5 Signs the Tech Industry Finally Ran Out of Ideas in 2013
Like many of you, a love of gadgets is what I have instead of a soul. Within a few strides of this spot I can put my hands on an iPad, an iPhone, an Android phone, a Samsung Series 9 Ultrabook, a Kindle, two desktop PCs, and four video game consoles. And while there isn't a single game I want to play for any of the new game systems, I'll wind up buying one or both of them just because I can't stop buying things.
So when I say that 2013 was the year consumer tech completely ran out of ideas, I'm not coming at this like a Luddite or cheapskate, grumping about how nobody needs this plastic Chinese crap because in my day we wrote comedy with nothing more than a frightened squid taped to a sharp stick. I'm saying I want the Next Big Thing, and I want it now, to fill this emptiness inside me.
But 2013 was bad news for people like me, because ...
(You might think the West has come a long way since the Dark Ages, but did you know the rest of the world came a long way during "the Dark Ages"? Get The De-Textbook and de-bullshit your historical lore.)
Apple Appears to Have Stopped Innovating
Here's the ad for Apple's newest product, the iPad Air, showing off its one selling point:
Yep, it's thinner than the old iPad -- thin enough to hide behind a pencil, in fact! And thank God for that, because the sheer thickness of the previous iPad models made me want to shit myself with rage. It was a whopping 8.8 millimeters thick, while the iPad Air is only 7.5 millimeters. Several members of our team own the old iPad models, and time and time again we sent out assignments and time and time again got the reply, "I'm sorry, David, my iPad is simply too thick for that task."
In case you can't tell, I'm being sarcastic! If this 1.3 millimeter decrease in thickness motivates you to buy an iPad that you previously had no use for, you almost certainly have some kind of mental illness! My point is that the first iPad hit the market in 2010, and as far as I can tell, that was Apple's last game-changer. And we're overdue for one -- it showed up three years after the iPhone appeared in 2007. Was Siri supposed to be their Next Big Thing? Because I've literally never seen someone use Siri in public -- my wife stopped using it the moment she realized that telling it to "Call me Rock God" would result only in the phone telling you that there is no "Merock Godd" in your contact list for it to call:
"But I use Siri all the time!" some of you are already saying in an email that will never reach me because you're trying to send it using Siri. Whatever -- the point is that Apple's sales are flattening out, as they've started relying on releasing their devices in more markets rather than inventing the next wondrous gadget that the world didn't know it desperately wanted until they unveiled it. You'd better have something in the works for 2014. Trust me, you won't like it if we stop buying gadgets and start to appreciate the simple things in life. Not unless you figure out how to charge 800 bucks for the simple joy of a child's smile.
3D TV Failed, and Television Makers Are Lost as to What's Next
I admit: I pooh-poohed the idea of high-def TV back when it was new, but the day we had one delivered to Wong Manor seven years or so ago was a big deal -- the widescreen aspect ratio alone made us feel like we'd moved up in the world. Then a few years later when we replaced that LCD TV with a brand new Sony LED, it was ... not such a big deal. The jump from 720p to 1080p (I don't know what those numbers mean!) was not visible to my old man eyes, beyond the fact that it looked a little ... cleaner, I guess? Maybe? Like somebody had just given my old TV a good scrubbing? Oh, and it made some movies look like soap operas. The point is, it wasn't the "HOLY SHIT I CAN SEE THE PORES ON LAURENCE FISHBURNE'S FACE!" revelation that HD was. It wasn't the Next Big Thing.
No, that was supposed to be 3D TV. But by 2013, it had come and gone -- they've all but abandoned the technology after realizing that they violated Rule #1 of consumer entertainment:
People Don't Want to Have to Wear a Dorky Thing on Their Head.
"Oh, yeah, this is much better. I will have the most powerful neck in the universe!"
Sure, we'll wear 3D glasses for the duration of a movie in a theater (although even that is turning out to be a passing fad) -- there, we're all together in a dark room, where no one can see us. But nobody wants to wear this uncomfortable, dorky looking shit while sitting at home, or in a social setting. This is why virtual reality died in the 1990s and never came back -- we don't want to be immersed in a wondrous world of fantasy if it means having to wear a goddamned nerd helmet while members of the opposite sex might be watching. Or members of the same sex, or anyone. Remember this rule, by the way -- it's going to come up again.
