iPad

Digital epiphany: We're spoiled with consumer technology

According to TechRepublic member dcolbert, we're hard on our technology, our expectations are unreasonably high, and we take for granted the amazing things that modern technology delivers. Do you agree?

Sometimes, when I’m busy whining and moaning about all of the ways that modern gadgets disappoint me, I lose site of a larger truth – we live in an incredible time for technology. I think even Arthur C. Clark would admit that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish technology from pure, unadulterated magic.

Oddly enough, I've dealt out quite a bit of grief towards Apple for their iPad tag-line, "magical and revolutionary." I've sat on my high horse, scoffing at Apple and the Steve Jobs’ cult that blindly follows him like turtle-neck frocked, mocha sipping, so-hip-it-hurts sheep. But perhaps I need to step back, take a deep breath, and find a moment of inner clarity on this issue.

The thing that rubs me the wrong way about the iPad tag-line isn't that it’s untrue – but in a world of magical, miraculous, Star Trek tech gadgets, being "magical and revolutionary" often turns out to be pretty mundane and ordinary.

This moment of truth came to me while I was reading an online blog about the Microsoft Courier prototype – another "magical and revolutionary" gadget, especially for wedding planners, designers, and all kinds of other graphic-art professionals who would welcome the opportunity to dump scrap-books and binders full of clippings, notes on the back of napkins, and other bits and pieces of paper for a single, electronic, digital organizer that does all of these things. (See Engadget's Courier pics and details.)

A very hip, very coffee-shop sounding audio track was playing in the background of a video clip about the Courier, and it sounded perfect for a sunny Sunday drive through hilly green countryside with puffy white clouds on the horizon. I thought, "I should figure out what this song is, because my wife will love it." So, I did what any reasonable person would do when watching a Microsoft concept video with a neat soundtrack.

I grabbed my Droid phone and opened the Shazam application. Shazam is an interesting little Android app that will listen to a song and tell you what it is, as well as provide links to it on YouTube and the Amazon MP3 store. The best part is that it works really well. There have been quite a few times when I've actually had a real need to use this application, and in each case, it has met my needs – in a way that is mind-blowing if you think about how magical and revolutionary it actually is.

In short order, my Droid phone listened to the music on the Courier concept video (via Shazam), figured out the song, and provided the name, artist, and links. For all intents and purposes, I have a magic box that performs miracles. If I could travel back in time a mere decade, people would be convinced my Droid was reverse engineered Alien technology from Area 51.

So, when Apple tries to pass off their device as uniquely "magical and revolutionary," keep in mind that we're in a world where there are levitating snake-charmers turning lead into gold on every street corner as far as technology is concerned. The iPad may indeed be magical and revolutionary, but there’s a revolution in technology every 18 months, and my Droid can cast spells that would make Gandalf's jaw drop. Realistically, the iPad and Droid are just two of many spectacular devices.

However, we're hard on our technology. Our expectations are unreasonably high, and we take for granted the amazing things that modern technology delivers. The Droid is selling right now for $19.99. In 1984, a Sony Walkman that could hold about 60 minutes of music cost about $200. A Casio watch with a calculator and a built-in game cost another $35 (and tagged you as hopelessly socially inept in the bargain).

Today, my Droid can hold and play an entire lifetime's library worth of music and perfectly emulate an entire Commodore 64 PC at the same time. Heck, I haven't looked into it, but my guess is that my Droid could emulate a Commodore 64, an Amiga, and a Mac Quadra without even breaking a sweat – and probably play some generic gem-dropping game at the same time.

But when I originally wrote this post, my Droid couldn't read a Kindle eBook. You see, the real problem here is that I always want more. I’m not happy about the limitations of my device, and I've got a suspicion that many of those limitations are manufacturers keeping "aces up their shirt sleeve" to encourage me to buy their next round of technology. I think they could deliver all or more of the magic that I currently feel is missing from modern devices and gadgets, but they're afraid if they show me all their tricks now, I won't buy anything they make in the future.

