Saturday 7 December 2019

From practical to bizarre in the Berlin bazaar

A man holds a bone-shaped remote control in front of loudspeakers designed as skulls at the both of the Jarre company at the consumer electronics trade fair IFA in Berlin. Photo: Stephanie Pilick/AFP/Getty Images)
A man holds a bone-shaped remote control in front of loudspeakers designed as skulls at the both of the Jarre company at the consumer electronics trade fair IFA in Berlin. Photo: Stephanie Pilick/AFP/Getty Images)
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

How much of what tech companies make is sought - or used - by ordinary business people? How often do you use a business app? Or a stylus that comes with your tablet or smartphone? Or the biometric fingerprint reader intended to boost security access?

For that matter, how much have you thought about a watch that substitutes as a smartphone?

The question arises again after two of the biggest tech product events of the year.

Last week saw Europe's largest consumer electronics show, IFA, and Apple's iPhone, payments system and smartwatch unveilings.

While at least two out of three of Apple's products - the iPhone 6 and Apple Pay payments system - have demonstrably useful real-world purposes, IFA was crammed full of companies trying to persuade us of the merits of headband cameras and fire-resistant laptops.

"Sometimes engineers are making products for themselves," said Matt Rogers, co-founder of the €2.4bn Google-acquired smart alarm company Nest and one of the original team behind Apple's iPhone and iPad.

"They're not so much thinking of real people with real problems."

His point was well made for anyone among the 200,000 walking around IFA's Messe Berlin halls.

With the exception of Apple, virtually every large technology firm in the world was present, showing off phones, tablets, cameras, smartwatches, 'wearables' and buckets of 'internet-of-things' stuff.

New product launches ranged from the practical (Motorola's impressive new Moto X flagship smartphone) to the bizarre (Panasonic's smart mirror that advises what makeup you should wear).

But there was a nagging feeling that some companies stick on functions and features not because of real-world applicability, but just because they can, or because a group of their engineers thought it might be cool.

Take Sony, whose Xperia smartphones are generally considered to be decent handsets with terrific cameras. In its latest Z3 phone, Sony is doubling down on its 'waterproof phone' line as one of the device's main selling points.

Really? Who really ever uses their phone underwater?

Sure, it's interesting that you can make a phone waterproof (to one metre below the surface for up to 30 minutes). But is there anyone who buys a smartphone for this feature? Is it a genuine 'wow' factor when it doesn't make or take calls under water? (Like all phones, the touchscreen is inoperative when wet.)

Granted, the camera works under water. Which could be handy if you're in a turquoise lagoon as a school of clownfish swim by. Otherwise, it's a mystery as to what a waterproof phone is for. But Sony is in the ha'penny place compared to some rivals when it comes to cramming in features just for the hell of it.

Samsung, for example, has been chucking in boatloads of odd stuff into its products. Its humungous display area at Berlin's IFA tech show was like walking into a brightly lit bazaar with thousands of high-tech installations and doohdahs mounted on walls, ceiling and plinths. Waterfalls and futuristic living rooms sat side by side, showing off some pretty improbable electronics.

For example,the company's most eye-catching phone announcement was its Galaxy Edge model, whose defining factor is a curved screen around one side of the handset. The function of this curved glass area appears mainly to be the telling of time.

A few feet away from this odd device sat Samsung's definitive willy-waving centrepiece: a 105-inch curved screen television, whose display can bend or flatten out using a remote control.

Sound like must-have technology? A major advance in home entertainment? Some might say yes, some no. But that seems beside the point: Samsung figured out that they could do it, so they did it. (And now anyone with the cash to meet its €100,000-plus price tag can experience its bendability.)

To be fair to Samsung, it has some great technology going on (its Galaxy Note phones redefined what a smartphone should be used for). But it has occurred to me more than once that Samsung may, any day, mock up a Homermobile car, complete with cucuracha horns and 1950s trunk wings. You know, just because it can.

Is this a by-product of billions currently being poured into technology companies? Or is it simply in the nature of tech manufacturers to push the boat out?

Don't expect this kind of geek-focused production line to stop anytime soon. The giant flop that has been 3D televisions has barely hurt the manufacturers - Sony, Panasonic, Samsung and LG - that tried to push it so hard.

Perhaps this is no bad thing. Maybe over-exuberance and a propensity towards white elephants is a price worth paying for ever-larger research and development teams.

And it would be a sad day if companies became over-cautious in inventing things.

But sometimes it's hard to escape an occasional eye-roll. Just because a thing is possible to make, it doesn't mean that it's useful to the world.

Sunday Indo Business

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