Opinion: 10 broken technology ideas

Sometimes a technology idea is too good to be true. A flexible keyboard, Internet voting and watching feature films on your smart phone are examples. Today, these concepts are still evolving, but they’re broken right now. Read on to find out why and what can be done to fix them once and for all.

1. Ultracompact PCs
Call them whatever you want: ultramobile PCs (UMPC), mobile information devices (MID) or subnotebooks. I call them small PCs, and they are almost indistinguishable from a good smart phone.

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 useable 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.
I 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 services such as Hughes and WildBlue 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 complaint, Peter Gulla, vice president of marketing for the North American division at 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.”

WildBlue Communications Inc. did not respond when asked to comment on my complaint. 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.

Also, in my personal experience, Hughes tech-support agents would often read from a script and could not proceed with troubleshooting until they had covered every step. Hold times were usually about 15 minutes, but HughesNet claims it has improved tech support over the past six months.

Yet, I like the satellite concept because it could make the Internet much more ubiquitous across large swathes of the U.S. 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 512Kbit/sec. and currently at about 1.5Mbit/sec. If the technology improves and the company fixes all the other problems, it could be a solid option.

3. Contact managers
I’d like to retrieve the lost hours spent building up a contacts database. Not long ago, I stopped meticulously entering names, addresses, phone numbers and e-mails and now rely on other methods.

For example, I search Gmail.com for names and addresses. When I want to send a new e-mail, I just type a portion of a name to get the full address, type the message, and send. For names not in my Gmail archive, I use an online address book such as YellowPages.com or LinkedIn.com.

However, a good contact manager could work like the iPhone: It would see phone number in an e-mail and allow me 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.

I’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 Sonos , but they all do the same thing: move music, video and photos from your PC in the office to the HDTV in your family room.

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 adapters add another appliance to an overcrowded entertainment center bulging with DVRs and game consoles.

The fix? Put them right into the television itself. Hewlett-Packard Co. started this with the MediaSmart TV , but I’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. I’m convinced that anything you only do once or twice in dealing with new technology and find it hard to do — like load a smart phone with video clips or swap contacts with your laptop over Bluetooth — is just a novelty and often not worth the effort.

I will 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 I’d like to see is Bluetooth built into HDTVs so that I can beam a high-resolution movie from my phone or projector in the phone (like the Pico technology being developed by Texas Instruments Inc.) 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.

I believe there is no clear definition of Web 2.0 or any sites that fit easily into that box. Instead, Web 1.0 is in a constant state of evolution. Imagine Amazon.com in its infancy — over the past 10 years, it has been updated with hundreds of new features as Web technology has steadily advanced.

What I’m hoping for is a whole new framework for the Web: a wholesale HTML replacement, something like AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML) that’s faster and more reliable. Or, I’d like to see sites like Pageflakes expand even more so that Web 2.0 dies altogether and gives way to Internet widgets running on a true Internet operating system.

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. I 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 e-mail 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. I’d like a throwaway e-book that’s a plastic sheet with electronic ink (like the newspapers in Minority Report ) and costs about $30.

8. Internet voting
I 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.

I 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
My main issue with video blogs is that they don’t seem well suited for the Web. I’d watch “Rocketboom” , “Mahalo Daily” and “WebbAlert” every day if I had the time.

Often, with WebbAlert, I scan through the links — it usually has a really good summary of the previous day and posts in my 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 I have a hard time discerning how a video blog is really that different from a 2-minute update on G4 or CNN.

Yes, there’s the idea that a video blog has a “long tail” — 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? I’d like to see satellite television providers like Dish Network and DirecTV offer more-flexible plans. I’d watch a video blog station for 10 minutes if it could hold my attention over breakfast and The Wall Street Journal.

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 traveling with smart phones.

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 International keep trying, adding extra buttons and features. (I have settled on the Microsoft Wireless Laser Keyboard 6000 V2 with its slight key curvature.)

I doubt we will be typing on multitouch screens any faster, judging by my 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 figure out how to make them fold up.

John Brandon is a freelance writer and book author who worked as an IT manager for 10 years.

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