Strange New World: Tech Picks of the Week

Newsflash from the strange new world of electronics: Blistering-high gas prices are now officially a bigger story than the iPhone. Or to put it another way, Steve Jobs finally has met his PR match -- the fact that nobody can afford to fill their gas tanks has distracted the average user from the much-buzzed-about iPhone 3G -- which made its debut this week.

Remarkably, of far more import to the techno world is that the non-fossil fuel sources of energy are finally losing their touchy-feely edge. The G8 nations are meeting in Japan this week, and the big topic seems to be thrifty eco gadgets.

Considering this confounding turn in techno events, what better time to go old school and check with the granddaddy of all gadget vendors, Hammacher Schlemmer. If these strange days don't call for an underwater pogo stick, what does?

Here are our picks of the week:

Son of iPhone Born -- World Yawns

We know in our hearts that Apple develops products only to make our weekly list. But the fact is, any time Mr. Jobs & Co. releases a new gadget, it is the de facto story of the week. And this week is no exception. Although it's not quite the mega event it was hyped to be, the new iPhone 3G made its way to market, and amazingly, the digital world was sort of, well, bored.

The unit has some new features: It comes done in a nifty flat back, has a GPS built-in, and it is ostensibly cheaper to buy. Lower-power versions start at just $199. And the new iPhone is finally connected to AT&T's real live broadband network, so it's faster than the original iPhone. But the unit is more expensive than the original to actually use: Data plans can be viciously pricey. The AT&T NationSM Unlimited plan, for example, which includes unlimited e-mail and Web hosting, runs $130 a month -- or almost $1,400 a year. Ouch!

Also, there is a general sense that the upgrade did not address the real issues with the iPhone: its utter hugeness, the hard-to-get-used-to touch keyboard, and the limited battery life.

So, yes, the 3G made a splash, but not that big of a one. And it is fair now to wonder what Apple has next up its sleeve.

The Gee Whiz 8

It looks like the mainstreaming of non-fossil fuels is moving from social hot button to full-up techno business opportunity. The G8 Hokkaido Toyako Summit is going on in Japan, where members of the so-called Group of 8 industrialized nations — Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the U.K., the U.S. and Russia — get together to yack it up over econo-policy. And we could not help but notice that most of the G8 members now have a decidedly post-industrial flair. Sure, these countries make stuff, but nothing like China or, even, Taiwan. We also were struck by the eco vibe going on here. The theme is consume less, not make more.

Major gadget vendors are showing off their non-fossil-fuel-friendly techno-stuff. Subaru is showing its new STELLA electric car, which promises to bring battery-powered autos to even more mainstream users. There are eco textiles on display that produce fabrics without the nasty dyes or heavy water consumption. And Sharp will show, get this, a 26-inch TV, powered, in part, by a solar panel. Not bad. And not a moment too soon.

Laying Down the Techno Hammacher

When it comes to the Gadget-O-Sphere, we all stand on the shoulders of one particular brand: Hammacher Schlemmer. In business since 1848, this New York-based specialty store supplies such must-have items as the $500 iPod Gramophone and the $60 underwater pogo stick. But, during the turn-of-the-century gadget wave, remarkably, Hammacher Schlemmer got overlooked. Sharper Image came along, as well as many big box electronics stores.

But now, Sharper Image is in bankruptcy and the local big box retailer is having a hard time keeping its doors open. Not so for the Hammacher man. The gadget store continues to chug along. So, we felt it was time to see what keeps them techno hip. The secret? A sense of fun and utility for the end user.

How else do you justify a $99 motorized bumper boat? Or a $99 slide and negative-to-digital picture converter, or a $150 photograph-to-digital picture converter? See them all listed here.

Now sure, these gadgets are all wacky, sort of. But the lesson is clear: Be useful. Be relevant. Be affordable. Imagine what the iPhone 3G would have been if it obeyed these three simple laws.

Jonathan Blum and Dan Evans co-host "Strange New World," a weekly syndicated radio show. Blum hosts the blog and Evans is a features editor at PC Magazine.