So this year, TV makers started really pushing 4K televisions -- a kind of super high-def format that they hope will be the Next Big Thing instead of 3D. It has billions more pixels (probably?) and creates a scene so lifelike, you can't distinguish it from reality (note: This is also how they sold me HD a decade ago). Here's an ad showing how the technology will make stupid people think they're going to die:
So, three quick problems with that:
A) Not all of my channels are even in HD yet -- on AT&T U-verse, I'm still getting some channels (like IFC) in standard def only -- they're still not finished upgrading on the back end.
B) Most of my viewing is done via streaming, and none of that comes through in 1080p -- during high traffic periods, half the shows I watch on Netflix look like compressed YouTube videos shot with an iPhone. Again, the infrastructure on the back end isn't up to 1080p standards. But that leads us to the bigger problem ...
C) My home Internet connection comes with a 300GB bandwidth cap, and other ISPs have it set as low as 50GB. But streaming one 4K movie will cost you 40 motherporking GB of bandwidth -- and will take 10 hours to download for the average U.S. household.
Which really reopens the window for physical disk porn rentals.
And that's all to get a picture quality that, from normal viewing distances, looks exactly the same. The limitation is our own biology -- adding a buttload more pixels just doesn't change what the human eye can perceive from the sofa. So your investment is worthless unless you intend to sit 3 feet away from an 85-inch screen.
Don't get me wrong -- within a few years, every TV will have 4K capability. Sure, the vast majority of content you can watch on it will still not be 4K, since broadcasters are still paying for the HD equipment they just bought and bandwidth caps aren't going anywhere -- but the upgrade will happen. It just won't be anything to get excited about, and it certainly isn't giving me reason to chuck my two-year-old LED TV into the trash, no matter how much I love the sensation of peeling that plastic static film off a new set (and I do love it). Once again, 2013 found us compulsive gadget buyers just shrugging and saying, "What else you got?"
To which gadget makers said, "Wait, did you say you did or didn't like wearing bulky electronic shit on your body? Because ..."
Wearable Gadgets Arrived, and They're as Ridiculous as You Thought
Literally every single person reading this can remember the day they went in to have laser eye surgery, only to have the lady behind the counter patiently explain that it would not actually involve implanting lasers in their eyes. This is when most of us realized that a future in which technology augments our fragile human bodies still lies far beyond the horizon.
In the real world of 2013, the closest thing we have is a series of wearable gadgets that are grossly impractical, but make up for it by also making us look like dorks. Years ago, the sight of a Bluetooth earpiece became cultural shorthand for "douchebag," and yet the tech companies all seem to think consumers will, any moment now, embrace putting gadgetry right on their face or some other visible part of their body.
"All suited up. Are you ready to experience MP3s like never before?!"
Like Google Glass, the Next Big Thing in smartphone technology that tantalized nerds with the promise of augmented reality (aka Terminator vision) and threatened the rest of us with a future full of drooling Glass zombies shuffling around, deeply engrossed in apps only they can see. The reality is these smart glasses have only a few hours of battery life, can only display a tiny, grainy image, often don't work if you already wear glasses, don't fold up for easy storage, and oh, by the way, are much less capable than even a cheap smartphone -- in other words, you still need to keep a phone in your pocket. So Glass adds to the amount of shit you have to carry around, and charge, and upgrade. You may recognize this multiplication and complication of consumer tech as the exact opposite of what technology has been trying to accomplish for the last 50 years or so.
Less intrusive, but even less useful, is Samsung's Galaxy Gear smart watch -- a "phone built into a wristwatch" gadget that pop culture has been promising us since Dick Tracy.
Hey, did you know that it doesn't let you just glance at it to check the time? Like any smartphone, the screen goes to sleep to save battery -- you have to hit a button to make it act like a watch. Otherwise it's an ugly, bulky $300 phone you wear on your wrist with a tiny little screen that, once again, can only be used if paired with an actual phone. So it does a series of jobs that your other gadgets already do, only much, much worse.
Meanwhile, any time you mention that video games seem to have run out of ideas, somebody invariably says "Just wait until Oculus Rift, dude!" referring to the high-def virtual reality goggles that have spawned thousands of YouTube videos of users losing their shit:
And I don't doubt that I'll have that exact same reaction ... for the first 10 minutes. But let me get this straight -- 3D TV failed because people didn't want to sit on their sofa wearing this:
But Oculus Rift is the future because those same people will want to sit for five or six hours wearing this:
I hate to break it to you, guys, but the world didn't reject VR because the graphics weren't good enough -- they were awesome for the time. It just didn't matter because humans don't want to wear a big dorky thing on their head. We're very particular about what we put on our heads; this is why hair care is such a huge industry and 35 states are in the process of passing anti-fedora legislation. Plus, the moment you cover your eyes with that thing at a party, what's the first thing that will happen to you? That's right -- some dude will come up behind the sofa and lay his dick on your shoulder. And everyone will laugh and laugh.