More than any other manufacturer, Apple is obviously guilty of this kind of thinking. We've seen that technology has reached a point where people are putting down their core duo MacBooks for A4-based iPads that make an entry-level netbook seem like a beefy processor. Intel has been struggling with the fact that their bleeding edge tech is relatively stagnant, while their lowest margin products are selling like hotcakes. It hasn't hurt Intel yet and may arguably have helped them post some record numbers coming out of a really nasty recession, but I can understand why they see it as a disturbing trend.

Apple, of course, can get people to buy a machine 600 Mhz slower than a base netbook for double the price, but they're the anomaly in technology markets in this regard. They're the new "Greatest Show on Earth," and they're lining up suckers in droves. The rest of the industry has to figure out how to make their fortunes off of their lowest margin tech, and that means not selling the whole show to the first person who pulls their wallet out. Instead, they're trying to get us to come back, pay for the same thing over and over again, with small enhancements that they could have included all along – but didn't.

As a matter of fact, Apple is so full of hubris that before a single iPad was sold they announced that they had considerable margin to drop the price of the iPad if sales were sluggish. They flat out told consumers, "If you don't pay list price on day 1 in large enough numbers, we'll drop the price to just about whatever point it takes for you to start buying them." However, consumers lined up and paid the steep price anyway.

Regardless of what happens with the iPad, the Courier, the iPhone, or the Android – the one thing that I’m certain of is that, right now, we live in a time of outrageously cool tech. It’s a great time to be a geek.

About

Donovan Colbert has over 16 years of experience in the IT Industry. He's worked in help-desk, enterprise software support, systems administration and engineering, IT management, and is a regular contributor for TechRepublic. Currently, his profession...

34 comments
Charles Bundy
Charles Bundy

Wow! My wife and I were just having this conversation over coffee. Albeit we were more focused on how darn cheap the magic is, versus the fact that almost everyone pushes buttons without understanding why it works (magic). I'm lucky these days if every tenth button push I grok.

adimauro
adimauro

The Courier Tablet has been canceled since the end of April...

abookcliff
abookcliff

NOT AS SPOILED AS BECOMING MENTALLY LAZY. THE RISK IS HUGE OF HAVING A SOCIETY UNABLE TO COPE WITH ANYTHING BASIC WITHOUT REFERRING TO CANNED IDEAS--MOST OF WHICH ARE PRESENTED, NOT FOR THE GOOD OF THE USER, BUT FOR THE GOOD OF THE PERSON SELLING THE PRODUCT

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

I think it's more down to the Developers making something to a desired specification and then the users go out and discover other uses that they can use it for. Going back to cars they first invented Central Locking which was great but then the customers demanded a remote so they didn't have to stick a key in the door to lock the thing. Then when they had remotes they wanted the windows to wind up when they stood 20 feet away from their cars and locked them. After all what's the use of being able to lock the thing if the windows are down in the first place? There are also Time Limitations that come into play here as developing something to do everything conceivably possible takes time and it's better from a Manufactures point of view to get something out there being used and then ask the users what they want included. As for the Magic bit I don't like that analogy as it's pure Tech not Magic but from the point of view of how fast the tech is changing it's very fast and places like Apple need to find uses for what is essentially [b]Obsolete Technology[/b] to overcome the Bugbear of all mobile devices, Battery Life. Col

