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I have just realized that FOIB and ianbell.com passed their 10-year anniversary some time in 2009 without me really marking the event.  During that time I’ve authored thousands of articles, missives, and comments that have been shared from my online pulpit and you, dear reader, have astonishingly tolerated it all with few complaints.  Thanks!

Lately I have been thinking a lot about the technology that has entered and exited our lives over the past 10 years.  Over the ten-year lifespan of this blog and the mailing list that preceeded it much has changed in the technologies that permeate our daily lives — when we began this journey in 1999, desktops outsold notebooks by 4:1, Apple was a novelty computer maker for uber-geeks, and no one you knew had ever ‘googled’ themselves in public.  I thought I’d run down the most disappointing aspects of our jaunty shuffle into modernity.

What makes a technology disappointing?  Many products fail in obscurity because they try to solve something irrelevant.  What you need to do to make this list, friends, is aim high and fail wildly.   While most of the FAILs described herein are products, I did also find a couple of product categories which have really disappointed.. and one entire industry.  After all, disappointment is invariably the result of a combination of promise (our hopes & goals for the product or service) and the provider’s failure to achieve that promise.  Sometimes the predisposition for failure afflicts not just one company or product team, but an entire industry.  So here we go:

Motorola ROKR

In 2005, the fact that Apple was working on a mobile device to follow-up the iPod was a very poorly-kept secret, but the specifics were the source of much speculation.  And oh, how the fan boys wept when they thought that the sum-total of this effort was the ROKR, an epic piece of crap on which Apple collaborated with Motorola to produce a re-labelled Moto E398 with an iTunes client.  Although the ROKR had 512MB of memory on-board, the device was software-limited to 100 songs — and downloading them was a painful process as the device lacked USB 2.0.  Predictably the product was a #FAIL and Jobs and co. left Zander in the dust with the iPhone, but for those who actually believed that this was Apple’s solitary foray into mobile, there were a few sleepless months.

Satellite Radio

FM radio sucks.  There’s probably a JACK-FM station in your city, where the DeeJays “play what they want”.  Only, they don’t really.. they play exclusively Top 10 hits from the past 20 years regardless of musical genre, the result of which can easily result in a computer-controlled segue from Katrina and the Waves to a Beyonce track.  That the radio business considers this format to be innovative explains why we need alternatives, and satellite radio was supposed to be that alternative.  Sirius and XM radio both got off the ground in 2001, so to speak.  In 2003 I predicted a merger between the two, which was announced February 2007.  And while Satellite radio does permit greater diversity, and thus narrower focus, in channels there are many problems.  Foremost of these is the audio compression technology, called Lucent PAC, which according to studies has lower perceptual quality than even MP3 at the same bitrate; and the rumoured limitation of stream bandwidth to 64Kbps per channel… far worse than the MP3s on your hard drive and light years from the “CD Quality” that Sirius et al used to advertise.  This makes Satellite radio a no-go for audiophiles, but OK for talk radio and sports.  We continue to wait for decent music without wires.

Nokia N-Gage

It’s likely that the N-Gage failed simply because it failed to.. uh.. engage the game development community with much enthusiasm.  Launched in 2004, the device’s total failure was predicted by a string of awful reviews stemming from substantial usability problems, such as the fact that users had to essentially disassemble the device to swap games, or the fact that one couldn’t receive calls while playing a game, or that the device was weighty and uncomfortable and impractical for use as a phone, or the fact that the screen could not display horizontally, or its $299 price tag (substantially higher than the Game Boy Advance).  Developers probably saw the writing on the wall when evaluating early test units of the N-Gage.

The PDA

Remember the iPaq?  Or the early Palm devices?  Today, the notion of a mobile address book device that isn’t coupled to a telephone seems positively stupid.  In November 2000, I asked the market to build me a mobile handheld device that married my email to my phone and tied it together via my address book — all of which synced to my PC.  In my mind at the time, PDAs were gap fillers until we could field broadband wireless IP networks that provided persistent connectivity.  The smartphone — devices like the iPhone and Droid — killed the PDA and for most of us I suspect that is good riddance.  Nobody wants to walk around looking like Batman, their belt burdened by half-a-dozen devices beeping and squawking.  How many people bought these things or received them as gifts, only to abandon them within months?  Still, credit where it’s due — the PDA begat the SmartPhone, and we’re all better for it.

Modo.NET

I’m betting you never heard of Modo.NET because it was launched exclusively in San Francisco, LA and New York in the summer of  2000, but Scout Electromedia, the company that created it, collapsed within 3 months (in fact the device was available in SF for only 1 day before the business folded dramatically).  Like Dodgeball, which launched shortly after Modo’s collapse, Modo was all about the urban hipster lifestyle.  Built around yet another PDA-like device with a hugely innovative design, the Modo leveraged the paging network to update its users with happenings in and around the city… it was like the pager you carried with you when going out on the town on Friday nights.  Two major design compromises crippled the Modo, however… it had no keyboard; and was receive-only.  Also… like Dodgeball, the Modo was an idea ahead of its time: all of Scout’s business and consumer goals are now attainable on smartphones:  no stand-alone device or clunky SMSing necessary.  Today many of these goals are embodied in Foursquare and other services.

