by Kirk Douglas
Just last week, on Episode 11 of the CTRL WALT DELETE Podcast, long-time tech industry journalist Walt Mossberg (Re/Code, The Verge) and cohost Nilay Patel (The Verge) sat down for their weekly podcast discussion this time, titled “A Cycle of Despair.”
If the title alone wasn’t enough to grab my attention, the content certainly was. The podcast was centered on our current state of technology companies being ’imbued with meaning’ as Nilay suggests, and as a result, consumers and tech pundits finding little satisfaction when said companies release products that are ‘just okay’ rather than groundbreaking.
Our technology has been ‘so good for so long’ as Patel says, that we’ve just come to see recent technology as iterative, slow-moving and in some cases, safe and unexciting. We are at a point where technology just isn’t bringing us the home PC revolution of the 90’s or the modern smartphone revolution kicked off in ’07.
The example given first was Apple’s recently released iPhone 6S Smart Battery Case, a ‘fine product’ who’s reveal left tech journalists polarized on its design and function. But the larger conversation being had in this podcast was something much more broadly acknowledged by those of us who pay attention to tech at large.
We are surrounded by perfectly good products that just aren’t exciting in the way they once were and because of it we are seemingly in the midst of an innovation lull; The likes of which Walt and Nilay suggest we haven’t seen since the late 90s. A time of beige computer towers, thick CRT monitors, brick Motorola phones and Brother fax machines. About the only real innovation happening at that point in time (as Walt and Nilay agreed) was a revolution in DSL and high-speed cable internet. It was a time that was otherwise stagnant in terms of consumer products.
Today our phones are better than ever, computers are top-notch and there are more form factors than you can shake a stick at. We’ve got Uber and Car2Go, cities with efficient transit systems, consumer products that replace 5 or more gadgets in a single device and a robust online ecosystem for websites, e-commerce and app and entertainment catalogues. So how could we find ourselves in that place once again?
The observation I’ve made is simple. Its all just ‘good enough.’ There’s nothing happening in the technology sector right now – at least nothing immediately obtainable by consumers – that can dramatically change our lives in the way that Windows 95 once did, or the iPod since has.
When Nilay Patel pointed this out in his podcast it struck a chord with me. It is everything my observations have been adding up to since roughly 2010. The iPad, the Microsoft Surface, the countless Android tablets and of course, new categories, i.e. “wearables” – all of these consumer electronics with all of their innovations have added up to little beyond mostly playing it safe. And they’ve all stemmed from innovations in smartphones.
It’s not that these products are unimportant or doing anything poorly. Its that they haven’t fundamentally changed how we’ve used the internet, communicated or entertained ourselves.
Modern texting, Google Talk, iMessage and BBM aren’t so far off from the old days of AOL Instant and Yahoo Messenger. Web pages, aside from being loaded with enhanced visuals, ever-increasing ads and loads of video content really haven’t changed that much. Websites are simply richer, prettier pieces of consumable data that keep us engaged longer or moving on to the next news headline, dependent upon the site.
It’s not that I am soured by the current state of offerings, its just that I am ready for what’s next. I’m ready to get outside of this comfort zone we have built out of safe product designs.
It’s not all bad, however. As the podcasts mentions there is plenty of innovation happening in companies like Tesla. There are bold ideas in the prospect of a Hyper Loop transport system. Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) are arguably the next big things in entertainment and we could be attending posthumous concerts in the next few years’ courtesy of 3D light projections.
Exciting as the possibilities may be, all of that seems a bit like a lucid but distant dream. I set out to explore what might need to change to make our current technologies mind-blowing again and I came up with a few things that could help us obtain the technology future we dream of. In no particular order, here are a few things that come to mind.
1) Figure out “the why”:
There are so many things we are doing right now because we can and not necessarily because we should. For example, are touch screen computers truly better for user experience or are companies just applying technology to hit all the right notes on a spec sheet and use consumers as guinea pigs to find out? Does every tablet on the market need to have a keyboard attachment or cover to be seen as a viable piece of technology? Are curved television and phone screens of any proven benefit or there proverbial ‘spaghetti being thrown at the wall’ here?
2) Innovate energy:
Batteries are awful because they are inefficient, have limited charge cycles, limited lifespans and take time that we increasingly don’t have to recharge. We need a major breakthrough in battery technology and some serious smarts to combat energy efficiency moving forward as our devices — and future electric vehicles require more power. The challenge ahead will be not only solving these issues but also finding environmentally sound ways to both produce batteries and deal with the subsequent waste from them after. I firmly believe that the breakthrough we need in batteries is just around the corner and it will change the product roadmap of every major company dramatically and forever moving forward.
