If you're active in today's society, you can't have missed the word 'gadget'. The word itself is confusing, and means a lot of different things to a lot of different people.
How come an item can be a gadget one week, and not the next? What makes one mobile phone a gadget, while another isn't? Does something have to be high-tech to be a gadget? What draws people to gadgets?
What, exactly, is a gadget?
Wikipedia defines a gadget as "a device that has a specific practical purpose and function. Gadgets tend to be more unusual or cleverly designed than normal technology", which is probably a somewhat vague definition, which doesn't touch on any of the connotations of the word, nor explains how one man's gadget might be another man's everyday technology.
Gadgets are devices that enrich your life in one way or another, usually in a way that can be perceived to be more elegant than another way of solving the same problem. One example is keys with built-in lights: Strictly speaking, you could do perfectly fine without, or you could carry a torch with you, but if you live in an area with little lighting, and find yourself struggling to find the key hole to your house frequently, a key with a LED light built in has added benefit. Whilst not particularly high-tech, this could be considered a high-tech solution to a low-tech problem, and it can be argued that this device could be a gadget.
The ur-gadget: Apple iPod
Another definition of a gadget is a device that does something that another device does as well, but does it better, or differently for aesthetic reasons. The iPod, for example, started off as a gadget: 'why the hell would I want to pay stupid amounts of money to carry 4 GB of songs around', was the question that resounded during its launch. Around the same time, Creative had an MP3 player on the market roughly the size as an early Discman, which stored twice as much music and cost a lot less. On paper, the player from Creative should be the definite winner. In practice, however, people were drawn to the clean design and ease of use of the iPod. To this day, synchronising your tunes with an iPod, for example, is easier than with any other music player, largely due to the genius that is iTunes.
Whilst an iPod can be used for 'serious' things (examples include transporting the daily rushes of footage from the Lord of the Rings films, and doctors training to listen to different heartbeat patterns on their iPods, in an effort to be able to recognise different heart ailments by their sound alone), the vast majority of iPods are frivolous investments: There are cheaper MP3 players out there, there are players with more capacity, better video capabilities, and things that do all of this, and are still cheaper than iPods.
In fact, if you compare MP3 players based on specifications alone, nobody in their right mind would buy an iPod. And yet... the iPod is the best-selling portable music player in the world today (with a 70% market share), and has been since its launch in 2001.
So why, exactly, is the iPod such a stormingly popular personal music player? In most civilised societies, if you ask anybody on the street what an iPod is, over 98 per cent will reply something to the effect of 'isn't that a music player?', reconfirming the ubiquitous nature of the Apple iPod.
A lot of explanations are possible, but mainly, its popularity due to the fact that its iconic, instantly recognisable design — not least due to the white earbuds that have become symbolic of the iPod, something that has been re-iterated again and again in the now-famous iPod silhouette advertisements — has turned it into a cult icon and a fashion statement.
The fact that someone chooses a music player which is ostensibly inferior, at a higher price, is testament to the gadget-ness of an iPod.
Paying extra for a lick of paint
Staying in the realms of Apple just for a second, the next example is the MacBook. At launch, Apple presented us with a white MacBook, and a black version, which rapidly gained the rather obvious nickname 'BlackBook'. The black version of this computer was identical to its white counterpart, but came with a nearly 10% premium for its colour. And yet, people are buying BlackBooks.
The argument of what a gadget is, then, is 'something that you want, but don't necessarily need, but are willing to spend more money on than something else that does the same job'. If you never take your computer anywhere, buying a laptop over a desktop computer could be argued to be a gadget purchase. The choice of buying a MacBook over a Dell laptop, for example, could be argued to be a gadget purchase, if the Dell would do the same task as well, at a lower price.
If we for a moment ignore the discussion as to whether Windows Vista or Mac OS X is a better operation system. For most people (who use a computer for writing letters, browsing the internet), a cheaper Dell laptop would fulfil the task just as well as a MacBook, and yet people make a conscious choice to buy into what columnists have dubbed the cult of Mac. The choice of purchasing an Apple laptop over a Dell, all other things being equal, could be argued to be a gadget purchase. The further choice of purchasing a black MacBook over a white one — a choice which is exclusively based on aesthetics, is definitely a gadget purchase.
