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Ken Pugh is the future.

Mr. Pugh is drinking coffee in a Starbucks in San Jose, CA. He has many gizmos hanging from his belt. A cell phone, complete with stars-and-stripes face plate. A headset for his phone. A pager. A separate wireless device with a tiny screen and thumb-sized keyboard for tapping out e-mail messages. A digital organizer. “You could call me a gearhead,” he says, with pride. “My only complaint is that I have to carry so many things.” His phone beeps. He answers it, with a bit of a flourish, as if to demonstrate his gearheadedness.

It’s a generally accepted belief-in the computer industry, at least-that it’s only a matter of time before everyone will want to be just as connected as Mr. Pugh, whom I meet while pondering our digital future over a grande mocha. In Japan gearheads are typically teenagers, known as the oyayubizoku-literally, “clan of the thumbs”-for their enthusiasm for tapping out messages to one another with their thumbs on their cell phones. Here in Silicon Valley it’s usually the business travelers, like Mr. Pugh, who are the ascendant gearheads. Electronics giants and startup ventures alike are trying to get those of us not in either category just as hooked on handheld digital devices.

But what gizmos will we really carry? Unlike the personal computer, which has had its basic design more or less set in stone for the last 20 years, gizmos are a wide-open field, where it’s not at all clear which digital things, if any, people will want to bring along in their pockets and purses. The cell phone has made strong inroads, of course-52 percent of households in the 25 largest urban markets surveyed in the United States now have at least one, according to a September 2001 J. D. Power and Associates study, and in some European countries such as Iceland and Finland the figure exceeds 75 percent. Other digital devices have made progress as well: worldwide sales of digital organizers reached an estimated 12 million units last year.

Consumers bought an estimated 6.4 million digital cameras in 2001, and they’re expected to scoop up at least three million MP3 players this year. All of these are, or promise to be, multibillion-dollar businesses. Encouraged by such statistics, some companies are offering next-generation devices that give consumers either new ways to do old things or new functions we didn’t know we needed. At last November’s Comdex, the world’s biggest trade show for consumer electronics, Bill Gates spent much of his keynote speech predicting the coming popularity of tablet-style wireless computers, which will supposedly replace today’s keyboards with pen-based computing. National Semiconductor was pushing for its all-in-one Geode Origami Mobile Communicator, a prototype that folds up into different shapes depending on its use, transforming itself into a digital camera, a digital video recorder, a videoconferencing terminal, an Internet access device, an Internet picture frame, an MP3 player and a few other things to boot. A company called Senseboard Technologies showed off its virtual keyboard, which lets you type in the air by measuring the movements of your fingers and converting them to readable e-mail messages. Then there was the Chat Pen from Ericsson, which records your handwriting on digital paper, transmits this digitized scrawl to your cell phone, and sends it along to any e-mail address. There are countless others, in prototype and production.

Most of these concepts, of course, will tank. Not because they don’t offer enough processing power or storage capacity. Not because they don’t offer compatibility with the latest wireless protocol. Not because they don’t do what they’re supposed to do, although that can be an issue. Unh-uh. The ultimate success or failure of any given gizmo will depend on a million or so people picking it up and deciding whether it feels good or not.

“Most good products are designed around the person, not the technology,” says Donald A. Norman, principal at Fremont, CA-based Nielsen Norman Group and author of The Invisible Computer, a manifesto for replacing “technology-centered” products with “human-centered” ones. “It’s not a case of people saying, Gee, look at this neat technology.’ It’s a case of people saying, Gee, look at what this thing can do for me.’”

And therein lies the problem. For many years the art of human-factors engineering has been neglected by the computer industry. But as computing power seeps from the desktop further into our daily lives, it’s becoming all the more important to make products that are both easy to use and improvements on what we’re using today. A human-factors approach assumes that the things we’ll carry in the future are not going to be invented so much as discovered-that the answer to the question of what devices we’ll carry will become obvious as we learn more about human behavior.

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