Cisco's release Tuesday of the Flipshare TV brought to mind other overpriced single-purpose devices that have cluttered my computer desk and stereo rack over the years. Like the over-specific kitchen appliances you use once or only once in a while and don't really need in your life (yogurt makers, margarita mixers, hot-dog toasters), there are plenty of technological products that are better at taking up your space and money than providing ongoing value.
Here are my top categories of tech yogurt makers:
TV media viewers
Worst example: The Microsoft TV Photo Viewer. Released in 2001, this was a floppy disk drive with a TV output. It was for viewing digital photos on a TV. Of course, if you had a digital camera and a computer, you already had a good way to view photos, and at a better resolution than the TVs of the day. But with the TV Photo Viewer, you could set your parents up with a viewing station for your digital photos.
Great--but then you had to teach them how to use it, make sure it stayed connected to their TV, and worse, crunch your photos down to fit on a floppy and get said floppy to them so they could see the pictures. I tried to set one of these up for my mother. She rolled her eyes and said, "Just mail me the snapshots, dear."
Also in this category, the aforementioned Flipshare TV, a $149 device whose main function can be duplicated by a $0.31 HDMI cable. For that matter, the Flip camera itself is a bit of a one-trick pony. Sure, it's easy to use, but a standard digital camera will also take videos. I have a Flip camera myself and I do love it--in theory. But when I leave the house, I don't want to take a video camera that duplicates only one thing that my point-and-shoot digicam does (and without a zoom lens, no less), so the Flip stays home almost all the time.
Related: The Sandisk Take TV, which was a bunch of wires and parts that let you watch videos stored on SD cards on your TV. It was a great product for all those illegal vids you got from BitTorrent. It, like the the TV Photo Viewer, is no longer sold.
Other gizmos for your parents
There are more products that seem to exist to tell your parents that they're technological klutzes. The Presto printer, from 2006, comes to mind: It's an HP-sourced photo printer that prints only what you, the loving child, sends to it over the Internet. It can't print from a local computer, and there's a monthly service fee to be able to send to it. Eventually you will grow tired of the one-way sending of photos and articles to the printer, and replace it with a real computer so your loved ones can communicate back to you. Hopefully you'll still have money left for the computer after paying the monthly fee to use the Presto.
My co-worker Molly Wood thinks digital photo frames fall into this category, since nobody ever bothers to update them after they're first loaded with images. But I happen to like these devices, and even if they are never updated, they're unobtrusive and have great gift appeal.
Scanners and converters
A device that converts old analog media to new, archivable digital files is a useful thing, but the majority of dedicated consumer scanners and converters (USB turntables, digital slide scanners, business card scanners) are used once for a single project, and then hang around gathering dust.
The consumer-grade scanners and converters, in particular, can be a real drag. Scanning photos and negatives is extremely time-consuming for a shoebox archive of realistic size. When my in-laws asked me for advice on getting a new, low-cost scanner, I advised them to try either buying a good one used and then reselling it quickly, going in with other friends or family all at once, or, better yet, using a scanning service instead. It's not cheap, but time is money. Even if you're retired.
USB desk toys
I actually asked for a computer-controlled USB foam missile launcher for my birthday once. It was fun for about 10 minutes. That was three years ago. It's still in my office, gathering dust, shooting no missiles. These little toys make fun gifts, but who wants to take up a valuable USB port and load up poorly-written software just to poke out the eyes of nice people who come to visit? I was misguided. This is a dumb idea.
Rewinders and cleaners
Once the VHS era started to wane, the hopes and dreams of companies making tape rewinders faded too. DVDs and CDs, sadly, need no rewinding. Then the companies realized that they could take their one-trick-pony appliance chops and make disc cleaners. These gizmos do the same thing as a soft cloth dampened with water and a few drops of soap--but unlike the homebrew solution, they can't also wash your eyeglasses. You don't need one.
One-trick wireless gizmos
TwitterPeek. Need we say more? In a world of marvelously competent multifunction mobile devices that make calls, browse the Web, play games and music, and run apps, you can now also spend money for a device that only does one thing--poorly. Just don't.
Some wiseacres here at CNET suggested I add mobile phones that only make phone calls into this list. I'm on the fence on that. Despite what I said about the Presto printer, there's a mobile phone designed for simplicity, the Jitterbug, that I can see making sense for some people.
To conclude: I'm in favor of simplicity and focus--in gadgets and in software. But even simple, focused devices can add complexity to our lives if we load up on too many of them.