3) Improve screen technology:
You might think with the current high-resolution displays available have solved many of our problems but we are still looking at software content through glossy-coated, often fragile and power inefficient displays. There have been breakthroughs in sensory technology that have moved stylus and finger input forward but displays are still lacking in many other ways. This problem will someday be solved by ultra-low power, high-resolution displays with high pixel counts and near flawless color reproduction which aren’t hindered by natural lighting.
4) Move to the cloud:
I looked at my phone today with disgust at how many app updates came at me. I have a phone with a large storage capacity and an equally large library of apps; many of which I don’t regularly use but keep installed, just in case I decide that I want to. But it never seems like enough. I leave them there because the effort it takes to move them off of my phone and back on is not worth the time spent doing so. Get these apps off my device and onto the cloud in a way that I may benefit from them without any instillation. Make my home computing situation and cloud services so versatile that real-time updating of file systems and documents can take place across every device that I own. Then push that forward and allow me to login on a friends’ computer. That for me, would be a little something like heaven. Imagine logging in with your Microsoft Account or Apple ID in a computer lab and bam…!! Everything is just there at your fingertips.
5) An online Bill of Rights:
It’s time for a sort of ‘Online bill of rights.’ The conversation that has recently started around encryption and security needs to be broadened to include standards for net neutrality, real name policies and acceptable practices online for businesses and individuals alike. People often argue that the general public isn’t knowledgeable enough on these matters and therefore creating policies around them are difficult. I beg to differ. The conversation needs to start now as it often takes years or even decades to form solid policies around new technologies. The public generally learns most about these types of topics when they are brought to the forefront of conversation. The technology field is an area where there are plenty of loud voices to help guide and inform the public in deciding what stance to take. Let’s start the conversations necessary and fire off our best ideas.
6) Illustrate what is good about AR and VR (and other unproven tech) before taking them mass-market:
We’ve seen 3D movies fall hard in the home entertainment space and we’ve even seen a lack of interest among some circles in the interactive features of products such as the Xbox One and Amazon’s Echo device. Both products are promising proofs of concept, as are some currently available AR and VR products but as it stands, I haven’t seen or experienced anything that would make me want to sit down with a pair of goggles on my face for more than a 3-minute test run. The ‘killer app’ for these technologies simply doesn’t exist yet.
7)Re-Invent Software as we know it:
Operating systems are stuck. Windows is back-peddling bringing back a start menu and the Mac is getting overly complicated in trying to be simplistic. Chrome OS feels half-baked and Linux still feels like a hobbyist toy box. There’s nothing truly wrong with any of these OS’s and much of their use case comes down entirely to preference. I don’t think any of them need to be retired necessarily, I just think that if the companies building these operating systems went all-in on building parallel systems that were completely re-thought, we might arrive in a better place. The conventions of desktop computers have followed us to Android and iOS, where we call them ‘home screens’. Sure, the file structures of these systems are different but that doesn’t shine all the way through to the most visible parts of our interactions with them. Newer OS’s like Android and iOS still seem so closely tied to phones that they remove us from the power of the hardware we are actually holding when we use them. I’d love to see everything from UI to window management (multitasking), navigation and file management become more accessible and transparent to the end user in a way that promotes making any device of your choice a ‘primary’ sort of computer.
Consider this a starter kit. I could go on with probably 3 or 5 more suggestions but the reality is that I’m guessing from observations I’ve made as a consumer and tech enthusiast and I just don’t know where the bridge between today’s technology and a more compelling technological future is to cross it.
Regardless, ‘the great lull’ may indeed be upon us and it is likely going to take a few hits and more than a few misses, both publicly and behind closed doors to see what technology sticks. Walt & Nilay could be wrong, but it’s hard to be any part of it and not share in a little bit of their feelings.
With all of my optimism and wishful thinking top of mind, I think we are at the onset of a downturn in technological advancement but it is only temporary; the calm before the storm, if you will. Our biggest breakthroughs and shake-ups have historically come from these moments and we must not forget their importance.
**Disclaimer: I am an avid reader of both Re/Code and The Verge and have the utmost respect for Walt Mossberg and Nilay Patel and their respective works. I chose to write about this topic and the podcast mentioned herein to express my personal agreement with their stance on our current state of technology mentioned in the CTRL WALT DELETE podcast. Myself nor Mithical Entertainment is in any way related to, in partnership with or affiliated with Re/Code, The Verge or Vox Media or any affiliates.**