Fountain pens overcame early technical limitations and began to be mass-produced in the 1870s. During the next few decades there was a steady stream of improvements, technical innovations and new materials that caused them to become commonplace items in offices. Luxury pens were prized possessions. Executives would display their best pens in special holders on their desks. New pens would be shown off and handed around for inspection. People kept track of each new development.
In the 1950s ballpoint pens appeared for the first time, with early technical issues and leaking problems. Quickly, though, manufacturers overcame those limitations and began to produce a similarly wide range of models, including expensive models that again became office status symbols. For decades graduates were given expensive pens that were expected to be shown off and treasured.
There was great interest in the technology in fountain pens and later in ballpoint pens. How many baby boomers remember taking apart Cross pens, trying to figure out why the point emerged when the barrel was twisted? Or staring at the clicker on a mechanical pen, trying to understand why the point stays out on the first click but goes in on the second click?
In the early 1960s, Bic pens began to be mass produced in the US and sold for nineteen cents. Pens became office tools and interest began to wane. There are still luxury pens and people who care about them, but for most people a pen is an interchangeable item taken from a drawer full of them. We don’t brag to our friends about our latest pen.
It’s not a precise analogy but our computers have gone through something like that curve. They started as fascinating novelties, endlessly interesting, studied and compared as they developed, and treated as status symbols at the high end. Now they’re turning into office tools, interchangeable items that do not inspire much envy or possessiveness.
At one time our computers were well-known to us. We knew the specs. We compared the new processors. We read magazines about the latest models. We’d ooh and aah for the particularly sleek notebook that a colleague got, we’d make informed decisions about video cards, we’d comment on a particularly stylish case.
That doesn’t happen often any more. All the computers on the market are powerful enough to run Windows 7 or Mac OS X successfully, from the biggest gold-plated gaming monster down (almost) to the bottom, the no-name systems made from plastic scraps and Legos and sold for a few dollars at Walmart. It doesn’t matter what the computer case looks like or what parts are inside as long as it displays web pages and streams Netflix videos.
We’re still going to be able to be impressed by a particularly cool notebook and I’m sure there is still some science fiction technology for our office computers that will be able to impress us, but on the whole we’re sitting down at our desks to do our work with our tools, with a steadily decreasing sense of magic and excitement.
New devices will go through accelerated versions of the same curve. Last year we passed around smartphones to people who didn’t have them yet. This year we’ll fondle each other’s tablets. Next year – well, who knows? Maybe we’ll compare notes on our optical implants. There is no end in sight to breathtaking technology.
But the things that we currently refer to as “computers,” the boxes under our desk and the notebooks in our briefcases – the magic is just about done. They’re a bit more than nineteen cents but most of you will be using the modern equivalent of Bic pens – a device well suited to let you do your job and not particularly interesting in its details.
I have this in mind because tomorrow I’ll tell you about a notebook that is exceptional. It is sleek and sexy techno-porn. It’s one of the best engineered and designed notebooks ever released in the Windows world. And it has about as much relevance to most of you as an article about a really expensive pen: interesting to know it exists but nothing that changes your experience, which is that you go to work and use a business tool.
It is pretty cool, though!