The 10 best 'broken' technologies
- 03 April, 2008 17:50
Sometimes a technology idea is too good to be true. A flexible keyboard, Internet voting and watching feature films on your smartphone are examples. Today, these concepts are still evolving, but they're broken right now. We'll tell you why and what could be done to fix them once and for all.
1. Ultracompact PCs
Call them whatever you want: ultramobile PCs (UMPCs), mobile information devices (MIDs) or sub-notebooks. We call them small PCs, and they are almost indistinguishable from a good smartphone.
For example, the Blackberry 8820, with its built-in GPS capability and excellent e-mail client, is a better device than the Samsung Q1 Ultra, described by the company as an 'ultramobile personal computer'. The only real difference is that you squint less with the Q1. But most people don't use a Q1 for gaming or writing long business documents. The Apple iPhone is a smarter, sexier, more usable computer than just about any MID, such as the new Toshiba prototype. Meanwhile, there's more power in the OQO, than a regular UMPC, but the screen is just as tiny.
We figure that in less than three years, Apple will release a successor to the iPhone that works more like a Mac and will become the first company to make a true pocket computer, one that runs any Mac OS X application natively, with a mini-DVI port.
2. Satellite Internet
The fair-use policies for satellite Internet services are killers. If you download too many BitTorrent files or game demos, your speed gets throttled back to something more like dial-up, and you have to slowly work your way back up to normal.
In response to this, Peter Gulla vice president of marketing for the North American division at satellite Internet provider Hughes Network Systems LLC, said that most Internet service providers manage broadband use. If they didn't, more resources would be required, and the service would cost more, he said. "Hughes offers a variety of HughesNet service plans to address the differing needs of our subscribers," Gulla said.
"In order to arrive at our Fair Access Policy, Hughes conducted an analysis of HughesNet customer usage and then established a download threshold for each plan that was well above average usage rates."
Another issue is that the stationary modem that you need for satellite Internet is a bulky device and uses coaxial cable that most people need a technician to install.
Yet we like the satellite concept because it could make the Internet much more ubiquitous. Today, the antenna is bigger than a wheel rim, but there's no reason it couldn't be reduced to a size that works with your laptop. Satellite Internet has slowly increased in speed, starting out at only 512Kb per second and currently at about 1.5Mb per second. If the technology improves and the company fixes all the other problems, it could be a solid option.
3. Contact managers
We'd like to retrieve the lost hours spent building up a contacts database. Not long ago, we stopped meticulously entering names, addresses, phone numbers and e-mails and now rely on other methods.
For example, we search Gmail.com for names and addresses. When we want to send a new e-mail, we just type a portion of a name to get the full address, type the message, and send. For names not in the Gmail archive, we use an online address book such as Linkedin.
However, a good contact manager could work like the iPhone: it would see phone number in an e-mail and allow one to right-click and add the name and phone number to a database automatically within Gmail. The database would be smart enough to know if a phone number already matches an existing name, and it would weed out duplicates automatically. We'd never have to type in contacts, because this 'auto-database' would work as easily as a mobile phone, support any e-mail client and work in the background. Some contact managers come close, such as Now Up-to-Date & Contact, but it still involves a manual process.
4. Digital streaming adapters
They have names like Apple TV, NetGear Digital Entertainer and Archos TV++ but they all do the same thing: move music, video and photos from your PC in the office to the HDTV in your lounge.
They are supposed to solve a persistent dilemma: a PC just doesn't work with a television. A keyboard and mouse are meant for a desk, not a sofa. These adaptors add another appliance to an overcrowded entertainment centre bulging with PVRs and game consoles.
The fix? Put them right into the television itself. HP started this with the MediaSmart TV, but we'd like to see it as a standard feature that is more open, not just based on Windows Media Extender, but supporting any media format over Wi-Fi.
5. Video on a phone
A phone screen is too small for video, and even the iPod Touch can cause eye strain when you watch a two-hour feature film. We're convinced that anything you only do once or twice in dealing with new technology and find it hard to do, like load a smartphone with video clips or swap contacts with your laptop over Bluetooth, is just a novelty and often not worth the effort. We'll likely never do it again; it's not worth the time.
Even the iPhone is a poor movie viewer unless you are desperate for a Jason Bourne flick on the bus. But solid-state memory is finally getting cheaper, and it makes sense to load up a mobile device with movies.
What we'd like to see is Bluetooth built into HDTVs so that we can beam a high-resolution movie from a phone or projector in the phone or a mini-DVI port.
6. Web 2.0
For the past two years, the promise of the Semantic Web — a concept where the web is smarter and lets you tag information for better searchability — has reached a crescendo that is finally coming down to earth.
7. Electronic books
A promising technology, or a snake-oil sales pitch? E-books like the Amazon Kindle and Sony eReader could eventually reduce our reliance on paper books. We must admit the crisp 120DPI screens look remarkably like printed material.
In some ways, the Web is a gigantic e-book with an endless amount of information. Even if some of it is unreliable (see Wikipedia.org). Yet, nothing beats a printed book: you can find your place instantly with a dog-ear, it's practically disposable, you can loan it to anyone, and it causes very little eye strain.
Yes, you can load one of 90,000 books on the Kindle and check your email in between chapters of the latest Stephen King novel. But before an e-book reader becomes a major hit with consumers, it must cost about the same as a real book.
8. Internet voting
We like the idea of Internet voting because the easier you make the process, the more people who will vote. Right now, the concept is in a preliminary stage because fingerprint readers or some other form of biometrics hasn't become ubiquitous or foolproof.
We have noticed that just about every enterprise laptop has a fingerprint reader. In the same way that Hollywood studios don't trust the Internet for delivering movies unless they are crippled with digital rights management, voting also needs some extra precautions to ward off fraud.
The idea will finally work once all displays are multitouch (which might be sooner than we think), facial recognition is common and secure, and there is some way of encrypting the connection to assuage any doubts.
9. Video blogs
Often, with WebbAlert, we scan through the links, it usually has a really good summary of the previous day and posts in the RSS reader before just about anyone else, instead of watching the video blog. The web is made for instant information (see Facebook, Wikipedia, etc.), and we have a hard time discerning how a video blog is really that different from a 2-minute update on the news.
Yes, there's the idea that a video blog has a 'long tail' — or many continuing views of a video after its initial post — suited for any taste, but the farther you go out on the tail, the lower its quality seems to be.
Where is this all going? We'd like to see satellite television providers offer more-flexible plans.
10. Flexible keyboards
Flexible, foldable keyboards like the Brando or the Eleksen ElekTex sound like a good replacement for a standard keyboard and could help mobile users type faster when travelling with smartphones.
In practice, it's almost impossible to type fast on these roll-away models. Is there a way to improve on a standard keyboard? Microsoft and Logitech keep trying, adding extra buttons and features.
We doubt we'll be typing on multitouch screens any faster, judging by our speed on the iPhone. Speech recognition, even if it understood every word perfectly, still makes it hard to edit your mistakes. The Laser Keyboard is hinting at a true evolution: eventually, all keyboards will become more tactile, with more responsive keys, a more ergonomic feel. And someone may even figure out how to make them fold up.