Monday 29 December 2014

High-profile tech tools we just can't learn to love

Published 29/05/2014 | 02:30

Google glass
Google Glass

We rant and rave about how great the latest tech is. But what about the failures and the flops? What about the services and the gadgets which, having been proclaimed as the big new thing, lamely peter out? Or worse – those that don't have the grace to exit and stubbornly limp on, unloved? Here are six different gadgets, services and technologies that have been trumpeted and feted but which have failed to make the grade.

Apple Siri

Once every few years, Apple puts its weight behind a flop. It's a relatively rare occurrence, but it has happened with Siri, the voice-enabled feature used primarily with iPhones. Logically, it sounds appealing – a system that allows you to do things even quicker by speaking instructions rather than keying or typing them.

There are two problems, though. First, it's not good enough as a technology. There are too many errors and misinterpretations. Secondly, and most importantly, it ignores the social reticence that people naturally feel when narrating instructions.

Would you dictate an instant messaging conversation on a bus or on the street? Or even at home, in the company of family?

Siri's only apparent usefulness is as an in-car aide. To be fair, it's not just Apple's Siri that suffers from this: Google's equivalent service, while very usable in some circumstances, has the same problem.

Google Glass

Last week, a respected Irish technology investor generously announced on Twitter that he would loan out his pair of Google Glass. While someone undoubtedly took him up on the offer, some reactions were lukewarm.

The truth is that Google Glass has gone from being the hottest gadget around to a slightly creepy, resentfulness-inspiring bauble. In its endless pre-sale 'beta' period (18 months and counting), no one has yet come up with a fun reason for non-military, non-policing or non-pornography industry users to wear them. And people I know who have a pair are generally reticent to wear them in public.

It's not just that people bristle at the thought of being filmed by default, it's also that they don't seem to add much to many people's lives. It's possible that some great apps might change all of this by the time Google actually releases the gadget for sale. But right now, Google Glass is yesterday's news.

Smart TVs

What have Sony, Samsung, Panasonic and LG got in common? They've all spent the last five years trying to come up with new ways to persuade us that we want 'smart' televisions, where we open up a Facebook or Twitter panel on one side of the telly.

In almost all instances, the pitch has fallen flat. Sooner or later, manufacturers will need to figure out that televisions are, and look likely to remain, vehicles for passive entertainment. Second screening?

Undoubtedly: but that's what phones and tablets are for. On-demand content? Yes, please – but that's a single click on Netflix, Sky or UPC. We really don't need a new complicated interface to activate it. Nor do we need high definition cameras to facially recognise who's in the room for "viewing preferences".

Microsoft Bing

By all accounts, Microsoft is doing respectably (it has an 18pc share) with Bing in the US market. But in Europe, it's a non-runner. Anyone with a Nokia Lumia device knows this: it's simply not optimised for European consumption.

This is a shame. As it stands, using Bing in Ireland leads to eclectic and highly unsatisfactory results, with an overly US-centric skew.

Mobile payments

There are three missions that could be described as representing the tech holy grail. Mobile payments is one of them. Every year, some of the biggest companies in the world go back to the drawing board to figure out what might make us comfortable paying for everyday items using our phone.

Almost everyone (Google, Paypal, Visa, McDonalds, Starbucks, countless banks) has tried. So far, everyone has failed. The majority of us simply don't trust smartphones to hold and dispense money for us.

Health in the cloud

On paper, it is one of the most logical technology evolutions you can imagine: centralise databases and services to speed up health administration and give critical access to hospitals and doctors on patients' medical history.

Such services, which would cut through piles of time-consuming paperwork, could literally save lives. And yet almost every firm that has tried to introduce such technology has crashed and burned in the effort.

From Netscape founder Jim Clark's Healtheon in 1995 to Athena Medical (currently the biggest cloud health firm) today, digitised health records remain as elusive a goal as ever. Is it a genuine fear for privacy?

Or, like our resistance to modernised electoral procedures, is there simply a powerful middle management that blocks reform?

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