5 Reasons Tech Companies Make Bad Gadgets (An Inside Look)
At some point in your life, probably in the last year, you've paid good money for a cool piece of technology that turned out to be a piece of shit. It had features that made no sense at all, and at some point you asked yourself, "How could a building full of geniuses with millions in R&D money come up with this?"
Well, I'll tell you how. My name is Christopher Daed, and I've put in time in the tech industry with Microsoft, Intel, and others. And from what I've seen ...
Products Are Designed for the People Who Made Them, Not the Customer
In 2012, Microsoft released Windows 8 to great fanfare. And by fanfare, I mean almost universal loathing. Why would they build an OS that seemed custom designed for tablets, even though the vast majority of people are still using PCs?
"... the hell? I can't tear pages out of this when the TP's gone."
I know why: Because Microsoft's product managers LOVE tablets, just like they LOVED the laptops with swiveling touchscreens that also failed to win America's heart. It isn't that they were stupid -- tablets were really useful in their jobs. They just forgot that the rest of the world didn't live the daily life of a product manager in Redmond, Washington. It's like designing magnetic license plate covers completely unaware that some cars might be made of plastic.
This is a deeper problem than just a few product managers at Microsoft, by the way. Ever wondered why those nerds in Silicon Valley can make constant high-speed Internet access a requirement for every device under the sun and not realize how goddamn inconvenient that is for millions of people with spotty connections? It's because every gadget you've ever bought was conceived of, designed, and tested in what amounts to a utopia of speedy Internet by a bunch of software geeks who, if you took away their Internet, would collapse into a seizure.
Minutes without Wi-Fi: 2.
But even when it's a subject developers do have personal experience with -- namely, Internet porn -- there's a disconnect with the users. How many of you are paranoid about storing naked photos on your computer because there don't seem to be any easy "I don't want anyone but me to see this" options for storage? Well, get this -- in the early stages of Windows Vista, I saw that there was a feature that would scan your hard drive for all image files, then shuffle them randomly as the logo for the picture folder.
All the images on your drive. Yes, even those images.
"Those mountain goats are all adults, I swear."
The problem is that, in a business setting, surrounded by their peers and managers, no one wanted to stand up and declare themselves the self-appointed representative of perverts. Instead, I had to be the one to say, "What if I want my family photos separate from my desktop backgrounds?" with "family photos" standing in for "porn" (as they always do).
On another occasion, I worked on a car stereo that would connect to your phone and allow you to make and receive phone calls. What made this one interesting was that it synced your full contact list and call history to display on the screen. And if you had more than one phone in the family, it would simply merge the two, with a little icon showing which phone that call belonged to. Now imagine being the guy who has to bring up that not every man wants his wife to see his complete call history whenever she gets into the car (and vice versa).
The beta also saved audio from all the obscene songs you sing to yourself in traffic.
And it's even harder bringing these issues up because everyone in these meetings has to pretend to be utterly dumfounded by the idea that humans may do things in private that they don't want shared with the world. At times it was hard to tell if they were being willfully oblivious and condescending or simply fucking with me.
Patents Keep the Coolest Innovations Off Your Machine
If you browse headlines at tech sites, these days you'll hear a lot about patents, specifically "patent trolls." It's hard to understand sometimes how this impacts you, the customer, so let me give you an example:
In 1999, Amazon attained the patent for single-click purchase. Yep, just that general concept, which really every retailer should have. It would be like if Nike decided to patent the way we all tie our shoelaces so that suddenly everyone has to either send Nike a check every morning or learn another way to tie their shoes.
"Does it break the patent if I'm drunk when I do it?"
Then you have someone like me developing the purchase engine for an online game years later -- the sort of thing that lets your character buy health potions and a sword that turns orcs into chickens or something using real-world money. So the character goes into the store and looks at the product list on the blackboard behind the proprietor. He selects the things he wants, maybe sells his extra wolf's bane and cat's eyeballs, and sees if he can afford the sheep gun, whatever. Total immersion. Then, when he's done, the whole thing freezes. He's taken out of the game and shown a meaningless popup with one button. That is there because having the whole transaction only take one click wouldn't be fair to Amazon.
