Saturday, June 02, 2001

All In One

If you root around in your pocket or purse for the most useful item you carry, there might be a number of nominees. There's the paperclip you unbend to reset your Palm Pilot and open the lock on your briefcase. There's the tin that holds your headache pills, a decongestant and vitamin C tablets. And of course, there's the chain that tames your keys, holds that picture of you and Mickey in the front the Magic Castle and provides a home for your lucky troll doll. But all of those pale in comparison to the all time champ, the Swiss Army Knife.

Available in different styles, colors, sizes and makes, this marvel of engineering offers a myriad of appliances in one place. Originally developed in 1884 and delivered to... who else?... the Swiss Army in 1891, the concept has been exported to hundreds of different applications. Whether it's a raincoat that keeps you warm, an appliance that slices and dices, a sport utility vehicle or a backpack with wheels, the idea of combining different functions into one form seems to be a hit with consumers.

For many, the veritable red gadget with the white cross is surpassed in usefulness only by the Leatherman, a kind of Swiss army knife on steroids. This combination pliers, cutter, screwdriver, file, etc. graces the belts of thousands of tradesmen, geeks, film crews and paramedics. An object of passionate desire among devotees, it has come in an assortment of standard... well... assortments. Or at least until now.

A competitor to the Leatherman, Gerber Legendary Blades, has created a web site called BYO for "Build Your One. " For a bit more than the standard model, you can craft a multi-tool of your own liking, kludging together color, finish, jaw types and blade sets from over 8000 combinations. So if your life would be complete only if you carried a blunt nose stainless steel pair of pliers, coupled with an awl, a medium screwdriver, a bottle opener and a hoof pick in one convenient orange package, prepare to be fulfilled.

Following this lead, other manufacturers have pushed the envelope in their own little niches, looking at creating products with a Chinese menu mentality. The offerings include the E-Cliner, built through a partnership between La-Z-Boy and Web TV. This $1299 leather chair with built-in wireless keyboard also includes an outlet for your laptop, a surge protector and high-speed data access. While the left arm has a foldout table for the keyboard and computer connections, the recliner doesn't ignore its roots. The right arm opens to reveal a beverage holder plus room for a book and a TV remote, making even the Archie Bunkers in the crowd feel right at home.

Or if walking and talking is more important to you than sitting and surfing, you should check out the ICD+ collection from Levi's. This line of outerwear features a coat with an integrated Phillips mobile phone and MP3 player. For $1000 you get speakers in the hood, a microphone on the collar and a remote on the cuff.

Should this trend continue, we'll soon see anything married together virtually anything with anything else. A coffeemaker with a pencil sharpener built in? A pocketbook that can chill your can of Mountain Dew? A shoe that holds your cell phone? True, Maxwell Smart did it in the sixties, but that was in a black wingtip. Here, we're talking Jungle Mocs with a difference.

Paradoxically, this melding of multiple functions into one package runs 180 degrees counter to another popular movement. Whether it's briefcases, backpacks, car interiors or jackets, there is a trend to include more pockets wherever possible. Whether it's beverage holders in your Caravan or a cell phone sleeve on the strap of your shoulder bag, the idea is to provide a dedicated place to put your stuff. Some briefcases sell themselves this way, pointing out that they include "25 pockets to hold everything from eyeglasses to digital organizers to keys."

Yet, if we're combining functions into more compact forms, why do we need more places to put things? Shouldn't we need less? If you follow the evolution to its logical conclusion, at some future moment we'll all carrying one small combination phone-wallet-organizer-garage door opener with attached sunglasses case... while we have a backpack with 137 separate molded pockets, one each for our phone, wallet, garage door opener and sunglasses.

But back to our pocketknife cum bottleopener cum electric shaver. Unfortunately, there is a tradeoff in all of these combinations. The all-weather coat doesn't really keep you as dry or warm as separate garments, and you can't get an SUV with the room and durability of a truck that rides like a car. You have to be willing to give to get, to sacrifice performance for convenience.

I experienced this firsthand when I found a squeaking door in our house after some painting. All it needed was a little shaving of the inside edge to quiet it down. Rather than get a hammer and chisel, I whipped out my little keychain scissors/knife/nail file/snow shovel to do the job. I opened it, flipped out the blade, reassembled it to working status and quickly pared a bit of wood from the offending spot. I checked to find the problem better, but not solved. So I attacked the problem again... not realizing that I had idly inverted the gadget in my hand. That meant that the blade was pointing into my finger rather than the door. A quick swipe brought not a slice of wood, but of flesh. Operator error, to be sure... but had I had the right tools, I wouldn't have been cleaning blood spots off the carpet.

Of course, at least 50% of those who carry these babies never do anything more than slice an apple with it. But like a big Mercedes engine or a hundred dollar bill behind your driver's license or a bail bondsman, it's comforting to know you have the capability. Just be careful when you flip it open... you don't want to wind up picking your teeth with a serrated saw.


Marc Wollin of Bedford always has his Swiss Army penknife in his pocket. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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