dcolbert
dcolbert

Are we surrounded by all kinds of super-tech that is so fantastic that it might as well be *magic* for all intents and purposes? Shazam is my favorite example (and it is a cross-platform app - you Apple iPhone, Touch and iPod users can enjoy this app, as well). The idea that my device can listen to a bit of a song, analyze it, send that info across the web, and accurately determine what song it is, along with providing me links to view the video or to download the song - is just amazing to me. People forget what it used to be like to hear a new song on the radio and wonder what that song was, listen to 4 more songs until a DJ break, and then the DJ doesn't name which songs he just played. Of course, it is also arguable that most people now have a radio that tells them what song is playing and what artist is playing it, or use a service like Pandora or listen to their huge, personalized iTunes collections that contain more tracks than an old school radio station ever had in their library. Sometimes, the magic arrives too late, and it is redundant or unnecessary by that point. I'd still argue that Shazam is great when you hear a tune on an ad, or as part of a background, or in some other situation outside of the radio example. Conversely: Is whining about the limitations of our tech an important part of the upgrade cycle? What good is the ability to tag a song if Android is running so sloppy and slowly on my Droid that by the time I get the app loaded and ready to tag the song, the song is over? What good is it if my battery has been drained half-way through my work-day? Now I've got a dead music-tagging device and no phone, either. What good is having Gandalf in your party if his staff can't produce a fireball just at the moment that you're facing down an underground hall full of hungry orcs? I'm glad Kindle finally arrived for my Droid... now I'm upset that Android 2.2 and Flash support seem so far off. I can't fully enjoy the experience of teasing Apple users until I can bring up pages with embedded video knowing they'll just see a little lego block if I send them a link - and that is pretty critical to my sense of gadget-nirvana. Am I right, could they give it *all* to us, and they just don't? Or am I right, should we be happy with what we've got, because it is really pretty darned good? Or am I wrong, we can't have it all, and we need to keep complaining to drive them to design products that come closer to giving us everything we desire? Or have I missed the truth completely? I'd love to hear other opinions here.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

That's the big one for me. Gadgets that can technologically do more but are restricted to a list of limited uses contrary to the consumer's wishes. For me, the reason the Nokia N810 was the first gadget that could be called a true upgrade from the Palm T5 device was because I could choose to unlock it and go beyond the vendor's limited list of use cases. I got device specific applets like I did with the Palm and ones that replaced all but two of my Palm applets. In addition, I could unlock access to the *nix back and and a wealth of software that enabled. Consider wireless nics. Monitoring/permiscious and injection are natural functions of the hardware. It's a radio, it can tune in a specific channel or register general radio traffic or broadcast. In the Windows world, wifi nic drivers that include full monitor mode, let alone injection, are an anomoly. Not because it's strange for the hardware but because the vendors have synthetically limited the hardware. It extends to Broadcom's claims that it couldn't release firmware because that would allow people to change the broadcast strength of there wifi NICS which is against FCC regulation; story he story goes. The hardware is technologically capable but Broadcom chooses to limit the hardware arbitrarily. The article hits on this pretty scarely also. It's not always about limiting the current technology because of some percieved competitive advantage in harming the consumer. Measuring out technological advances to support an ongoing revenue flow when you could skip ahead and release the final version sucks. If you know your going to release the 16 gig version of your 8 gig product the quarter after and the factories can already produce the 16 gig version; skip the 8 gig "first taste is free" sku number. But, that's really the core of the issue right there. The consumer sees technology as "what can this gadget do for me?" What can the new shiny phone do in addition to being a phone and can I enable what the hardware is actually capable of if it's been shipped limited by the vendor? How much video card can I get for my dollars? How many VMs can I run at once if I double my RAM? The goal is to enable the consumer while minimizing the cost of obtaining it. It's not about what benefits the company share holders but what benefits the consumer; the gadget's end user and legal owner. The business sees dollars and shareholder equity as the products and the gadgets are just the water you spray across the filed to make the little green dollars poke up from the soil. The profit is the product and the software/gadget/blinkylight is just part of generating that true product. It's about maximizing the amount of profit you can get for each unit you sell. Why would you sell the widgets for 5$ if someone is willing to pay 10$ for it instead; it's still going to cost 1.25$ to put on store shelves. What is the minimum advancement we need to put into our widget to keep them ahead of the competition? How much advancement can we sit on and sell as later as "our latest research and development, you gotta upgrade". What breaks my heart is looking at areas where there is not a business incentive to stifle evolution. Look at how fast things have evolved when profit is not the be-all/end-all. Then, look at technology where stifled evolution is an important business incentive and think how we've completely retarded it's evolution. We've not held our technology back a little, we've left it to become special-ed handicap so that companies can add existing abilities based at the shareholder's leisure rather than seeing how far technology can truly be pushed. I'm sure I got more but this hairless arrogant ape better get back to chasing green pieces of paper and digital watches.

