First Click: The agony and ecstasy of wireless everything

May 18th, 2016


There it is. Yet another warning message that my keyboard needs new batteries. Last week it was the mouse. I’ve been eying the keyboard indicator since it was at 20 percent. Now it’s critically low. An ever depreciating totem that gnaws at my subconscious and introduces a low-level sense of dread into my days. When it does die, it’ll happen at the most inopportune time. In the middle of today’s Google I/O press event, for example. Or worse, just as I’m about to correct someone who said something wrong on the internet.

I have no explanation for why I paid more for this Bluetooth keyboard and mouse. After all, they’re "attached" to a desktop computer that never moves. I can’t even resort to the neatness motive since both the keyboard and mouse sit in a tray below the desktop surface, thereby rendering any cables invisible. I fear I succumbed to the misguided notion that "because it’s wireless it’s (somehow) better." Maybe I’ll need it someday, like insurance. Or the gym you thought you might use in the building of the too-expensive apartment that you rent.

If there’s one guaranteed path into a gadget lover’s heart it’s to take an existing product and make it wireless. Be it Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, LoRaWAN or Infrared, it doesn’t matter as long as the cable gets cut. Shyster’s know this. It’s the reason crowdfunding sites are full of dubious "smart" devices.

If I had to give it a time frame, I’d say our societal obsession with wireless technology started with radio, aka, "the wireless" to old timers. I can imagine how extraordinary it must have been to hear disembodied voices emerge from a box, in an age when the streets were still covered in mud and drinking liquor was a crime. Sure, the sound was mono and you had to listen to a lot of country music, but it was way better than getting lynched.

Zenith remote control TV History

Our fascination with wireless eventually extended to television. As bizarre is it sounds, the first TV remote controls were actually tethered. Then in 1955 Zenith introduced the "Flash-matic" wireless remote. It was terrible because indoor light bulbs and even a bright sunny day could interfere with its operation. But when it worked it was like the devil’s magic, necessitating Zenith to note that it was "absolutely harmless to humans!"

The newfangled wireless technologies of my own childhood were phones. First the analog cordless phone used at home and then the cellphone. They were shit. The battery on my first cordless phone would die mid-conversation, and the range and sound quality was utter crap. But it was still a better option than snaking the landline across the house and into my teenage bedroom. As a bonus, if I held the phone just so I could eavesdrop on the conversations of neighbors. Then came the cellphones. Comically large at first, heavy, and incredibly expensive. Still, everyone had to have one. More people now have access to cellphones than toilets.

The first of many wireless gadgets I’d own in adulthood was the Ericsson HBH-10 — the world’s first Bluetooth headset. The year was 2000 AD and everyone was disappointed when they awoke to the dullest version of the future imagined. I guess that’s why my employer willingly spent £199.99 on a wireless headset that was ridiculously large and too uncomfortable for extended wear, prone to dropped audio, and required all-too-frequent charging. But I used it anyway because I could have hands-free conversations from my Bluetooth flip-phone (an Ericsson T28s) anywhere in London. And I looked fabulous wearing it.

In all of history, wireless derivatives of existing products that yielded "just good enough" functionality were justified when the act of cutting the cord added significant value. But what value has the inclusion of Bluetooth in this keyboard and mouse brought me? None. In fact, it detracts from the value since they’re both more expensive than the USB-cabled originals and require a fresh set of batteries that I must recharge or recycle every few months. So, please, anyone, remind me again why I bought them?

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Flash-Matic of the day