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banner Monday, 16 July, 2001, 12:34 GMT 13:34 UK
A gadget is worth a thousand words
Psion computer
It is not just a handheld, it is a way of life
Loyalty to a palm-top computer is a strange thing, but these gadgets speak volumes about their owners, says BBC News Online technology correspondent Mark Ward

It was as if an old friend had suddenly revealed that they were desperately ill.


Psion represents the battling little European innovator against the bumbling US juggernaut

Chris Kendall
Last week, Psion, one of the all-too-few British technology stars, declared that it was winding down production of the handheld computers that had made its name.

The news caused an outpouring of grief and an avalanche of e-mail messages from long-time Psion users wanting to tell BBC News Online, and other fans, how sorry they were to see their favourite gadget-maker suffering so.

Phrases such as "hard to believe", "shame", "a sad loss" and "a sad day" punctured many of the comments sent in by dedicated Psion fans.

Talking technology

But when you stop to consider, this loyalty to what is just a clever collection of silicon, plastic and metal is downright odd.

After all, there are lots of devices, such as video recorders and washing machines, which nowadays have a comparable amount of computer power onboard and yet do not generate such strong feelings. Why?

I Love Microsoft website is under construction
The I Love Microsoft site needs a lot of work
Some sing the praises of Psion for very straightforward reasons.

Rowland Browne said he was a fan and long-time user because his Psion, the 3a for those that are interested, had never let him down. It works, does all the things he asks from it and uses batteries that are easy to find in all parts of the world.

"I am very comfortable and always satisfied with it," he said, "and have not ever considered looking elsewhere.

"I have seen other types, and have been unimpressed," he added.

Camilla Åkesson, who works for the Swedish Foreign Ministry, is also impressed by the handheld's functionality: "For me it is a machine that helps me, remembers for me, tells me things, keeps all addresses and telephone numbers, calculates, holds things I want to remember."

Life tools

So part of the devotion can be explained by the amount of time people spend inputting names, addresses, diary details and the like. As Ms Åkesson said: "It is like a small archive of me, and one of the things I feel I can hardly leave home without."

After you have used it for a while it becomes like an extra limb, an add-on for your brain that you could not live your life without.

But some of these characteristics are true of your bank. It demands a lot of time, has to be told a lot of information, holds even more about you, and you cannot live your life without it. Yet few of us profess to being in love with a financial institution.

Washing machine and proud woman
Few people could get in a lather about their washing machine
A clue to why people identify so strongly with particular products can be found in the fact that it is not just the Psion that has such devoted followers. Old Amiga and Acorn computers have legions of fans, as does the ill-fated Apple Newton; there are Palm patriots and Ericsson evangelists. And there are thousands who worship at the church of Linux and its associated technologies.

What becomes clear is that people do not just use these technologies for what they do, but also for what they represent, the ethic that informs their design and the company producing them.

"The head tells you to buy Psion for its superior technology and usability," said Chris Kendall, "and the heart tells you to because it's a PSION, good old Potter Scientific Instruments taking on the big boys."

So people buy and use these gadgets because of the values they represent. "Psion represents the battling little European innovator against the bumbling US juggernaut," said Mr Kendall.

Religious divide

Alongside this goes the respect for the near non-crashability of the Psion gadgets, their ease of use, and the care and attention to detail that goes into their production.

So using a gadget also says something about its owner. People adopt them for the same reason that some women insist on wearing Balenciaga gowns. It is an expression of who you are and a declaration of your standards.

I Love Linux t-shirts
I Love Linux t-shirts are widely available
It is perhaps significant to note at this point that there is nothing to be found at the ilovewindows.com or ilovemicrosoft.com websites.

And nowhere is this ideology identification more apparent than in the feuding camps of the world of open source software. There is no doubt that many of the people that make their living in this world have crossed the line from users to zealots.

Often the intricacy of their debates over the difference between the Free Software Foundation and the Open Source Initiative resemble quibbles over the religious divide between the Waldensian and Joachimite heretics from the late Middle Ages. Often they are as relevant.

But one thing is clear: technology is not just about use, it is about you too. Be careful what you hold in your hand, it could be betraying the real you.

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See also:

12 Jul 01 | UK
Sayonara Psion era
12 Jul 01 | Business
The battle of the handhelds
11 Jul 01 | Business
Psion pulls out of handheld market
11 Jul 01 | Business
Psion: Why we quit handhelds
11 Jul 01 | Business
A history of Psion
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