JamesRL
JamesRL

In the 80s, I spent time selling Macs at a couple of dealers. In the 90s I worked for one of Apple's biggest customers. So I've noted a trend. Apple is aware that early adopters are less price sensitive than us normal folk. So the initial list price is always higher than "market price". Once the pent up early demand is satisfied, the list price eases down. The time for this varies, but its usually 6-9 months. So once the inventory of iPads builds up because all those people waiting have been satisfied, look for the price to become a little more realistic. Other companies, who are trying to build marketshare, don't do this to the same extent.

dawgit
dawgit

and will probably be just as crummy too.

Tink!
Tink!

Technology today is highly advanced and yet we whine if it doesn't perform exactly as we expect it to. We do demand more out of our gadgets and assume that whatever we want is possible and therefore if it is not already on the market, someone had better be working on it! A thing to ponder: the mail was once delivered on horseback. Today's kids barely even know how to send anything in the mail because all communication is electronic and instantaneous.

dcolbert
dcolbert

That this article was written well before the end of April. :) There is a lead time between when I write the articles and Sonja gets them "to press". I knew someone was going to point this out eventually. Fortunately, the article didn't really hinge on if the Courier made it to production or not - it hinged on how watching a demo of the Courier led me to use my Android to tag the song playing in the demo back-ground so I could download it for my wife. Just substitute the Courier for any other iPad competitive tablet that has made it to market... wait... doh!

dcolbert
dcolbert

I suppose you're right. You give the end users one thing, and they go, "wow, that is really GREAT... but this new feature makes me realize I'd ALSO like..." I've worked with enough developers in my life and heard this complaint often enough to know it is a phenomenon that really exists. Of course, I also hear a lot of developers complain, "I wish they would just come to me with a list of what they want the FIRST time, instead of always figuring out that they want MORE after I give them the LAST list of things they asked for". Which is true, but also keeps developers gainfully employed and in demand making upgrade after upgrade. As far as magic... There is water pouring through a turbine in a dam, or coal burning in a coal-plant somewhere, right now. That is generating electricity, that gets sent over miles of wires, comes into my house, travels from an outlet across the plug into my PC, where it gets switched through a million on/off gates - and ends up displayed on my screen as a forum post I am responding to you, somewhere else in the WORLD, potentially in real time, while you do the exact same thing. You call it technology. *I'm* pretty sure it is caused by the sky gods doing a primal earth fertility dance that focuses the ancient energies of the cosmic ether into this realm of physical reality when the celestial travelers are perfectly aligned in a solstice paradox. When you displease them with your lack of faith and they melt your machine into a puddle of toxic goo... don't say I didn't warn you. :)

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

"Be glad you got two extra hot dogs." said the monk.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I don't own most of the electronic tools other TR members consider desirable or even essential. Most of these devices have or started from a single primary function: make phone calls, show my location, store and play media files, enable mobile computing, etc. Since I'm not interested in these primary functions, I'm unmoved by additional features that may have been added on or left off in the latest versions. I'm willing to wait (and wait and wait) until gear reaches a price I consider worthwhile for the functionality. I bought my first MP3 player this week, my first LCD TV last Christmas. Both are loaded with features I'll never use. Donovan, you could ask the same questions about software. Each version includes new features. For many users, those features go unused. Others will question the choice of features added at the expense of those they petitioned to see.

Marc Thibault
Marc Thibault

Unlock the N810? Bring up an X-terminal and type "root". What's to unlock?

dawgit
dawgit

We should put a computer on a horse?

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

Are you stalking Boxy as well as Tink now? Better be careful as you're developing a reputation for this nasty behavior. :^0 Col

Tink!
Tink!

