The very busy signal

A Google search on the new iPhone from Apple popped up some 29,000,000 entries today and it won't even be available until June. What do you make of that?

A Google search on the new iPhone from Apple popped up some 29,000,000 entries today and it won't even be available until June. “What do you make of that? It is a cell phone for Pete's sake,” I muttered aloud and clicked out to www.apple.com/iphone to have a look for myself and see what all the fuss was about.

Well, the new iPhone is all about functionality. Forget just talking on the phone. I mean (HELLO) that is so not enough. Now, no matter where people are or what else they might be trying to do, say driving for instance, that zippy little gizmo has other options for our time and attention -- and plenty of them.

According to Apple, it may look like rather like a mobile phone, but in addition to that now-mundane capability, it also offers a widescreen iPod (3.5 in. tall) for movies, music and television; Internet access with “desktop class” HTML e-mail; Web browsing; maps; searching and more. Among its many talents, it can automatically synchronize bookmarks from a PC or Mac; has built-in Google and Yahoo search engines; and can use Wi-Fi (802.11 b/g), EDGE and Bluetooth to get the job done. To add to its little e-allure, the 4.5-in. by 2.4-in., 4.8-oz. device boasts 4GB or 8GB storage on its OS X operating system and a new “multi-touch” interface that lets users do things like “flip through” CDs on the screen with their fingertips.

With this cornucopia of capabilities spread out like a giant lawn assortment of fireworks, it can be difficult to appreciate the jaw-dropping astonishment that must have greeted the introduction of the first handheld portable telephone on April 30, 1973, when Motorola gave a group of newspaper reporters the first peek at their amazing invention. (If you are interested in the subject, see Invention & Technology, Winter 2007 for a wonderful look at the history of cell phones, but I digress.)

Humans have traveled fast and far down this technology road, so just exactly where are we now, anyway? In businesses like trucking that have come to depend upon wireless communications, many smaller fleets in particular currently use multi-functional cell phones to share information with company drivers and/or contracted owner-operators, so it is easy to imagine a migration to even more sophisticated devices like iPhone. After all, mobile workers need mobile communications and the more the better, right?

Still, I can't help but wonder about the rest of the story, beyond the workday and its requirements. By definition, using a mobile phone means we are probably out-and-about, doing something in the (dare I say) real, physical world with its geography, weather, people, traffic, flora and fauna -- everything all there, all spread before us. With eyes on those little widescreens, are we going to miss that big wide world we are passing through? Are the next generation of mobile phones the latest Wonder of the World or the ultimate distraction from it with all its distresses and delights?

Apple describes the iPhone as “fully multi-tasking,” and I guess that is the phrase that haunts me the most after the gee-whiz reaction subsides. Reuter's news agency, for instance, carried a story in January about a German motorist who swerved left off the highway and ended up on a railway track because “his satellite navigation system told him to turn left.” Apparently he was not the first one to do something like that, either.

Apple's iPhone is the latest, but not the only, technology tool to help us “fully multi-task.” As you and I plunge ahead into this amazing and endlessly layered e-experience, my fondest hope is that when Life calls, real blood and bone Life, it won't get a busy signal.

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