The Futurist: When Gadgets Become Emulators

On Friday, as the entire literate world knows, Apple will release the iPhone to much hoopla. And when the mix of the unemployed and the wealthy who could wait in line on a workday to finally get their hands on their $600 box of hype, they’ll find that, for the first time, “iPod” no longer merely refers to their pocket-sized MP3 player, but also to a software program within another device.

This can only be seen as a trend within the technology industry: What were once standalone hardware items are increasingly being ported into simple software emulators–emulators that have the potential to be loaded onto numerous devices.

Examples of this are everywhere. Take ESPN Mobile. Until the MVNO folded, their dozen or so customers shelled out several Benjamins to get a phone with an interface that was in-tune with the latest sports happenings. Today, almost any Verizon customer (at least those toting relatively new phones) can load up V-Cast and download “ESPN Mobile”: a small BREW application that mimics the functionality of what used to be exclusive to a specialized piece of hardware. And while “iPod” the program can currently only be found on one non-iPod piece of hardware: the iPhone. But if Apple felt like it, I’d imagine it would be incredibly easy to port the program to Windows Mobile or Symbian.

Although gadget convergence is nothing new, and non-iPhone mobiles have been playing tunes for awhile, what is interesting is the deterioration of notable and brand-name hardware devices into mere software programs. And since the cost and inventory risk associated with distributing downloadable software is negligible compared to the investment necessary to put a solid gadget on store shelves, this could also spell added life to devices that were commercial failures, but still built up rabid fan bases. This is already evident with video game emulators–even if the market didn’t agree with your TurboGrafx-16 crush, you can still play Bonk on your PC anytime you feel like it. And even if nobody else loved the Gizmondo, wouldn’t it be great to relive its glory years (days?) within the safety of a smartphone?

This hardware emulation has huge implications for the gadgets we’ll be toting in years to come. It’s conceivable that, in a few years, we could be picking up blank-slate gadgets that come with little or no functionality built-in. It will be up to us, the end-user, to pick and choose what we want our gadget to do, and to install hardware emulators accordingly. Want it to play games? Install “PSP.” Looking to dance with some silhouettes? Load up “iPod.”

Seth Porges writes on future technology and its role in personal electronics for his column, The Futurist. It appears every Thursday and an archive of past columns is available here.