The Next [small] Thing

Downsize me: From cars to gadgets, the trend is toward the tiny.

October 19, 2005|By STEPHEN KIEHL | STEPHEN KIEHL,SUN REPORTER

That hissing sound you hear is America letting the air out.

We were big in the '90s. Houses become McMansions. SUVs became tanks. McDonald's super-sized its fries, drinks and burgers (and, by extension, quite a few Americans). And, in 1997, Starbucks knocked the "short" size off its menu to make room for the venti - 20 ounces of high-octane go juice.

All things small seemed destined for the dust bin of history, to take their place alongside the Ford Edsel and New Coke. (Is there a warehouse somewhere in Ohio containing all the small drinking cups discarded by fast-food joints? Are the old Betamax players there, too?)

But small is big again. Apple replaced the already small iPod Mini music player with the even tinier iPod Nano. Cell-phone makers are racing to create the smallest, thinnest model. BlackBerry e-mail devices sport ever tinier keyboards. And it's not just gadgets that are shrinking.

Hummer, maker of the enormous H2 SUV that gets 10 miles to the gallon, this year introduced the smaller H3, which gets 20 miles to the gallon. The Mini Cooper automobile has achieved almost cultlike status.

And, in scientific circles, the burgeoning field of nanotechnology is all the rage, attracting billions of federal research dollars.

The micro-revolution, which brought us the cell phone and the Walkman, is giving way to the nano-revolution. While the most visible signs of this are the petite music players and wireless devices available to consumers, there are more significant implications down the road, particularly in the area of health care.

Nanotechnology will mean advances in treatment for cancer, Alzheimer's and HIV, as well as better sunblock.

Consumers can also look forward to clothes that are highly stain-resistant, stronger tennis rackets, and lipsticks and eye shadow with more luster and vibrant colors.

"It's going to dramatically change everything," said Chad Mirkin, director of the Institute for Nanotechnology at Northwestern University. "[It'll] open the ability to do things we can't do [now], to create medicines that target a tumor and work much more effectively because of their size and our ability to direct them."

"Nano," which comes from the Greek word for dwarf, has been adopted to describe the field of science in which the smallest of materials are manipulated - nanotechnology. This is very small stuff: A single human hair is equal to the width of about 10,000 nanometers.

The scientists who work in this field are pleased to see it gaining mass awareness. But they're also a little protective of their turf.

"There's nothing nano about the iPod," said Mirkin, who nonetheless admits that there are three in his family, owned by his wife and children. He said Apple is "confusing the term nano with just small."

But the use of the term is an acknowledgement that smaller is better, and because the nano is as small as you can get, it must be the best. The iPod Nano weighs 1.5 ounces and is a quarter of an inch thick - roughly equal to two stacked quarters.

Apple has not released sales figures for the iPod Nano, released on Sept. 7, but anecdotal reports from Apple Stores are that certain Nano models - such as the one in the black case - sell out the day they come in.

"When they released the Nano, they talked about how incredibly small it was and re-emphasized the feat of engineering that made everything so tiny," said Lucian James, president of Agenda Inc., a San Francisco-based research and strategy firm. "Things are rapidly moving toward credit-card size."

Consumers appear eager to follow the downward trend. At the Apple Store in Towson last week, Tripp Willingham, 39, of Parkville, was checking out the iPod Nano display. His wife already had a pink iPod Mini and he had just ordered an iPod Shuffle. But he was still intrigued by the Nano, and welcomed an even smaller version.

"Wouldn't it be something if you could get a wristband size?" he said. He had only one quibble with the Nano: "My only concern is durability. Is the thing going to break?"

Some problems do arise as gadgets shrink but their users don't: The keyboards on BlackBerry portable e-mail devices are barely bigger than pinpricks - a challenge for fat American fingers. And stories abound of tiny electronic devices slipping into coffee cups and toilets.

Nano-chic already is raising more serious concerns among some scientists and ethicists. A report last year by the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering, independent scientific academies in Britain, raised the issue of a "nanodivide" between wealthy nations that can afford the technology and poor nations that cannot.

"It is equally legitimate to ask who will benefit and, more crucially, who might lose out," the report said. "The high entry price for new procedures and skills (for example, in the medical domain) is very likely to exacerbate existing divisions between rich and poor."

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