Sunday, 29 June 2014

Awful Tech: 11 great ideas that just don't work

Gary Marshall: Terrible tech: 11 great ideas that just don't work

Terrible tech

We love tech, but we don't love it unconditionally - and it doesn't always love us back, either. Tech can fight us rather than delight us, confuse rather than amuse, be destructive when we need it to be productive. Sometimes that's because of bad design, sometimes because of bad users, and sometimes because it was just a really bad idea in the first place. These are a few of our least favourite things. What are yours?

1. Kinect


Microsoft's Kinect sensor is the stuff of sci-fi, but unfortunately we mean sci-fi of the dystopian, nothing-bloody-works variety. It ignores our kids, it gets confused by dogs, it struggles in small rooms and it's a pretty awful way to control your Sky HD box.
How to fix it: Give it Cortana.

2. Captchas

Captchas are the little boxes with barely legible text that are designed to frustrate spambots and ticket scalping bots, but as each new generation gets cracked they become harder and harder for humans to decipher. Ticketmaster's current captchas are essentially Rorschach blots.
How to fix it: sites could use puzzles, simple arithmetic, SMS verification… there's no shortage of alternatives.

3. Glossy screens


We're writing this on a typically dull British day, and we're doing it with the blinds down and a blanket running from the top of our head to the top of our PC. The glossy screens that looked so bright and deep and gorgeous in the shop reflect so much light that if we try to log on at lunchtime, we're blinded until mid-afternoon. Moving around to find a dark corner is all well and good, but that's not much fun with a 27" iMac or on a busy train.
How to fix it: Invest in a matte monitor or, if cash is tight, a matte screen protector.

4. Smartphones

Smartphones seem to be good at everything but the phone bit: we've lost count of the number of times even short calls have become extended games of telephone tennis as calls drop or go silent for no good reason after just a few words. The main culprit is usually mobile phone coverage.
How to fix it: change provider, use voice over Wi-Fi apps or get hold of a Sure Signal, which connects to your router and delivers strong indoor 3G.

5. Windows RT

Windows RT

For consumers Windows RT was a confusing mess, a Windows that didn't run Windows programs and whose predicted armies of low-cost tablets didn't appear. Of the few manufacturers that could be bothered launching RT devices, most of them had bailed out by last summer. The RT-packing Surface 2 is better than its predecessor, but that's better in the sense that death by shooting is better than death by boiling.
How to fix it: buy something running Windows 8.1. Or buy an iPad. Ha!

More terrible tech

6. Freemium apps

Apple's refusal to allow demo versions of apps and people's unwillingness to pay for content have created predictably horrible consequences as developers try to make money from their apps. Most developers are perfectly honourable, but gamers and parents are all too familiar with the minority who aren't: producers of games that are effectively unplayable without in-app purchases and kids' apps that exist solely to try and make kids spend their parents' cash.
How to fix it: get help to find the good stuff and be willing to pay for your entertainment.

7. Jetpacks

Martin Jetpack

You'd think nearly 100 years after jetpacks appeared in SF stories we might all be tooling around in them today, but the problem with jetpacks is that we humans aren't exactly designed to fly. Getting us airborne requires powerful propulsion, and powerful propulsion is big, heavy and uses enormous amounts of highly flammable fuel. It'll get you up there, but it won't keep you up for long - and if it goes wrong, the consequences are of the crashy-explodey-death variety.
How to fix it: Turbine jetpacks such as the Martin jetpack are better, but that's relative: they're still jet engines strapped to people.

8. Voice recognition

Spike Jonze HER

If the Spike Jonze movie Her featured a real personal digital assistant such as Siri, it'd be an hour and a half of an increasingly angry man bellowing the same thing at a smartphone before smashing it to smithereens in a fit of fury. Voice recognition is much better than it used to be, but it's still a long way from being perfect - and that makes it all the more frustrating when its accuracy takes a sudden dip.
How to fix it: More money, better algorithms and more talent.

9. Electric cars outside London

Tesla Model S

Outside cities, electric cars currently face a chicken-and-egg problem: until there are sufficient EVs on the road there's little reason to install lots of charging points, but until there are lots of charging points there's little reason to shell out on an electric car. Things are improving, but as the Zap Map shows, charging points are still fairly rare outside the biggest cities and fast chargers are rarer still.
How to fix it: move to London, buy an EV with a range extender or wait until the infrastructure improves.

10. UltraViolet

If a camel is a horse designed by a committee, UltraViolet is a digital service designed by a camel - or at least it is if you want to use it on Apple kit. It doesn't play nice with iTunes (you need to use Flixster or the Sony store, and the latter doesn't support iOS), HD discs sometimes give you SD downloads, you can't download HD content to iOS devices for offline viewing and some UltraViolet movies suffer delays before arriving in the Flixster app. Other than that it's just dandy.
How to fix it: use a PC, or just buy your movies elsewhere

11. Flying cars

Flying cars

Here's another SF favourite, and it's another one hamstrung by the laws of physics. Making vehicles that fly is a lot tougher and considerably more expensive than making ones that roll. Even if we get the tech right, there's a more fundamental issue, which is that unless they're fully automatic flying cars would cause carnage. More than 32,000 people die in car accidents every year in the US alone, and that's on regulated roads where people can only move in two dimensions. Look at your fellow motorists the next time you're driving. Now imagine them all airborne.
How to fix it: if they ever happen, we humans won't be allowed to drive them.

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