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Technological Grievances
1-17-08
Added note from me(read this last)

Apparently, this article has been making the rounds on several social networks so I thought I'd add some comments. I've been reading some reviews and I've noticed that a lot of people are passing some pretty harsh judgement because I suppose I didn't make some of my points clear.

Yes, I am asking for these problems to magically disappear. If the solutions were easy, the problems wouldn't still be there. The point I'm trying to make is that technologically these solutions aren't out of our reach. I'm not asking for wireless power transfer, teleportation, or a cure to cancer. I'm asking for a standardized cable, a standardized remote control, or a better cellphone case. The real issue I suppose is that my solutions aren't as profitable as the ones currently in place. If you think that this is a pretty good reason for you to deal with the crap that's out there now, forget this article, and don't watch movies about the future. They'll just make you depressed.

For example, I understand that different devices require different voltages and that's why we have different AC adapters. This does not mean that they're fun to deal with and it is not impossible to adjust some input voltages and make them standardized.

Introduction

I wrote this because I'm mad that technology companies are already inventing new problems so that they can solve them: problems like walking or the worlds currently leading operating system. There are still a lot of issues that most companies are overlooking or simply ignoring. Most of these problems seem minor because we're so used to them, but their existence is completely ridiculous and has no place in 2008. Even if the technology required to fix these problems isn't out there yet, someone should be working hard to make it a reality.

I know that some of these problems will never be solved because of the way that technology companies operate. My purpose here is to clarify complaints, not orchestrate solutions. Each item consists of a complaint, the next step to fixing it, and who is currently taking the next step. They're organized roughly in order of decreasing severity.

Please send me your comments or additional complaints and I'll be sure to add them to my list.

1. AC Adapters

Why do I need a separate power adapter for my computer, monitor, external hard drive, second external hard drive, USB hub, second USB hub, speakers, printer, cordless phone, and cellphone? I want a single AC power supply with a standard plug that will power all of my electronics including portables like my MP3 player and cellphone. It could be a giant transformer box that plugs into the wall (or is built into the wall) that has a bunch of universal DC power outlets on it.

Next step:

For now, let's stop with the giant bricks that clog up my power strip. The fact that something this stupid is needed in the age of space flight is puzzling.

Who's doing it right?

Toshiba's laptop power supplies are now all standard so any power supply will work with any laptop. This doesn't really offer any benefit to the end user (how many laptops do you own?) but it's a step in the right direction and it already offers benefits to the company such as reduced production costs by manufacturing one type of adapter instead of hundreds.

Also, USB has become a surprisingly useful universal power plug. Originally meant to power just mice, keyboards, and other peripherals, USB can now power anything from a fan to a beverage chiller. It's too underpowered for most applications, but it's still a good start.

2. Poorly designed homes
Why do I have a coaxial cable jack on the wall above my fireplace? If I'm going to hang a TV there, it's going to be an LCD or plasma and it's going to need a cable box. Where will the cable box go? Did the architect or contractor think about this? Do they know what a cable box is? There is no such thing as an HDMI jack. Do they seriously expect me to have HDMI cable running out of a hole in my wall? Why is the hole in the wall for my TV cut to a 4:3 ratio? Now the biggest set I can find to fit is a 24 inch widescreen. Why don't I have speaker wire already run through my ceiling? This is the second of three floors, there is no attic or crawl space that I can access to run wire. Why is the power jack for the computer in my office connected to a light switch? Why is there only one power jack where my computer is? If the home is going to be sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars, WHY DO THESE PROBLEMS STILL EXIST?
3. Stuff breaking

Whenever it rains, I sweat (though it's hard to tell for it mixes well with rain). I sweat because I know that if I get caught outside in a downpour, I'm going to lose my iPod and my cellphone. Why can't my phone be completely waterproof? It has no moving parts and no need for ventilation; you could wrap it in Saran wrap for all I care. It's not impossible. This would have been a pretty good prank if the phone was waterproof.