Hey, speaking of which ...
The New Game Consoles Arrived, Based on Features No One Could Want
OK, maybe "no one could want" is too strong. It's possible someone out there wants these features. Someone awful, whom I don't want to know.
I was pretty hard on the Xbox One when it was unveiled earlier this year, and I'm not going to rehash my complaints -- namely that it almost certainly sells videos of you masturbating to the NSA. Microsoft simply made the type of move that has been their trademark -- if the customer doesn't like a product, simply force them to take it anyway. If you're a longtime Windows user and want a new laptop, you have to get Windows 8, unless you want to start over and re-buy every piece of software you own. And if you want the new Xbox, you have to take the Kinect with it -- you know, the thing nobody used last time?
But even if we put that aside, the Xbox and PS4 both boast, as their major selling points, features that I don't remember hearing anyone ask for. For example, in this comprehensive Ars Technica buyer's guide for the Xbox One vs. the PS4, it says the Xbox's "killer app" is the "snap" feature -- basically the ability to play a game in one window while watching TV or a movie in another tiny window too small to see unless you have an IMAX television. OK, who in the possible shit is this for?
"Finally, I can consolidate my wall of TVs."
"Maybe it's for when I want to play a game and someone else wants to watch a movie?" Then they'll have to go into another room, because it would be a living hell for them to try to watch a movie in a tiny window while you are shooting zombies in a much larger one. "Well, maybe when I'm watching TV, I want to play a game during the commercial breaks." Sorry, if you're the type of person who'd do this, you're already watching TV either on DVR delay or by streaming it -- either way you're not seeing lengthy, unskippable commercial breaks. "What if I want to Skype with my friends while playing a video game?" That's the closest anyone has come to making sense of this madness, but you can already talk to friends when playing multiplayer via the headset, right? So this adds, what? The ability to see your friend sitting on their sofa, at the cost of valuable screen real estate?
Meanwhile, that same article says the PS4's killer new innovation is the ability to watch other people playing their game, instead of playing it yourself. Just a quick survey: Raise your hand if you enjoy doing that. I'm not talking about watching popular "Let's Play" YouTube personalities do it, either -- there are some out there who I consider to be national treasures (NSFW) ...
... but they're the ones who put actual work into their presentation. That's not what this is -- this is all about everyone becoming a Let's Play streamer, and everyone else gaining the ability to randomly drop in on strangers and watch them fart around on levels and skip cutscenes and do everything different from how you'd do it ("WHY IS HE JUMPING EVERYWHERE INSTEAD OF JUST WALKING ARRGHH"). Those of you who said you're into this, how many of you are also alien replicants only pretending to be humans in order to learn our ways? That's what I thought.
But the article I linked is right -- those ancillary and somewhat baffling features are in fact their "killer apps" -- i.e., the only thing that really sets these systems apart. Without the "do things other than play games that you already were able to do perfectly well with other devices" additions, these new consoles are only here to give us the diminishing returns graphics that won't really show true innovation for a couple of years. Nothing on shelves now, or on the upcoming release lists, is worth anything close to the $600-plus new gen entry fee.
Of course, sometimes you just have to spend some to get rid of all that extra money weight.
And again, my entire conscious life has been an unbroken string of game consoles -- I've owned 11 of them in my life, going back to Pong. So not buying one of these is unthinkable to me. But the only thing sadder to me than not owning one would be forking over the cash and realizing I have no use for it. Don't do this to me, guys. You don't want to know what I do with my spare time when I don't have a video game system to fill it. Let's put it this way: If you don't give me something soon, you'll be reading about it in the paper.
2013 Was the Year Google Finally Turned Evil
We thought Google was going to save the world.
This company, which started humbly enough as a search engine that worked slightly better than Lycos, soon expanded into improving email, operating systems, office software, phones -- everything up to and including freaking self-driving cars. Everything they touched, they improved. Gmail was light years better than Hotmail. Google Maps gave us a God's-eye view of our world.
And through all of that -- through the stunning rise of the stock, through the value of the company soaring into 12 digits -- they retained that feel of the scrappy underdog we all rooted for. On occasion, they even turned their company logo into whimsical doodads for no reason whatsoever, other than to remind us that they were regular folks like us. Folks who just happened to have the smarts, desire, and cash to be our monopoly slayers. Their phones gave us an alternative to an increasingly dickish Apple, their free Google Docs software gave us an alternative to Microsoft Office, their social network gave us an alternative to Facebook.
