Jeff Bier’s Impulse Response—Talkin' Trash

Submitted by Jeff Bier on Mon, 10/15/2001 - 16:00

It used to be that DSP was a niche technology because only cost-insensitive applications could afford the hardware required for serious real-time signal processing. Over time, however, the prices of DSP-capable processors and ASICs have dropped to the point that DSP is now used in many consumer products, cell phones most prominent among these. But have we begun to get carried away?

Two companies, Hop-On Wireless and Dieceland Technologies, plan to release disposable cell phones next month. These small, cheap devices are made by incorporating cell phone circuitry onto a paper substrate. They will come with prepaid calling time for outgoing calls only; when the minutes are up, these phones are ready for the garbage.

Despite popular monikers describing these products—"talk-and-trash," "chat-and-chuck"—manufacturers are touting their recyclability. These sentiments ring hollow, however, when the products' key feature is disposability.

While it is gratifying to see that DSP chips are inexpensive enough to be used in disposable products, it is nonetheless disturbing to see that they actually are being used in disposable products. Do we really want millions of batteries and cell phone ASICs clogging our landfills?

Environmental considerations aside, disposable cell phones seem like a solution looking for a problem. Perhaps the most compelling application I've heard of for these phones is promotional giveaways. But even this is silly—flimsy, disposable products hardly convey the image that most companies would like to project. And a giveaway that is tossed in the trash a few hours after it is received won't exactly serve as a lasting reminder of the company whose logo it bears. I'll take a good t-shirt any day—I can always use it to dust my shelves, and I won't have to worry about it dissolving if I get caught in the rain.

Disposable cell phones won't be as cheap as we might expect; they'll cost up to $30 with an hour of airtime. Despite this, though, reports are that manufacturers have orders for a hundred million disposable phones. This is technology run amok. Just because something is possible doesn't make it a good idea. Instead of using our best technology to find ways of consuming resources ever more quickly, perhaps we should use it to help us tread less heavily on the planet.

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