVID POGUE: So, what a person should do is, number one, learn when your product is going to be obsolete. So, don’t buy an iPhone in June, because, every July, there’s going to be a new one. Don’t buy your iPod in August, because the new ones come out every September.

Cameras come out in February and October. So, learn the cycle, number one. And number two is, when you buy it, know up front, OK, I’m saying goodbye to this money, and I’m going to enjoy this camera for six months. It’s still going to serve me well after, but I will no longer be on the cutting edge after six months.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID POGUE: And if you resign yourself to that up front, you will live a much happier life.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, tech news you can use and live by.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: David Pogue of The New York Times, thanks very much.

DAVID POGUE: My pleasure.