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msnbc.com

Remember Microsoft Barney? Or the Digital Barbie CAM? What about Y2K survival kits, the “i-Opener” and Iridium satellite phones? They all made high-tech gift guide sections in Holiday seasons gone by. Every December, overexcited technology journalists feel compelled to offer up Christmas lists full of electronic toys for everyone in the family. Archives of these annual missives provide quite a snapshot of our gadgeted past. What’s the clear lesson such a backward glance teaches? While some techno-gifts last, others become $5,000 electronic paperweights, and it can be hard to tell the difference.

GO ON, ADMIT IT. Somewhere in the closet you have an electronic Ghost of Christmas Past. You gave your husband, wife or child a gadget guaranteed to get a “wow.” Three weeks later, it was relegated to the garage, a mere museum piece, your own techno-Edsel.

Now I’m not talking about those $49 wine bottle openers that look like overgrown erector sets — you know, the kind that you buy from a TV commercial at 2 a.m. in a fit of consumerist weakness. You should know better than to think that a $4.99 17-language automatic translation machine really works. I’m talking about “real” high-tech toys, the kind you can actually buy in a store, the kind that don’t come with a set of Ginsu knives thrown in.

Even here, the ranks of never-really-worked-like-you-thought, or he-never-really-used-it techno-gifts are crowded. Any Internet appliance, like the i-Opener, which came and went in 1999, would probably qualify.

But maybe your gift judgement wasn’t so bad; perhaps you just had poor timing. Maybe you got the “wow,” and the gadget even worked, but it grew old, slow, and expensive before it’s time. In 1997, you paid $1,000 for a DVD player that now sells for $50. Or you paid $599 for a DirecTV dish in 1996 that now sells for three cereal boxtops and a year’s subscription. Or you bought an MP3 player in 1999 for $200 that held a whole two hours of music (Now, most digital keychains hold more).

Knowing when to jump into the ever-changing river of high-tech devices for a swim is always a challenge. There’s a simple reason: things are always getting cheaper and better. It’s hard enough to figure out when it’s a good time to buy something like a new PC for yourself. But knowing when to buy a new gadget as a gift — particularly if you’re not the geek of the family — that’s a tall task indeed.

I certainly can’t predict the future, but a look at the mistakes and successes of the past might help prevent you from throwing money down the 21st Century’s drain.

TRANSIENT TOYS

For example, there are a few categories of gadget gifts that should automatically give you pause. Transient tech toys are relatively easy to spot. I’m thinking about Microsoft Barney or Mattel’s Talk-With-Me Barbie, which both sold for about $100 in 1997. Figuring child recipients of these toys got bored with them after perhaps 4 to 5 hours, that’s over a $20-per-hour-of-fun cost — a.k.a., a bad investment.

Lego Mindstorms has proven to be a big hit in the world of kids' gifts.
On the flip side, Lego Mindstorms, which appeared on the scene the next year, have provided many happy returns. Returns to the store, that is, for more accessory kits, because kids just didn’t stop playing with them. One year later, Intel’s computer microscope was also a hit (the product wasn’t discontinued until this year, when Intel decided to get out of the toy business). Why? Despite everything Hollywood would have you think, children still love to use their minds and be creative.

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Simple chemistry sets still sell well, too. Sprucing up old-fashioned scientific inquiry (i.e., curiosity) with a boost from technology is a great idea. Talking stuffed animals is not.

But if you really, really just want a quick gadget-induced wow, take the cardboard box test. We all know young children sometimes prefer the box a toy came in to the toy itself. If that happens to be true, you’ll feel considerably less embarrassed if you paid less than $50 for what was inside the box. That means you don’t have to be ashamed to admit you plunked down $20 for a Tamagotchi in 1997.

NOT QUITE READY

Not-quite-ready technologies are a bit harder to spot, but there are signs. Was $2,500 too much to pay for a cute metal dog that barked and walked in 1999? Yes, particularly when far more interactive dogs are free at the pound. Sony’s AIBO is a curiosity, not a robot. Truth is, the robot you want to buy someone as a Christmas gift doesn’t exist yet. The AIBO, now at around $500, belongs in the temporary toy category.

Also that year, electronic books hit the mass consumer market, with the Nuovomedia Rocketbook for around $200. That’s a much better-intentioned present meant to help your loved one keep reading material nearby at all times, or perhaps to save trees. But you know, books are still pretty cheap, and no one wants to come home and relax in front of the computer screen. Maybe some day, but not now.