Meanwhile, if you've ever made a one-click purchase through another online store, it's because they paid Amazon a shitload of money to do so. Unless you live in Europe, where they've decided that one-click shopping is way too obvious of an idea to patent. This is all because it's not at all clear what exactly we should and shouldn't be able to patent when it comes to technology.
"Your patent for the use of gavels in legal judgments has been approved. Here's $40."
But patent trolling is even worse. At least Amazon intended to use their invention and just wanted to be the only one -- patent trolls exist only to stop other people from using the ideas. These are tiny companies made of nothing but lawyers and a thin film of moss who will buy up or file for patents to cover every conceivable product. Then they sue the pants off of any company that dares to use anything resembling the intellectual property they had zero hand in creating in the first place. According to one estimate, fighting these firms has cost U.S. companies more than $500 billion over the last 20 years.
It's a nightmare -- if you intend to invent something new or start your own business, you do it knowing that there is this swarm of patent trolls prowling around out there, looking to see if your product steps on any of the many, many patents they're hoarding just for that purpose. It's a big enough problem that President Obama had to get involved. Not that it will stop the Motorolas and Microsofts of the world from trolling each other.
"We've decided to sue everyone who uses a glass screen. It might as well be a window."
Engineering and Marketing Don't Communicate/Hate Each Other
In May of 2013, the Xbox One was revealed. It was revealed again about a month later. And again a month after that. In what was one of the worst marketing stories in modern times, Microsoft has had to apologize for, retract, and significantly alter many of the things that define their new console. But as much bad blood as this created with gamers, there is just as much within the company.
Both these hooligans were immediately speared to death by Xbox fundamentalists.
What people need to understand is that the engineers developing the Xbox are also huge gamers. Their offices are cluttered with action figures, arcade machines, extra TVs hooked up to old consoles, gaming posters, huge cardboard standups of space heroes, etc. They have their favorite game moments as desktop backgrounds. They have tournaments during lunch. They love this stuff. And they worked so hard on this awesome new game device. And then during the initial reveal it was sold by marketing as a fucking TiVo with a camera:
If it sounds like there is a huge gulf between marketing (the people who supposedly know what the customers want) and engineering (the people who have to build the thing), you don't know the half of it. Look back on the last bad phone/game console/whatever you bought, the one that made you say, "What were they thinking?" The odds are very good that it was a result of the fact that these two departments just hate talking to each other.
This picture is a dramatization. Less than 4 percent of marketers possess the vampiric gene.
The problem is so huge that this gulf between engineering and marketing is one of the most widely studied phenomena in the tech industry. A survey of around 300 tech products in development showed that about 2 out of 3 experienced "disharmony" between the marketing and engineering departments. And nearly 70 percent of the time, that disharmony led to a failed product. Engineers see marketers as snake oil salesmen who would skin their mother if they thought they could sell it as an aphrodisiac. Marketers see engineers as a bunch of nerdy code monkeys who couldn't sell a tropical island to a drowning man. The sad thing is, to a degree, they're both right.
Let's say, as a hypothetical, we were tasked with improving the country's rail system. If left to their own devices, engineering would come up with some form of hovering magnetic rail system that would get you to your destination with blinding speed and absolute safety ... and only cost double the GNP of Ireland. Marketing would suggest repainting the existing trains and simply advertising that cars kill people.
"It doesn't have seats, but compared to a motorcycle it's safe!"
The bosses know they hate each other, so there's typically at least one layer of management between the two groups to prevent all-out civil war. But this means that it's even harder for the two sides to talk to each other, and it takes both to create a successful product. And while we're on the subject of people not talking to each other ...