It is believed that, in a world where you really have to fight to stand out from the crowd, gadgets have become fashion items in their own rights. People have grown to enjoy the added benefits and aesthetic advantage of pretty, nifty things in their lives. Ten years ago, mobile phones barely existed and were ridiculously expensive. Today, the vast majority of people carry around, and rely on, the mobile phone entirely. A mobile phone has a real, tangible advantage (having a phone number that follows you, and being instantly contactable), and while mobile telephones were definite gadgets in the time of the yuppies in the 1980s, their ubiquity means that arguing that a mobile phone still is a gadget is difficult.
There are hundreds of different mobile telephones out there, however, from the most basic 'phone with a phone book and sms messaging' to the bleeding edge smartphones of today which can run operating systems, can print directly to printers, use WiFi to get on the internet, can run software and games, and have sleek, modern looks to boot. It is hard to draw a line between mobile phones that are purely functional devices and ones that could be considered as 'gadgets', but everybody can agree that some phones are high-tech fashion and technology devices, while others are tools. As an example, only a few years ago, mobile phones with cameras were a novelty gadget, now nearly all mobile phones come with a camera — is it still a gimmick, or are people using the mobile phone cameras as tools?
Bleeding edge technology
iPods, mobile phones, laptops — the pattern continues in tons of consumer electronics, and the most recent revolutions are Hi-Def television, latest-generation gaming consoles, and satellite navigation equipment. Especially the latter, which was initially met with 'haha, paying £300 for that? you're having a laugh, I'll use a fookin' map, thankyouverymuch', GPS-based SatNav systems are taking over in a big way, carving the way from obscure tech gadget to mainstream accessory.
Most new consumer electronics products that push the boundary of commonly implemented technology can be argued to be gadgets, but some lose their gadget status more rapidly than others. Digital cameras, for example, were the must-have gadget of the mid-1990s, yet today, retailers barely sell film-based compact cameras any more, and camera manufacturers would be hard pushed to launch a camera that would be perceived as a 'gadget'. The new compact cameras with built in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth for direct printing were the latest innovations, but because the people buying them bought them for their sheer usefulness, the gadget-factor of these cameras faded rapidly.
Digital SLR cameras are another great example of an area where technology has developed rapidly: The market segment has developed from the 3 megapixel consumer dSLR to the 17 mpx behemoths in only a few years, but digital SLR cameras were never quite gadgets in their own right, mostly because the technology was marketed as a serious tool for serious (and amateur) photographers: Prices for entry level dSLRs dropped to a ninth of the price (from US$3,000 for the Canon EOS D30 to US$400 for the Canon EOS D350), while features and power has increased drastically, and yet nobody bought a dSLR because it was a 'nifty toy'.
The popularity of 'nifty toys', incidentally, is highlighted by the existence of online retailers such as Think Geek, Firebox, IWantOneOfThose, and boysstuff. Focusing exclusively on selling nifty stuff (books for hiding bottles of booze in, mini kebab grills, micro brewery equipment, bluetooth speakers — a whole range of products ranging from novelty items to full-on gadgets), these retailers are fuelled by the craze for clever technology and gadgets.
A whole cottage industry has grown out of people's urges to have the latest, newest, and most high-tech gadgets. A handful of monthly magazines (T3 and Stuff being the most prominent in the UK) and more than 50 blogs (Engadget, Gizmodo, The Gadgeteer, T3.co.uk and Ubergizmo being the most notable) aimed specifically at gadgets have popped up.
So, what exactly is the appeal of gadgets?
In many way, gadgets are the culmination of a consumerist society. There's not just the urge to buy things, but to buy the newest, best, and fastest, but to demand a great design to boot. Combined with all of this, the items you surround yourself with — be it High Definition televisions, portable gaming gadgets, or high-tech sporting equipment — project a lot about who you are to the outside world.
Apart from the pleasure derived directly from using technology that just.. works. To me, well-designed technology that makes life easier is something that really excites me. If it, in addition to making my life more effective, also offers entertainment and helps project the image of me as a tasteful, successful individual, then those are great bonuses.
In a way, personal technology — or gadgets, if you like — have become the extension of your personality in some circles. Are you the sleek, efficient, luxurious and gorgeous black MacBook, or are you a bargain-bin, last-generation Windows 95 behemoth of a laptop? I don't know about you, but I know which one I'd rather be...
This was originally posted on my website -- http://kamps.org/g/?eivw . That version has lots of links and pretty pictures, too! (Oh, and you could digg it too, if you like it -- http://kamps.org/g/?szlk)