There is plenty of proof that “some day” really does come in the world of gadgets. The Diamond Multimedia’s Rio, which appeared on the scene in 1998. is a great example. Back then, for $200, the Rio could hold about 30 minutes of music, or considerably less than a single music CD. The device shook the foundations of the music industry, but it couldn’t make you shake your booty for very long. Within a year, it was completely outdated. If you bought the latest for your loved one then, you were too far ahead of the curve.

Today, for $100 more than the original Rio, Apple iPods can hold the equivalent of 100 CDs. Spend a little more, and you can carry virtually your entire CD collection with you wherever you go. Five years later, the MP3 player industry is now mature, so its safe to go in the water.

GENUINELY SOLVES A PROBLEM

Most important, today’s MP3 players are simple, straightforward, and genuinely solve a problem. You might know, for example, that the recipient is going on some long car trips and is about to burn a copy of every CD in his collection to take on the trip. An MP3 player is a much better solution.

If you know what the gadget will really do for that special someone, it is much less likely to turn into a museum piece.

Motorola’s Talkabout radios are another example of real problem-solvers with staying power. They haven’t changed much since they were introduced in 1997. Just a good walkie-talkie system for under $100. Visit any ski mountain or go hiking, and you’re likely to see them used as often as cell phones. So here’s the important point: it sounds obvious, but it’s not. Don’t go techno just because it’s cool. If you are buying a gadget, make sure you know what the recipient will use it for.

Digital cameras fall somewhere between problem solvers and not-quite-ready technologies. We love e-mailing photos to friends, and showing off our pictures at parties. Digital cameras are great for that. Problem is, prices are still plummeting and quality is still rising. A 3-Megapixel model two years ago cost $1,000. Today, even higher-resolution cameras can be had for $400. So the same rule applies — if you know your loved one has the computing power and really wants to take pictures, digital cameras are now relatively mature and safe to buy.

JUST ASK FOR HELP

But this brings up another important point. Many people don’t understand the technology they are buying as a gift — an extreme hazard. In an obvious example, you might be tempted to buy a new high-end photo printer for someone who has an old computer. That wouldn’t work. Here’s a not-so-obvious example: if your budding cinematographer son wants to start shooting and editing movies on his computer, buying a nifty DV video camera might not be enough. If he has a PC, he probably will have to add a FireWire port, too, or else the camera won’t talk to the PC. Think of it as the 21st Century’s version of “batteries not included.”

And since technology really is very personal these days, as the Apple folks keep reminding us, you might be best to ruin the surprise and just ask your daughter what features she wants in an MP3 player. She’s much more likely to have a grasp on the potential “batteries not included” issues than you.

BETA VS. VHS

That will also help if you run into Beta vs. VHS devices. Early adopters run into this all the time — when industries are new, they tend to be birthed in awkward ways that create competing standards. Eventually, consumers pick one over the other, leaving those who purchased 8-track cassettes and Beta tapes as the butt of our jokes. Back in the late 90s, when Palm Inc. was enjoying its runaway success, it appears consumers would be spared this problem in the personal digital assistance market. But Palm has slipped considerably, with Microsoft’s PocketPC products taking up the slack, and now the world is being populated by handheld gadgets that don’t talk to each other. Add to this world of souped-up pagers like the Research in Motion Blackberry, and souped-up cell phones that act like PocketPCs, and you’ve got a world destined to produce millions of gadgets that will be useless in a few years. I wouldn’t buy anyone a personal assistant as a surprise gift in this environment.

The problem is playing itself out in the digital radio arena right now, which is a shame, because both XM and Sirius have great products. But $200 players are still a little steep if the team you pick ends up losing. If you’re thinking about giving someone a new car stereo with a satellite radio, know that you are taking a risk.

It’s not unlike the risk taken in 1998 by those who followed one tech writer’s advice to plunk down $5,000 for an Iridium call-from-anywhere phone — the perfect gift for an on-the-go executive who had everything. A year later, the recipient had nothing, as the $7-per-minute service was shut down in a cloud of bankruptcy. Was the Iridium phone a transient toy, a not-quite-ready technology, or a Beta-vs-VHS device? The jury is still out, since the phone system has been resurrected, and some were able to take the device out of the garage museum and back on safari, where it once again serves its purpose. Wish I could say that for my Y2K survival kit.

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