While we're at it, why not make everything out of solid metal? I'm sick of constantly having to worry about dropping my phone and having the screen crack or scratch. Also, certain parts of devices fail way too easily: flip phones get broken hinges and battery doors break and fall off. I want an MP3 player that will still function fine after being chucked at a concrete wall. I want to use my cellphone to hammer nails and hang picture frames. I want to be able to treat my cellphone like I treat my socket wrench.

Next step:

Let's at least make stuff truly weather resistant if not submergible. Also, lets make battery doors a little less flimsy. No matter how many mega-pixels the camera has, if the battery door breaks, it's a paperweight.

Who's doing it right?

Sonim has anounced going to offer a very rugged waterproof phone but it still seems bulky from the pictures. Also, USB flash drives have kind of achieved this goal by accident. It just so happens that they're small enough and simple enough to stand up to any number of drops and accidental washings.

4. Remote controls

Why must every device have its own remote control? 99% of remote controls have the same features: volume up/down, channel up/down, play, pause, etc. so I feel like we should be able to use one remote for every device. Our devices should learn to play nicely with each other as well and all agree on how to behave. If you hit the channel up button while watching a DVD, your T.V. should know better than to replace the only good fight scene in Matrix: Reloaded with blaring static just because you sat on the remote.

Also, all remotes need to use RF instead of IR. Nothing is cooler than changing channels without having to lift an arm to point at anything.

Next step:

Let's at least make a standard signal set for DVD players and program that set into every TV remote and DVD player made. There is no reason for every company to use a different signal to control their DVD players when they all have the same button set (menu, play, pause, etc). Also, let's at least put a button on the TV that makes the remote control beep when pushed. Nothing is worse than losing a remote.

Who's doing it right?

I want to say Logitech, but they still don't have everything together. Their remotes are smart and relatively easy to set up, but they're still slow and clumsy. They're not really to blame. They only method component manufactures have for controlling devices is infra-red, so Harmony Remote users are forced to stick little infra-red LEDs to the front of their components. How hard is it to make some kind of universal input-output plug?

At least most manufacturers program their remotes to automatically work with their components, but this is really a pathetic attempt to lock people in to a product line. I don't think anyone is going to base their buying decision on wether or not they have to program a remote. It's just annoying.

5. Cables

Cables are horrible and 99% of cable applications are of low enough bandwidth that they could easily be made wireless. This would be especially useful in mobile applications like headphones. I never want to have to wrap up my headphone cable and have it get caught in everything. The only cable I ever want to see is a power cable.

It's especially painful when I'm taking my laptop on the road. As portable as my laptop claims to be, when I want to take it with me, I have to unplug my two USB hubs, my audio jack, my external monitor, and my ethernet cable and hope that they don't fall behind my desk when I leave. I want to be able to pick up my laptop and walk out the door.

Next step:

Let's at least build Bluetooth into every laptop so you don't have to use those stupid USB wireless dongles with your wireless mouse. They're just asking to get broken off.

Who's doing it right?

Apple's iMac is a very capable completely wireless machine. Few use it like this, but if you equip an iMac with a bluetooth keyboard and mouse and wireless internet, you have a computer with one cable: power.

6. Power plugs that have millions of tiny pins.

Why does my cell phone power connector have 50 little tiny pins with tiny little hooks to hold it in. As far as I can tell, the power connection uses only two pins (+ and ground). These things are practically designed to break. Also, why does every single phone ever made have a different power adapter? They all do essentially the same thing. It's not like any company has a monopoly on those connectors either, anyone who loses theirs is just going to purchase an iGo rather than fork over money to the original manufacturer for a replacement.

If everyone had the same kind of phone charger, you wouldn't have to worry about bringing along a cellphone charger (which is about the size of the phone) when you go out of town for the weekend. You could even buy a bunch of extra power adapters and keep one in your travel bag or leave one in every hotel room you visit as a little gift.

Next step:

If every manufacturer can't decide on a universal plug, they could at least keep the plugs the same within their own line of phones. This might even give them the advantage when a customer is replacing his or her phone; they'll want to stick with the same brand.

Who's doing it right?

Some phones now have small usb plugs that both transfer data and charge the phone. USB is durable and pretty universal and would make an excellent phone charging standard. Also, Apple's Mag-Safe connector is pretty clever. I wish they'd stop being jerks and license their patent for cheap so other products can enjoy it.

