Enough tech – back to Betamax

We already have more new consumer technology than we can cope with comfortably. The challenge now should be to develop technology that works better.

I was a little flattered the other day when a keen young reporter called me from a technology magazine to ask me what I thought the key technologies of 2014 had been, and what the emerging trends for 2015 would be.

As a keen young reporter myself, once and long ago, I agreed to be interviewed. This is always an interesting progress – a bit like a surgeon watching a younger doctor remove his appendix – and only slightly less painful.

Asking me to talk about technology, and particularly about the way that people use technology, is a bit like asking a Jehovah’s Witness if they fancy standing on the doorstep and talking about God for a few hours.

No matter where my answers took him, he resolutely ignored every lead or obvious follow-up question to stick rigidly to his prepared list of questions.

His killer and final question was: “What is going to be the biggest new trend for 2015?” To which I responded frankly that I had no idea. And that’s because almost no one does. Tech successes and failures share a common characteristic – they are never perfect when they are launched. In fact they often look equally hopeless. And success depends not just on the quality of the technology but also on the ability of people to understand and exploit the advantages the technology offers.

The latest headline grabbing news from the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas this week was the reintroduction of (wait for it) the Sony Walkman – after a 30-year absence from the market. Last year it was all about 4K television sets. However it soon became apparent to everyone that 4K was only OK if there were 4K programmes to watch on it. Of course you don’t have to stop at 4K.

Apple already have an iMac with a 5K screen, which probably delivers more detail to the working environment than is really necessary. Indeed, if the end user is viewing your website on a £299 laptop from Tesco, or a three-inch phone screen, the quality of the machine on which it was produced is irrelevant. In any event, the colour and detail that the designer sees will not be the colour that the end user perceives.

Whisper it, but I have a funny feeling that we already have more technologies than we know what to do with. For example, technology allows us the luxury of equipment that that will do different tasks. But often not very well. Nokia used to sell a smartphone with a 42 MB camera. Very few people need a 42mb camera. The files they create are huge and the processing power required to produce the image is so large that there is a necessary delay between taking one picture and being ready to take another. And what’s the point of a 42mb image if you are going to view it on a 72dpi computer screen or a 6 by 4 inch print from Boots? The quality of the call on this phone like all others is pretty inadequate.

Many new TVs come with gaming platforms, and a requirement to access a home wi-fi network. The screens are anorexically thin – but that means that you have to buy a separate sound system because the in-built speakers are feeble. Incidentally, the price of 4K televisions has dropped from the £3,000 mark last year to a few hundred pounds this year. And there are still very few programmes to watch that take advantage such extraordinary definition. Although it is a joy to watch old TV programmes on high-def TV, if only to realise now how shoddily built the sets were. Most modern TVs are so feature rich that few users understand how to use them properly.

As a builder of websites, I know that most people have more trouble accessing their emails on phones than they do with any other piece of tech. And their first port of call when there is a problem is the man who built the website (me) rather than the company that supplied the phone. One of my favourite memories concerns a (thankfully) former client who told me that his emails were not working. In fact, what he meant was that he couldn’t receive them on his mobile phone. “When did it stop working?” I asked. “Oh, it’s never worked,” he confessed. Nothing daunted I persevered: “Well, let’s have a look at the manual and see what we can do.” Client looks at me in amazement: “I don’t have a manual.” Of course not, silly me. “Well you’d better take it back to the shop and get some advice.” Client: “Shop?” Me: “Yes, shop.” Client:”I got it from a cousin in Abu Dhabi…”

In the face of such techno-fear perhaps it isn’t surprising that Sony have brought back the Walkman after 30 years. No cassette tapes of course, but a pretty bog standard MP3 player with a measly 32 GB of storage space. What next – back to Betamax?

Of course, old technology had some advantages. The Betamax video cassette recorder delivered a better picture than VHS, you couldn’t lose the remote because it was attached to the machine by a cable and thefts were rare – if only because the machines were too heavy to lift.

Sometimes all we need is not new technology, but better technology. How about a mobile phone that always delivered perfect reception rather than one on which you can watch a movie, create a multimedia presentation or find the nearest branch of Pizza Hut? Some users are going back to basics. Old (i.e. ten-year-old) mobile phones are apparently this year’s fashion accessory of choice, with old style Nokias and flip-top phones especially popular.

They can improve things all they like – but they’ll never make them any better.

As the crusty old college don says in Tom Sharpe’s Porterhouse Blue: “They can improve things all they like – but they’ll never make them any better.” No sooner had Apple withdrawn the 128 Gb iPod Classic from its range than the price of the few available players went through the roof. At £600, an iPod classic was 50% dearer than a 50” 4K TV from the Richer Sounds sale. Apple’s vision for the future calls for easy access to fast networks and lots of bandwidth so that you can pay to listen to music from the cloud. In reality, most people don’t have that luxury and would prefer to keep the music in their hip pocket for free. The demand for the iPod classic is clearly there. It’s just that the product is no longer manufactured. How much better if Sony had moved into the space vacated by Apple, instead of producing another piece of ‘me-too’ technology.

Most people don’t use the power of the technology already at their disposal. I am embarrassed to say that I had actually forgotten that my four-year-old Apple Mac contains powerful dictation software within its operating system. Indeed this article has been dictated rather than typed – just as an experiment.

“Waves move around the earth because of the magnetic pull of the moon on water” – BBC TV and radio presenter Adrian Chiles, January 2015.

As a society, we are woefully ignorant about science and technology. Radio 5 presenter Adrian Chiles announced this week that he was fascinated by tides and tidal power. He explained to the nation that tides moved across the surface of the earth, because of the “magnetic pull of the moon.” This is a phenomenon that had escaped the attentions of Newton, Galileo and Einstein to name only a few.

How an educated person in the 21st century can believe that water and the moon have a magnetic attraction to each other is beyond my understanding. No wonder people have problems syncing their phones.

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