Mark Mason

A fan’s notes

The best gadgets are the ones that do simple jobs really well

A fan's notes
1928: A boy drying his hands under an electric hand-drier. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)|1928: A boy drying his hands under an electric hand-drier. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)
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When was the last time a piece of technology made you happy? Truly happy, so satisfied with the experience that you immediately wanted to repeat it? For me it was last weekend, in a pub toilet, using an Excel Xlerator hand dryer. This unbelievably powerful bit of equipment sorted out my mitts in less time than it takes to say ‘force 12 hurricane’. I was tempted to re-wash them, simply for the fun of using it again. And I realised this is the only sort of device that gives real pleasure these days: one that does a basic job very, very well. All the kit that’s supposed to amaze us — computers, iPads, smartphones — just leaves us frustrated.

My pub visit came at the end of a day in which my smartphone had made me take eight photos of my young son for every one I wanted to save, on account of the huge gap between you pressing the button and the shot actually being captured. (Three-year-old boys rarely hold a pose.) Ten years ago, if you’d been promised a mobile phone that was also a high-resolution camera and let you view the internet on the move, you’d have salivated at the thought. And then it was invented, and you got one, and the first couple of times you took a photo and posted it on Facebook the excitement did indeed make you drool. But the third time, Facebook was down, or the photo didn’t save properly, or some other gremlin stopped you reaching the brave new cyberworld you’d come to depend on.

It’s the same with every techno-breakthrough. It wows you, then has you screaming in despair. Phones go out of range, web pages refuse to load, touchscreens stop working in one corner so you can still send texts as long as they don’t contain the letters i, o, p, k or l. My partner downloaded an app for her iPod that lets you listen live to thousands of radio stations from around the world. Brilliant, we thought — put the iPod dock in the kitchen, where our radio signal is useless, and use it as a substitute. It’s great. As long as we haven’t got the analogue radio on in the next room, because then the two are out of synch. And as long as there aren’t too many doors closed between the kitchen and the room upstairs where the Wi-Fi router lives, in which case the signal cuts out. Apart from that: blinding.

Even something as basic as sending an email is still hit-and-miss. Your outbox says the thing has gone, then three days later the other person’s on the phone (remember those?) asking why you haven’t emailed them. The battery life on an iPhone means they might as well sell the thing with a lemon and a couple of pieces of zinc wire. Science fiction never told us it was going to be this way. If the Star Trek transporter had been an accurate portrayal, it would have shown a little rotating circle for 20 seconds while it buffered, then Lieutenant Uhura would have arrived with half a leg missing.

None of this is meant to sound like the harrumphing of an old (and here we use the word in its pre-internet sense) buffer. Mobiles and laptops and tablets are wonderful inventions. But that’s all they are: wonderful. They’re not perfect. They work — what, nine out of ten times? The trouble is that we use the devices all day every day, meaning those failures soon mount up, and so complaining is exactly what we do. It’s not just that the one-in-ten causes us inconvenience — it stops us enjoying the other nine, because we’re fearful that something is about to go wrong. Instead of loving the machines we pay so much for, we tolerate them at best, resent them at worst. Occasionally a new development will amaze us — one that sticks in my mind is the service that lets you play a piece of music down the phone, then tells you what it is — but most of the time our attitude is one of jaded irritation.

The real problem is that we’re at a frontier, and frontiers are always messy places. Competition between companies keeps pushing back the boundaries of what’s possible, but only at the expense of reliability. It would be ridiculous to want a return to the era of state monopolies like the GPO; if they were still in charge the internet would never have happened. But equally we have to accept that the free market gives us gadgets that run before they can walk, and so frequently fall over.

The only genuine satisfaction, then, is to be found well back from the frontier, where refinements are made to age-old products. Hand-dryers have been around for decades, providing a stream of air comparable to the dying gasp of an emphysemic bee. Then Dyson came up with the Airblade, a dryer so potent it makes your hands ripple like Roger Moore’s face in Moonraker when they put him in the space simulator. And now — competition working to make us happy — Excel have invented the Xlerator, a dryer that feels as though it shares components with the Harrier Jump Jet. A machine you know is going to work, no questions, job done.

There isn’t an app for that.