Op-Ed: I've Got an App for That

We need to get past the "gadget" phase of new technologies

Geoffrey Orsak

 Geoffrey C. Orsak

I have been defending my favorite piece of personal technology to colleagues for decades. The ancient tube amplifier that warms the music I enjoy at home is simple, beautiful and, in my ears, produces the sweetest sounds.

Admittedly, it is archaic — and maybe that is part of the charm. But in spite of the vast advances in audio over the years, I have never lost my affection for my old class-A amp.

Well, I'm sad to report there is a new love in my life. I listen to a lot of online music at work, and after experiencing Pandora.com I've had a musical epiphany:  I've become more interested in accessing an endless supply of high-quality music than listening to a severely limited supply played through an extraordinary system. Frankly, I have come to the point where I just want to be surrounded by great music with as little effort as possible.

So I get the fears of the literati who worry their armchair habit with a traditional newspaper, magazine or book will be supplanted by the new wave of ice-cold e-Readers. When the devices first hit the market four years ago, I got to play with one of the earliest models and was completely under-whelmed. Clunky and decidedly unsexy, it was like playing "Pong" after being raised on the Xbox®.

This year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas showcased numerous new variations on this theme from a wide spectrum of manufacturers. While they have improved, particularly for reading books, the developers who seem to be only looking to replace ink and paper with bits and LCDs aren't getting it. In an era of unlimited news outlets, why would I simply want to walk around with big hunks of the New York Times or the Washington Post downloaded daily to my e-Reader?

The reason I have fallen for technologies like Pandora.com is that they do all the work for me. I only have to tell it what I like and then using propriety smarts, it goes off into the infinite and finds and plays music that matches my personal interests.  

Rather than focusing on the delivery mechanism, we need to do for information and news what Pandora and other similar services have done for music; make it much simpler and more enjoyable.

So don't lament the seemingly inevitable loss of the feel of newsprint between your fingers, start imagining a new technology that keeps you plugged into the best information with little or no effort on your part. In fact, if done right, the Internet and e-Readers will provide new profitable channels for gifted writers and extraordinary work. Apple's iTunes has opened markets for talented new emerging artists by showing that we would rather take a small risk on new songs for $1.29 then plunk down $16 for a CD that contains mostly filler.

If engineers and computer scientists can produce an e-Reader that intelligently filters vast amounts of information and provides each of us with a personalized, high-quality daily news product loaded with all the bells and whistles, then we all win. If not, then we might be looking at the eight track player of the information age.

So let's quickly get past this "gadget" phase of e-Readers, and start developing the intelligent services that we really need.

Think of it as an epiphany for the print world.   

Geoffrey C. Orsak is dean of the Southern Methodist University Lyle School of Engineering. He can be reached at dean@lyle.smu.edu .