Update:

2-5-08

I got an e-mail from Paul H. and he told me that in China, the government requires that all new cell phones be chargable over a standard USB socket. For such a "backwards" country, China sure is making some sensible changes.

7. Lack of docking stations

Like I said before, I hate taking my laptop everywhere because I have to unplug everything and plug everything back in. I love taking my iPod places though because I can just pick it up out of its dock and take it with me. I even installed an iPod dock in my car so I can just push it into the dock and hit play. There is something cathartic about jamming something into a docking station with one hand. Brings back memories of my N64...happy memories...

I want every laptop I buy to come with a docking station so I don't have to spend time plugging in every cable (after fishing them from behind my desk). This was actually more popular in the past. Palm Pilots always used to come with docks instead of power cables. I don't know why they canned this, I'm guessing its because the docks weren't as portable as the cables.

Next step:

They could at least give me a dock into which I can plug a power cable that works with the device itself. This way I have the option to bypass the dock and plug straight into the wall.

Who's doing it right?

I've never seen a laptop sold with an included docking station, so I'm going to say nobody.

8. Cable boxes

Cable boxes are terrible. They are extra pieces of hardware that you must rent from your cable company that just take up space and make it impossible to have a wall mounted TV with no component rack. Cable box interfaces are terribly slow too. I remember when I used to hit the channel up button on my old TV, I would hear a little pop and the channel would change INSTANTLY. Now, my TV goes black for a second, then the channel guide information pops up, then the video finally starts.

I want any TV I buy to be cable card compatible so I can just plug in a piece of coaxial and get all of my digital and HD channels with TV guide information. Cable companies have been flaunting the guide information as a major benefit of cable boxes over cable cards when it has to be possible to make TVs work with the guides. In addition to this, I want the interface to be lightning fast because channel flipping has become too much of a chore.

Next step:

If we must have cable boxes, at least make them very very fast. Also, I'd like to see content providers pressure TV manufacturers to make more sets cable card compatible. With the signal decrypted inside the TV itself, there's nowhere for it to be intercepted and recorded by potential pirates. This only really applies to on demand movie rentals.

Who's doing it right?

Pretty much nobody. The cable companies don't want you to know about cable cards because they want to make money off leasing the boxes.

Update:

2-5-08

I got an email from Josh who works for a cable company. Apparently, it is impossible to get all of the cable box features (like on-demand movies) with the current cable card spec. A solution is in the works though: OCAP cable boxes. Apparently, this spec will allow people to buy whatever hardware they want and simply slip in a standardized cable card that will enable all the services the cable company has to offer.

This will solve a lot of problems. If a customer wants a better, faster cable box, they can just go out and spend as much money as they want to get the experience they want; they won't get stuck with the crappy rental from the company. Also, with a better standard, more TV manufacters will incorporate OCAP card slots in their devices.

9. Crappy video conferencing

I want video walls where I can call my friend and have it look like he's in the room with me. I want the cameras lined up so it doesn't look like I'm looking at my friend's feet. I want the audio to line up with the video. I want zero lag. I want it to be so realistic that I accidently offer my friend a bite of my pop-tart before I realize he's half way across the country.

Next step:

At least increase the frame rate so I don't have to stare at a blurry picture of my mom, waiting for the next frame to show up.

Who's doing it right?

VirtuaLive from Teliris has the right idea. They set use gigantic displays lined up so it looks like everyone is sitting at the same table. They even try to use the same color scheme in each conference room so that the wallpaper behind your contractor from China is the same as the wallpaper in your room. It's the subtle things like these that can help maintain the illusion that everyone is standing in the same room.

10. Paper

Why do we still waste money and trees on paper? We still print paper books, newspapers, and receipts for everything (even donuts).

The problem with paper is that it's just too damn easy to work with. When you get that receipt, you can throw it away, or file it under D, or write a phone number on it. It's infinitely useful and very convenient.

Computers are a lot more rigid however. You can't scribble a note wherever you want on your computer, instead you have to keep it organized. There is no universal filetype that is as capable as a sheet of paper. We don't need to find new ways to organize files, we need to make files more like paper which we are already sufficiently good at organizing.