Software Makers Don't Take Advantage of Your Hardware
In 2007, mainstream PCs went from single core to dual core -- basically two processors in one. It's like having a second head making decisions for you, except with slightly less bickering. Then they went to quad-core processors, the implication being that you were getting four times as much horsepower. So let me ask you: Is your quad-core PC four times as fast?
How many times in the last year have you said, "My computer sure is running unexpectedly fast!"
Hell, no. That's because the software you're using doesn't give a shit about your multiple cores, or how fast your PC/phone runs in general. The Facebook app has zero knowledge of the email app, and both have no knowledge (and don't give a shit) about your pending high score in Candy Crush. Facebook just knows that it wants to do an update and claims whatever resources it thinks it needs to do that. Email does the same thing. And that's why the home screen on your four-core, 2.3GHz smartphone freezes whenever your playlist switches songs. Without software designed to take advantage of them, your multiple cores are just so many bull nipples.
The same thing happens with your PC. You have a ton of power, but for a lot of you reading this, if you open Word and Warcraft at the same time, you might as well go make a sandwich. That's because every application you run is designed with the bizarre assumption that it's the only thing you'll have running.
Seetharaman Narayanan is a bit of a narcissist.
So adding cores became a great selling point, and chip makers were happy to keep cramming more of them in there. But you don't see the benefits, because the people writing the software have no motivation to take advantage.
Innovations Get Killed by Corporate Politics
It's easy to think that the main problem with a big company like Microsoft (or Nokia, or Hewlett-Packard, or ...) is that they don't have any new ideas. But that's not true -- at any given moment, they've got tons of awesome things in development. So many, in fact, that the bad ideas crowd out the good ones. There is only so much staff and money to go around.
Hewlett-Packard labs, where groundbreaking technology meets shit nobody wants.
For instance, remember back when Microsoft had the most popular smartphone on the market? No? It was as recently as 2007. Ever wonder what happened with that?
Well, in 2008, Microsoft figured they could remain king of the hill by purchasing Danger (makers of the Sidekick), with the aim of building an awesome new smartphone to compete with the newly launched iPhone and Google's unreleased Android operating system. These were the pioneer days of smartphones, and being pioneer days, most of us never quite made it to the cellphone equivalent of Oregon. Instead, we ended up with Razrs. Which are, what, cholera in this analogy?
Yeah, sounds about right.
But not to worry -- the team from Danger was going to build Microsoft a smartphone so good, it'd make Steve Jobs turn his blue jeans brown. Microsoft called their uberphone the Kin.
You gotta spend money to make money! And also to lose millions, apparently.
So what went wrong? Well, for starters, Microsoft took all the brilliant and innovative minds they'd bought from Danger and said, "Knock all that creative shit off." Half the Danger team wound up working on the Kin, and the other half got shuffled into developing Windows Phone 7. You see, giant corporations are the same as the character in every laugh track sitcom who winds up dating two women at once: They'd rather fuck up two things than focus on one and do it right. Microsoft had people who knew where the future of smartphones lay. But they also had Steve "If It's Worked Once, It'll Work Forever" Ballmer, a man who throws chairs when he gets angry.
It was the same with tablets. Way back before the iPad launched, photos of a Microsoft project called Courier leaked out to the tech press. It appeared to be a sort of dual-screen digital notebook, and every blogger in the gadget world ejaculated in unison. But if you're wondering why there are no Courier tablets today, it's because Steve "Chair Chucker" Ballmer didn't want any hit products that weren't run off the Windows operating system.
"Fuck this noise. Tiles, the people want TILES."
So, sure enough, the Courier was shelved in favor of Microsoft's Surface tablets, which were so innovative that nearly a billion dollars' worth of them sit unsold in warehouses right now.
Christopher Daed is a tech industry veteran and also awesome. Robert Evans is Cracked's head of Dick Joke Journalism and also writes about travel for Vagabondish. For more dirt on the tech industry, he recommends TechEye.net.
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