Contrary to what you learned in your economics classes, the market isn't always about supply and demand. Sometimes it's the opposite: supplying some technology nobody wanted, then trying to create the demand for it with hype.
Ultimately it's the technology that suffers, as the public slowly gets more and more pissed off that it isn't as awesome as USA Today or the salesman at Best Buy told them it would be.
These are some of the most egregious examples.
#6. High-Definition TVs
Last year Best Buy reported huge numbers of unexpected returns of high-definition TVs because many who bought the sets thought the picture looked "like someone rubbed cat shit on the screen." How is this possible? That's the entire point of HD TV--its ability to render today's most visually intense shows in crystal-clear detail.
Consumer confusion, slow adoption.
It turns out the problem doesn't lie with the televisions; it lies with the people who buy them. Or, you could say it lies in the industry's inability to explain to those people what they're buying. It seems obvious to us computer- literate and sexually confident Internet users that if you buy an HDTV you still need an HD source--a special box from your cable company or satellite provider--to get an HD picture. But to your average Joe, who's used to plugging one wire into the back of his TV, this can be a frustrating realization.
"What do you mean I need special cables?"
"What do you mean I need to rent a little box with it?"
"What do you mean I'll have to pay more monthly for the HD plan?"
"What do you mean my DVD player isn't high definition? What's 'Blu-ray?'"
Then he goes into the other room and kicks his dog. This is the true face of animal abuse in America today: frustrated A/V installations.
According to a recent Nielsen study half of the people who own HD television sets don't use them with a high-definition source. Many of them don't even know.
That's a problem, because if you happen to watch any standard definition channels on your HD TV, you'll find the picture is now distorted on your widescreen set. If we wanted to see what Katie Couric looks like 40 pounds heavier, we'd Photoshop her head onto a fat guy's body, like any normal person.
Sure you can fiddle with the picture settings to sort of resolve this; it'll likely require a couple of hours on the phone with a support center in India, and the resulting picture will still be a grainy mess. This is why Best Buy is getting irate customers dragging in returned sets with shattered holes in the screen the exact size and shape of an angry fist.
Eventually these problems will fade away, once the only type of television on store shelves is HD, and the only type of cable is HD, and the only type of DVD players for sale is HD. Mr. Johnny Average Consumer Idiot* won't have to take a six-week course to figure out what terms like HDMI and 1080p mean, because everything will be figured out for him.
*Not a real person. If this is your real name, we are sorry. For a couple reasons.
Sometime in the late 1990s, when seemingly every noun in the English language was getting prefixed with an "e" or an "i" by clever marketing types, some young firebrand decided that the book, an invention that had served mankind faithfully for several decades, wasn't good enough anymore. These visionaries reasoned that people would much rather read everything on a computer screen all the time, because computers were rad ("rad" still being used in its un-ironic sense at the time).
Bad screens, bad batteries, l337 W@rez Pir@te5.
As it turns out, computer screens are miserable, hateful things to read on. People read on computers because they have to, not because they want to. Modern "electronic-ink" technology had improved the readability of ebooks somewhat, but other technological challenges remain--most notably, battery life. As an example, our favorite book here in the Cracked offices--the novelization of Batman Begins--never needs its batteries recharged. Can an ebook ever make that claim?
Actually, what exactly is the advantage to carrying an ebook? An MP3 player is great because it prevents us from having to carry a backpack with 100 CDs in it. An ebook isn't any more convenient to carry around than a paperback, and you can use the latter to swat a fly if you need to.
Probably the biggest obstacle, though, is piracy. We all know what happened when MP3s arrived on the scene. Internet pirates began treating the music industry in a delicate manner normally reserved for prison rapes. Wherever publishers are offering content for download, there is someone out on Gnutella offering it for free. As it is for music and movies and software, it will be for books.
Given the hurdles, we can't imagine ebooks taking off any time in the near future, even if they are probably inevitable in the long run (when we run out of trees, if nothing else). What seems most likely is that "ebooks" won't be separate devices at all, just a way to read the books on the next generation of all-in-one devices (a cell phone/MP3 player/PDA/taser). Why people in the future will still choose to read novels when they're constantly bombarded with opportunities to download clips of the popular future television show "Fisting With The Stars" is harder to say.
#4. Municipal Wi-Fi
"Muncipal Wi-Fi" is the idea that if Wi-Fi hotspots could be carefully laid out in a city--say, one on every lamppost--then everyone in that city would have free (or cheap) Internet access. This has made the news a few times over the last couple years as various cities have announced they were going to roll it out, in an effort to fulfill an oft-forgotten part of the American Dream.
Nobody wants to pay for it.
Obviously to get that kind of ubiquitous Wi-Fi signal, someone (specifically, someone else) has to actually set up and maintain all of these Wi-Fi hotspots. That means the local government has to hire a company to do it, which would be great if that company was willing to do it for free (like if it was owned by a kind old billionaire who just likes giving things to people).
Otherwise, the money has to come from somewhere and nobody is quite sure where. Everything from monthly user fees, to tax increases to ad-supported access has been suggested.
Compounding these problems is that it costs way more than was anticipated to get the cities wired up. The ones who'd actually maintain the hotspots, network engineers, generally don't like being outdoors in the first place and so they probably charge extra.
Even Google, which is fully capable of buying and selling our comedy-writing asses several billion times over, was only willing to set up Municipal Wi-Fi in their own idyllic small town. What hope does an unpopular and unattractive city like, say, Chicago, have? In most cities, the people will take to the street with torches and pitchforks when a tax increase is imposed to put a new roof on the school. What will they do when they're asked to fork over money to give everyone in the city free access to YouTube?