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I can see clearly now

I can see clearly now

Matthew JC. Powell ponders questions of high fashion . . .

You've probably already noticed this, so you won't consider it too insightful. It may even seem obvious to you, or - dare I say it - transparent. Lately, most of the new computer widgets that have been released have either been translucent, or at the very least available in a translucent version. Yes, I know, you guys sell the stuff, so you know that. What I'm wondering is why.

It's especially prevalent in the case of USB devices. Recently a USB hub arrived in my office for review, and my entire staff was shocked to discover that it had a beige, opaque casing. Digging amongst the materials that arrived with the device, we discovered that you could get a clear one if you wanted, and an audible sigh of relief was to be heard.

On another occasion, a nifty video capture device that used USB (which is quite clever and not at all easy) came into the office. We toyed with it for a few days and found it worked quite well, but several people who used it couldn't get past the fact that the box was black and purple, and you couldn't see through it. It's USB, so it's meant to be translucent, right?

Steve Jobs has a lot to answer for, but this thing goes back further than the iMac.

Many many moons ago, when I was a young tech-head, I used to take much joy in tearing electronic devices to pieces, to find out how they worked. At first, I had little idea what I was doing, so my explorations rarely resulted in greater insight, and more often than not resulted in my electronic devices being greatly reduced in their functionality.

As time went on, I got to know a little bit more about what all the bits were meant to do, and figured out which ones I shouldn't pull off or glue somewhere else for effect. In my late teens, I had a computer (not designed for upgrading) to which I had added so many upgrades that the case would no longer close. So I left the case off, and anyone seeing the jumble of soldered-on circuit boards and wires thought I was some kind of genius for making it work (for the record, I wasn't, but it did work).

Around the same time, I began to meet other tech-heads, who had similarly configured caseless computers. One fellow had soldered two entire Amiga motherboards together as an experiment in "parallel processing" (it didn't work).

Then the Internet revolution arrived, and I noticed an interesting thing. Some of the really cool tech types had modems you could see through. So not only could you be impressed by the blinking lights on the outside, you could be in awe of the blinking lights on the inside. Cool. Or, in the parlance of the time, kewl.

The idea seemed to be that it was funky to be able to see the guts of an electronic device, and if you were going to be a kewl person in the early '90s, you needed a modem.

But modems work in such strange and mysterious ways that it's not a good idea to open them up, no matter how kewl you might be.

But now it's got out of hand. The great irony of it is that most of the consumer electronic devices on the market these days have all of their bits integ-rated onto a single circuit board, and most of those circuit boards are largely indistinguishable from each other to the untrained eye.

The USB hub, the modem, the Palm III that I wrote last week's column on, the nifty video capture device - most people would have a hard time telling them apart if you took them out of their casings and laid them on a table.

It's not like the masses of copper coil and resistors that made opening up transistor radios fun when I was a kid, so why are we so obsessed with being able to see?

And there's no end in sight. You can get translucent power cables now. So you can see the three bits of wire inside. And translucent floppy disks, that enable you to discover that the greyish bit of magnetic film inside is indeed round. Whoopee.

Where will it end? Will there come a time when you won't be able to purchase an opaque device of any kind? Who will be the first with a translucent VCR, toaster or refrigerator? Is there someone at Boeing, deep in the highly-top-secret research bit, poring over old Wonder Woman comics to discover how her invisible plane was constructed?

I suppose at least you wouldn't have to worry about getting a window seat.

Matthew JC. Powell is the editor of ARN's sister publication PC Buyer. E-mail him at matthew_powell@ idg.com.au


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