We complain cuz ours be 10 dogs and 8 buns. Unless you go bun length than you get 8 dogs per pack. Or you can go 10 dogs and 12 buns too. LOL!

Tink!
Tink!

Every update of our billing or shipping software seems to add features we don't give a darn about but takes away the ones we considered highly useful!

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

It's extremely open to the user by default but shipped to rely on the three or so official repositories. The average user can then choose to stick with just the core software titles. - Should a user choose, they can add repositories and/or disable "show only safe packages". Root shell actually takes more than opening terminal and typing "root". You'll want the gainroot or easyroot packages installed with the second being the newer of the two. If you really want to get freaking; Red Pill mode. A quick two step in the right form field enables it like an Easter egg so that it's being turned on is clearly intentional. Boot loader anyone? Download it, install it, copy your internal Flash install over the external SD slot and stop killing your non-replaceable flash write limit. (not to mention absurdly limited space) I believe unlocking the Iphone is actually closest to this process. Now.. if only that N900 would drop into my budget range.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

We should make the horse into a computer by Genetic Engineering the Computer into the Horse. One of the kids cartoons has Computer Horse where the horse is where you go for all answers so that would be the ideal and a reason to keep horses around that can not run on a Race Track. ;) Col

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

How is a horse going to reach the computer if you put the thing on it's back?

dawgit
dawgit

Discrete ;) -or- disappear again :( No, no... I am not stalking B-)

Tink!
Tink!

I've been looking for a good beef hot dog and finally found Nathan's. The short ones still have 10 I think. The bun length only 8. Oscar Mayer still has 10 in the regular size and 8 in bun length. So if you go bun length in most brands, you'll get just enough hot dogs to match the buns. LOL. But really it's not a bad idea to have a couple extra hot dogs because some people like to eat them without a bun.

dcolbert
dcolbert

We get 8 buns, and if we go Nathan's we get 8 dogs, if we go Hebrew National we only get 7. I know because we just did a blind taste test last night. Hebrew National for the win at the Colbert house.

dcolbert
dcolbert

Strangely enough, if you're going to dig in deep enough to root or jailbreak your phone, risking voiding the warranty and potentially bricking your phone - then Apple has refined it to a level where even a Noob can jailbreak their phone with little fear of adverse affects (other than breaking their ability to use the App Store and apply official updates). With Android, on the other hand, the rooting process itself still requires a pretty high level of competency, I think. Not sure, I haven't done a lot of research into rooting - but I'm pretty sure I'm right.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

For those that want the factory stock function list; it's there. For those that want to go beyond; it's there by opt-in. For those that want to go way beyond; it's there also by opt-in. I think this is really the best way to go. The "it's magic" users can go with the factory functions and add-on software as available without limiting the users who really want to get into the device. That's really the brilliance right there. The device can be limited or unlimited depending on the owner's desired uses. You can stick to the app market distributed programs while I can get into the shell and add non-GUI and/or non-app-market stuff; we're both happy. With android specifically, I'm not sure how the setup goes. Before buying, I'd have to look at Metasploit and similar for "how to install on Android". It may very well be like Maemo; install ruby, svn in Metsploit, done. After that, it becomes a matter of looking at my current program list and confirming if the program or functions are available for me.

dcolbert
dcolbert

This is something interesting, that might be a blog in itself - When I had a locked-up WinMo 6 phone that had features disabled, I found myself over at Howard Forums downloading custom-roms and otherwise finding creative ways to get around the artificial limitations of the phone. Since I moved to Android, I've seen no real value-add to Rooting the phone. They've changed the value equation by making the features that should be open, open - for the most part. Additionally, the benefits that you get from Rooting your Android phone are offset by a lot of negative impact on the native operation on the phone. Apple seems to have found this balance with iOS devices, as well. It really becomes a case of "I don't want another device that requires all the effort and support of a desktop/laptop PC OS". The consumer oriented limitations of Android/iOS make sense for these devices, generally speaking. Maybe I'm just getting old.

dawgit
dawgit

-or- There would have to be an on board IT specialist. ;) (going postal)