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Batman Had It Right
Overloaded by your handhelds? Maybe you need a utility belt
I loved the old Batman TV show from the 1960s. For one thing, it helped me learn to read. Batman flashed cartoony screen titles for the fight sequences. I'd chase my mom around the house, demanding: "What does P-O-W!! stand for?" "Pow" she'd bark and mime an uppercut. A few seconds later: "Mommy! Z-A-P!" "Zap!" she'd spit, her fingertips sending imaginary bolts my way.
"Tune in again tomorrow, same Bat time, same Bat channel!" became part of the American lexicon. It was the announcer's breathless imperative when the caped crusader and the boy wonder, Robin, would end an episode hanging by a thread in some cornball predicament. But true fans like me never worried: We knew that inevitably Batman's utility belt would come to the rescue.
For the uninitiated, each of the Bat-belt's individual pockets appeared only capable of holding perhaps a passport and a pack of gum. But we insiders knew they actually carried all manner of weapons, antidotes, disguises, rappelling gear, and other tricks for taking the chill off one of Mr. Freeze's dastardly death devices, or sabotaging the Penguin's bird-brained schemes.
Life imitates art, and now I tune in daily to the adventures of Silicon Valley. I am no less mesmerized by the action, and no less delighted by the screwball cameo appearances of celebrities (can't somebody offer William Shatner stock options not to sing? RuPaul--You work it, girlfriend!). And I am no less baffled when unfamiliar letters appear on my PC screen: ASP? ERP? POS? Mommy!!Springboard. Recently, though, it hit me: What we all need to survive the growing perils of our hyperspeedy universe are some superhero utility belts. Think about it: The explosion in handheld devices is hopelessly outpacing evolution's progress in giving us more hands. We've got cordless phones, family radio channel transmitters, beepers, PDAs, cell phones, hybrid e-mail pagers with keyboards that look like they've been designed for Barbie dolls. We've got MP3 players, digital cameras, notebook computers that weigh less than many magazines, and all manner of home-control devices. More and more people carry three or four of the above all at once. One beep goes off in a crowded room and we all dance around, patting our pockets and checking our gadgets in a frenzied, pocket bongo pantomime.
The latest villain, however, is Handspring's Visor device. This is the much-heralded handheld that's like a Palm, except that it has a "springboard" module that allows you to transform it into all kinds of things with the snippety-snap of a few plastic parts. It's less than a year old, and you can already buy a modem and digital camera for it, in addition to game and memory cartridges and various keyboard options. Now we're to expect cell phones, bar-code readers, scanners, pagers, radios--heck, maybe even fish-finders.
To me, here's the tricky part: Don't you theoretically buy these handhelds because you don't want to carry a lot? Where are you supposed to put all the accessories you're not using at any given time? It reminds me of a promotional gift that I received once that was a combination jacket and sports bag. With a few tucks, folds, and zips, you could turn the jacket inside out and it ended up inside the pocket of the sports bag. And vice versa. But you couldn't risk carrying anything substantial in the sports bag if you thought you would need the windbreaker. And if you wore the windbreaker and had some stuff to carry, well, your sports bag was already filled with you. It's still sitting in my trunk, years later, just waiting for the perfect predicament.
Clearly, Visor owners have a crisis looming. But the problem is far more pervasive. I followed a gentleman through the security scanner at the airport recently who dropped so much electronic-device ballast into the little basket that I half expected him to levitate and whack his head on the top of the metal detector. My Webvan grocery delivery guy wears a device straight out of Mission: Impossible from which he can enter bill changes and print a receipt (and probably grate a well-aged mozzarella)--but it's so heavy. One false move and his khakis are going to end up around his ankles (not that I'll be looking).
So get to it, all you garage inventors. Remember, the utility belt form has got to fit the function of the superhero trying to wear it. Just as Wonder Woman's needs differ from the Green Hornet's, so does a venture capitalist's differ from a nerdy Web surfer; an entrepreneur's from a real estate superagent. Here are some sample utility belt models I'm sure could be huge sellers:-- The Entre-Bandito Bandolero-style. Entrepreneurs, it's a war out there--for capital, talent, buzz, real estate. Stride into battle with all your tools at the ready, strapped across your chest. And not just your cell phones, pagers, and demos. This belt doubles as a harness, complete with hidden pulley and cable to lower yourself into the men's room at the Woodside (Calif.) venture capitalist's hang-out Buck's. There you'll plead with VCs for money and do a quick product demo before they can say: "Hey, a little privacy please." Also, at the shoulders, surround-sound speakers provide a voice-activated bubble of white noise to drown out the skeptical remarks of your family and friends. They dare to warn you that taking out a second mortgage on the house to finance a bark-activated interface so dogs can send e-mail to the Pets.com sock puppet is a tad chancy.-- Dooney & Burke's Supermom Club Model. In rich saddle leather and hunter green, this stylish belt takes you from boardroom to playgroup. It dispenses Kleenex for kids' runny noses--and to mop up your investing partners' tears each time Nasdaq gets Greenspanned. An extension arm swings your wireless handheld with remote video-monitoring software to eye level, so you can catch the last inning of junior's Little League debut. And there's a pocket for your faux-python-covered cell phone for which only your assistant (whom you wistfully call "mini-me") has your number.-- Sand Hill Road Warrior. Venture capitalists will love this model, which comes in rich black leather that was carved off the belly of a live, roaring bull. In the center of its buckle is a red button that summons a lackey to bring around your Ferrari, much like the whistle that the Lone Ranger used to summon Silver. It has a special ATM-like bill dispenser allowing you to make sudden, unplanned investments in entrepreneurs you meet in elevators and, yes, even in the men's room at Buck's. And it comes with a special fast-telescoping and retracting wind socket for divining which way the IPO market is blowing on any given day.-- Revenge of the Nerds. More than a utility belt, this is its own ecosystem. Its battery packs and wireless capabilities will offer "always-on" connectivity. In fact, a single metacord will pipe Internet access, chilled Jolt Cola, and pulverized Cheetos directly into the frontal lobe of a programmer who is wearing a heads-up display system. Because walking is a problem, it also includes curb feelers and a horn that sounds when you take a step backwards. Warning: It does require mildly invasive brain surgery to hook up--a small price to pay.-- The Big Dipper. Your stock's up 8, down 12, up 10, and even for the day. That's a recipe for e-sickness. This belt not only carries all your wireless stock market monitors and vibrates at all your pre-set high/low limits, it also functions as a big patch, slowly dispensing a motion-sickness drug through your skin, allowing you to keep your lunch down!
Holy opportunity, Batman! Can our clever inventors deliver their products in time? Will our Valley denizens be forced to literally and figuratively juggle their personal technology to the point of madness? Tune in again next month, same e.biz time, same e.biz channel.By Joan O'c. Hamilton, Joan_hamilton@ebiz.Businessweek.comReturn to top