Yeah, about that last one ...
A famous Batman movie villain once said, "You either die a hero or live long enough to become the villain. Now say hello to my Freeze Gun, ice hole!" And sure enough, in 2013 Google finally put on that Arnold Schwarzenegger cooling suit. It started when the aforementioned social network, Google Plus (or Google+), fell on its face. It was actually a superior product to Facebook, but not so much so that anyone felt like uprooting their entire social media presence and starting back at zero with their friends and likes -- lists that we've spent years building on Facebook.
How far behind Facebook are they? Well, for instance, this article of mine has been shared 4,700 times on Google+, which sounds like a lot ... until you notice it's been shared 454,000 times on Facebook. That's not an isolated case -- overall, Facebook usage beats Google+ by an astonishing 60 to 1 ratio.
Although idiocy levels are roughly equal.
Now, as we mentioned above in our Microsoft Kinect example, where a good company either cuts its losses or redoubles its efforts to improve and/or promote the product, an evil monopoly simply grabs its customers by the back of the head and crams the unwanted product down their throats. You might also recognize this as the business model used by hated cable companies ("If you want ESPN, you have to also pay for the Oprah Network, asshole!") and the equally hated music industry back in the day ("If you want to hear this awesome single, you'll have to pay $22 for 10 other tracks of covers, instrumentals, and other filler on this CD, because we are invincible and this business model will never, ever die!").
So, Google remembered that they owned YouTube, which holds a monopoly on video streaming (it is 20 times bigger than the next biggest competitor -- if you're trying to make a living creating video, it's YouTube or nothing). A few months ago, every YouTube viewer, creator, and commenter logged in to find a popup telling them that their YouTube account was going to go away. Only Google+ would be allowed. They either had to log in under a Google+ account (which would stick their real name and face on their videos and comments) or create a new one. Their YouTube message inbox? Gone -- all messages have to be checked in Google+. All comments would have to be posted through Google+. The product everyone loved had been absorbed into the product everyone hated. You take both, or you get neither. Google had become Microsoft.
Every one of those bills smells like dick.
Likewise, Google had turned Gmail into the Internet's most popular email service, and I bet a whole bunch of you reading this have Gmail open in another tab right now. So try this: With that tab open, go over to YouTube. Shocked to see it has stuck your real face up on the screen? In your confusion, did you panic and tell it to log you out? OK, now look at your other tab -- it just logged you out of Gmail, too. Why? For the same reason Windows 8.1 brought back the start button but made it so it does absolutely nothing -- it's a pure, spiteful "Fuck you for not choking down our failed product." Nothing more. This is what it looks like when a corporation throws a tantrum.
So this is how a company that used to warn you to never give out your real name on the Internet started tricking you into putting your real name on everything. And the change was implemented so clumsily that it broke YouTube in several dozen hilarious ways, particularly on the creators' end. You know, the content creators, the people who make the stuff that keeps YouTube profitable? The ones who pay their own rent with the meager ad revenue? That's why one after another they spoke out with videos like this:
And my favorite (NSFW):
This is why users unleashed hell on the Google support forum, and Google responded by doing and saying absolutely nothing because screw you, we're a monopoly. Fortunately, the site's most popular content creators were soon distracted from these problems by a much larger one: Google implemented "Content ID" -- an automated copyright protection system that obliterated thousands of "fair use" videos in one fell swoop, shutting down one channel along with its 1.2 million subscribers and 7,000 videos without warning. And if you want your channel back, well, get ready for a shitload of paperwork and waiting:
My favorite moment of 2013 was probably when one of YouTube's original founders came out of the woodwork to ask, "Why the fuck do I need a Google+ account to comment on a video?"
Good question! If you're reading this, sir, the answer is that in 2013 we kind of found ourselves in a dead spot for innovation, and as such, companies instead tried to figure out how to force customers to retroactively accept the last, failed attempt at innovation.
Hopefully it won't last long. I'm sure the Next Big Thing is hiding out there, somewhere, on the drawing board or in a secret beta, and I'm sure it's wonderful and it will be the gadget that finally brings meaning to my life. But as 2013 winds to a close, all I can say is they're doing a bang-up job of keeping that shit under wraps.
David Wong is the Executive Editor of Cracked.com and just spent an hour explaining why your favorite Christmas movies make no fucking sense in this week's Cracked Podcast:
Related Reading: For a look at all the myriad reasons why the tech industry sucks so bad, click here. And did you known porn created the modern world? Let us explain. Oh, and by the way the video game game industry is headed for a crash. We figured you'd like a heads-up.