Motorola DVR Series

Hello again, Motorola!  Let me make this crystal clear for you, Mr. Zander:  Dude, I just want to be able to watch TV and record things for playback later with a minimum of interference.  In response, Motorola created an underpowered set-top device that frequently overheats, trashes its own hard drive, and has a user interface that is akin to debating Keynesian Economics with a three-year-old.  Perhaps it’s because you have an effective duopoly, along with your buddies from Scientific Atlanta, on the cable set-top-box market even despite the FCC’s insistence on the CableCard standard.  Perhaps you simply lack the kind of employees that have any affinity for user experience design.  What is evident is that you and your cable partners are under no specific motivation to improve this product, as it has now been in circulation for nearly 5 years with zero material improvement.  In fact, your products in this category, including the DCT-6412 with which I am famously saddled (this article is the number one most visited on ianbell.com) are so crappy that the FCC believes they are discouraging people from adopting Cable Television itself.  Be ashamed.  You suck.

The AppleTV

Like Afghanistan, the set top box seems to be a graveyard of empires — so much so that even Silicon Valley’s King Midas, Steve Jobs, has been laid humble before it.  The AppleTV is, like many other set top boxes, underpowered for the task at hand.  More like an iPod than a Mac Mini, the AppleTV fails to meet user expectations as an all-rounder, lacks CODECs for popular formats and wrappers like .MKV and .AVI, and only works effectively when you pay for and download all of your content from the iTunes walled garden.  Set top boxes that do satisfy tend to allow users to get their content from wherever and sync/stream it from a media server elsewhere in the house — this is true of the iPod lineup, and that is a lesson Apple should have carried forward into this product.  Moreover, the AppleTV doesn’t even have an OFF button.

Green Cars

In 2006, when I bought my Jetta GLI, I promised myself that it would be my last gas-guzzler.  I just bought another vanilla car last month, though, after seeking and failing to find a suitable practical alternative in the diesel, hybrid, pure electric, or hydrogen vehicle.  It’s important to understand that gasoline, hydrogen, and batteries are simply storage media for energy.  Where energy is derived from — whether it’s nuclear, solar, wind, coal, crude oil, or whatever else you can come up with — determines the sustainability, not what it burns or farts out the tailpipe.  Moreover for me, like most consumers, a next-generation car needs to fulfill my usual manly requirement for sportiness or (for others) accessibility or safety, with some added convenience — such as not needing to buy gas at stations or being able to drive long distances without a refuel.  The zero tailpipe emissions is a nice benefit, but not a buying feature for most.  As I pointed out last year, mainstream auto manufacturers have consistently failed to figure this out.  And if you live in a region where all of the energy on the grid is derived from coal or natural gas then you are not doing the environment any favours by purchasing a plug-in.

Pet Robots

Since Robbie the Robot did the rounds on TV sitcoms in the 1950s, Americans have fantasized about having a jetsons-style friend rendered in metal and silicon adorning their living room.  With the launch of Sony’s AIBO in late 1999, things were looking up for us.  At a price tag of $2500 though, there was still some room for improvement, and robots began to emerge all up and down the cost and capability matrix.  The most successful by far was iRobot’s Roomba, which fulfills the robot servant role quite nicely but falls flat on the personality index.  In the latter category resides the Pleo, and I will confess I have always wanted one.  Unlike the Aibo, though, the Pleo isn’t really autonomous.  It gets an hour at the most out of its batteries, and cannot return by itself to its charging station.  The Pleo is a great demonstration of how pre-programmed behaviour can trigger emotions — not in the robot itself, but in its owner — but sadly disappoints and is not viable as a “pet” robot.  Maybe next decade, Robbie.

Music Revolution

At the end of the last decade, with the massive growth of Napster, the writing was on the wall.  People clearly voted with their feet in showing how they wanted to use music.  While this had been the case for decades, with mix tapes and pirate radio, the internet as in other industries was a key enabler.  Yet rather than embrace and extend this revolution, as tech industry companies tend to do, the music industry went on the warpath via the RIAA.  Lawyers mobilized, suing 12-year-old kids, single moms, and other obvious villains.  The only accomplishment of the RIAA has been to effectively kill internet radio, which would serve to promote their artists, while music sharing has continued unabated.  Yet, at the end of the decade came one smattering of good news, and further proof of industry executives’ failure to appreciate irony:  a lawsuit revealed that the Canadian music industry has been stealing from artists for 25+ years, and faces a $6Bn liability.  Small justice, I suppose.  So while the technologies (that’s what this post is about after all) that came from the publishers has been an abject failure, the technologies, such as BitTorrent, WebJay, Pandora, et al created by users and lovers of music has flowered.  Imagine what would happen if the innovators actually had the support of that industry?

Thanks for reading, and we’ll see you through the teens.

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