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Culture

Are gadgets making our lives easier or just gadgetier?

For years our gadgets got more and more complex. Now, they're finally beginning to make our lives easier...I think.

Ever wonder how we got along without cell phones, BlackBerrys, notebook computers, and fax machines? How did we manage to have fun without video games, MP3 players, and DVRs?

Come to think of it, how did we ever survive without the Internet?

I don't know how, but we did. And you know what? I don't remember ever thinking I was missing something. I played records, wrote letters, used the phone book, and shopped at stores.

As for work, well, the business of designing chips was a bit archaic back then. Still, at Texas Instruments we did manage to get our designs done and out the door. In fact, TI's venerable TMS320 Digital Signal Processor--the chip inside most of the world's cell phones--was invented back then in the early '80s. How about that?

You know what else? I had more balance in my life back then. I did things other than check my e-mail, surf the Net, and talk on my cell phone. Sure, I still have non-gadget hobbies today, but I use gadgets to enjoy them. I drink wine out of a glass, but the Internet helps me collect and buy. I admit to listening to my iPod occasionally while hiking and gardening.

I know I'm starting to sound like some technology reactionary, but really, I'm not. It's just that, well, for the longest time, gadgets got increasingly complex and feature-rich, but the interfaces didn't keep up. It was time-consuming to learn how to use them. There was no interoperability, wires were everywhere, and, well, it was a royal pain.

The other day I began to realize that that's finally beginning to change. Check it out:

My new Pioneer Kuro PDP-6010FD plasma TV automatically adjusts the signal to fit the screen. The algorithms are so good I barely notice whether the signal is originally 4:3 or 16:9. It even adjusts for commercials on the fly; I don't have to lift a finger.

My cell phone is now also an MP3 player that syncs my calendar and contacts with Outlook using Bluetooth. It's not even an iPhone, just a Razr. Speech recognition technology and voice commands are getting more sophisticated all the time. Maybe someday we'll be able to get rid of our keyboards.

And for the coup de grace, I now have smart-home technology that, once programmed, uses touch-screen LCD panels and universal RF remotes to control all the electronics in the home--audio, video, security, communications, everything. One touch or click controls a host of devices. It's all intuitive; I didn't have to learn to use anything.

And then, of course, there's wireless technology. It's a beautiful thing. My home is on a wireless network so I can work, access the Internet, even print and scan from anywhere in or around the house. And then, of course, there's Wi-Fi and other broadband protocols. Finally, we're no longer tethered to our desks or our offices.

Wait, I almost forgot: tell me Tivo didn't change your life. It did mine. A little programming and you never have to miss a show again. Now we just need some content worth watching.

Computers are still a pain, but every year the manual, legacy stuff gets more and more buried under wizards and automatic updates that do things for us.

Look, I know a lot of this stuff has been around for a while. But for so many years, I was so aware of the increasing gadget complexity that this ease-of-use thing kind of crept up on me. There finally seems to be significant momentum in the direction of technology making our lives simpler and easier, as opposed to just gadgetier. It's about time.