Strange New World: Picks of the Week

You know this Strange New World of ours is getting truly strange when the consumer technology industry no longer leads the pace of development in its own field.

After a rather bland International Consumer Electronics Show and MacWorld earlier this year, Toy Fair 2008, the giant show for toy buyers held last weekend in New York, made some actual tech innovation news: Robotics is now a viable market sector.

Suddenly everything from Tickle Me Elmo to Erector Sets is moving, walking and generally acting like it's starring in a bad '80s out-of-control sci-fi flick starring Matthew Broderick. Throw in Google's big moves in the mobile world — its mobile search engine and new operating system are pushing the boundaries of what is possible on a phone — and suddenly what seemed like an off year in tech is getting interesting.

Here are our picks for the top tech stories of the week.

Is Toy Fair the New CES?

This year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was pretty dull. No single technology really brought the "wow factor" of years past. The Toy Fair in New York is suffering no such doldrums. This year's crop of toys are full of the innovation lacking elsewhere. Sure, today's toys are not iPods, but it is hard not to be impressed with how high tech they are becoming.

We were especially impressed by the latest iteration of the Tickle Me Elmo franchise. Fisher-Price has really outdone itself with latest version of this Sesame Street Frankenstein. He walks, talks, tells jokes, sings, dances and can sense and interact with his environment. The fuzzy robot may be more intelligent than the 3-year-old you are buying him for! They should go on sale Oct. 14 for $59.99 and there will be a pre-sale as well. This red monster will be the big holiday toy, so get to the pre-sale and avoid a hellish holiday morning when you don't have one.

Google on the Go?

Google is now very popular with the iPhone. We know everybody says they use their iPhone Internet capabilities to look up nice restaurants or find a museum. But we have a different theory. The iPhone has become the de facto way to settle a bet or call someone's bluff instantly.

Evidence to that effect came to light recently when Google announced that it has seen 50 times more search traffic on the iPhone than with any other handset. This is complete "If you build it, they will come" engineering. The 'net has been available on the ubiquitous BlackBerry for years, but nobody was using it because it was too odd to navigate. Then the iPhone shows up and it's game on.

We personally think the iPhone is destroying bar conversation — no longer can you boast or add color to a story without somebody clutching a sleek little iPhone and calling you on it.

In all seriousness, the iPhone's interface succeeds because it presents the user with the same Web page you get on a desktop and that is much easier for people to deal with.

Google Preps to Make Big Splash in Cell Phone Market

Our friends in Mountain View changed the online search game forever, now can their Android operating system do the same thing for mobile phone operating systems?

The open source OS had a coming out party of sorts in Barcelona at the Mobile World Congress and four mobile processor vendors (Motorola, Texas Instruments, Qualcomm and Marvell) showed off very early versions of their Android devices. They didn't look half bad.

Sure, this was a very early peek, but the new OS ran smoothly and quickly on all of the demo units, even on phones with processors that are known to be quite slow. Apps like Google Maps, Gmail, calendar, a video player and a music player were shown in touch-screen and non-touchscreen versions.

The interesting part of all this is the open source nature of the software. The manufacturers are getting it for free and their development is being helped along by open source developers, also for free. Will they pass the savings along to the consumer? Nobody knows, but look for new Android-powered phones by the end of the year.

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.