Every computer screen needs to be a tablet so that people can grab sheets of "paper" and jot down notes on them. If I feel like pushing a stack important papers under what I'm doing, or push everything off my desk onto the floor, I should be able to. Also, with fast searching, everything is indexed, so no sheet of paper will ever get "lost."

As far as eBooks go, I think we're headed in the right direction, it just needs to be cheaper.

Next step

We need to make commercial home-use scanners auto-feed so you can drop a stack of paper into them and let them scan everything. Most scanners today are only really good for scanning a picture at a time.

Who's doing it right?

BumpTop 3D definitely has the right idea. They're developing a 3D metaphor for digital files that resembles a real life desk. As far as e-Book readers go, the Amazon Kindle has a easily readable screen and a virtually limitless battery life. Unfortunately, this particular e-Book reader is crippled by some of the worst DRM I've ever seen.

11. Physical media

"Beaming" is a feature that most PDAs offer that lets you instantly send files from one device to another compatible device. I have no idea why this doesn't exist universally for computers. If I want to move the latest version of my project to my partner's laptop (which is all of six inches away) I have to either burn a CD or copy it to a USB flash drive. This is a simple transaction! Why must we bring physical media into it?

I want to be able to pull up a menu and easily see every computer around me (whether or not we are connected to the internet or any other network hub) and just drag files to them. Just a little authorization from my buddy and we're set.

Next step:

Nothing to say here, it's a pretty simple fix.

Who's doing it right?

Like I said, most PDAs and smart phones have this functionality through Bluetooth so no complaints there. As far as the computer market goes, Apple's Bonjour does offer a relatively easy way to share stuff from machine to machine, but it's hardly universal.

12. User accounts

I don't want to have to make a user account for every website I visit. I want to be able to comment on a story I'm reading without having to create yet another user account to add to my hundreds of others. I understand the need to keep track of users as they submit comments and content, but do I really need to create an account for a site I may never visit again?

I want to have a universal internet account where I can make one really good profile and use it for everything. This way I could develop a reputation for myself across multiple networks. For those of you who would rather keep your accounts separate, fine, just make more than one universal account and use one for each site.

Next step

Right now, every website needs to realize that they're not going to be become the next big social network, so there's no reason to hoard their users. In fact, they're probably better off with fewer users simply to keep the number of spammers and other crap down.

Who's doing it right?

StumbleUpon is a plugin for firefox and Internet Explorer that sort of creates an invisible social network over the internet. Users can add comments to any page that they are browsing without having to touch the actual page.

13. Nooks and crannies

I have a case for my iPod Touch that has a hole around the hold button and this hole collects all the disgusting crap from my hands and pockets. I used to have a mouse made from two pieces of plastic screwed together. At the seam was a crack in which all sorts of horrible dirt and food bits from my hands would collect. I would periodically have to scrape it out with a toothpick. I hear it can get even worse for Wii remotes and XBox 360 controllers.

Why can't user interface products be made out of one piece of plastic or at least have smaller seams? They could even melt two parts together until they become one piece. It's not like anyone is ever going to have to look inside. Any "repair" that is going to be done involves throwing out the broken product and replacing it.

Next step:

Let's at least try place the cracks so they're along an obtuse bend in the product's surface. This way they don't hold grime as well.

Who's doing it right?

I can't really think of anyone who's doing this exceptionally well.

14. Sending large files

Emails are limited to 10mb which is hardly enough to send a decent amount of pictures. Why is there no easy drag/drop method to send pictures or even video over the web? Sure there are a few services out there, but even those limit how much you can upload because it requires server space. There needs to be an easier and more universal way to set up a direct file transfer where the file is streaming and requires no storage at any 3rd party server so the size of your transfer is limited by how much time you're willing to let it work.

Next step:

Get rid of PHP-based file upload pages. I would rather download a client program than have to sit and wait for my file to upload with no progress bar and no sign of stopping.

Who's doing it right?

Pando is a free service that allows you to upload files up to a gigabyte to their servers and then email links to the file. Recipients simply have to open the links in their Pando client and the downloading process begins.