Archive for January, 2006

2005 and Beyond – Too Many Options, Too Little Time

Friday, January 20th, 2006

A version of this article first appeared in the January 2, 2006 issue of Jon Peddie’s TechWatch

I am a geek. I love my gadgets and video games. I write about them and use them. I am also an e-mail addict. And I procrastinate. All of those led to not writing my 2005 retrospective until the very last moment possible. But my faults aside, I blame it all on technology and the fact that there simply is too much of it out there that I want to buy or have already acquired.

Here’s an abbreviated list of technology I have acquired in the last year in no particular order: a T-Mobile Sidekick II, a couple of Creative Zen Micros, a third Xbox, a third and fourth Sony PS2s, a Sony DVD writer, an ADSL connection (maximum 256Kbps in, 96Kbps out – highest speed available where I live), a Packet8 VoIP connection, a 32” Samsung LCD HD-ready TV, Xbox 360 with all the bells and whistles, a Pentax OptioWP waterproof 5MP camera, a Sony PSP, a Motorola V-330 cell phone (T-Mobile Prepay), a second Canon S-500 camera, a DirecTV Receiver with Tivo, my own blog (blog.RichterScale.org), over a hundred video game titles for all sorts of platforms, a Nikon D2x professional DSLR, close to 100 music CDs, a strobe, and several lenses, a circular saw, a sander, a pocket digital multimeter, switchboxes galore, a couple of CRT TVs, a 60GB video iPod, DVD ripping software, video conversion software, a couple of Wacom computer tablets, a month-to-month subscription to Yahoo! Music, some fisheye security cameras and control systems, a Roomba, countless routers and switches, a new washing machine, and a new refrigerator.

In reviewing this list, the reason for acquisition of items tends to fall into one of six categories: 1) purchased because the previous technology incarnation of the device type failed to work properly (the video iPod is my Zen Micro replacement, for example, and the new fridge and washer replace broken ones too); 2) it was easier to buy a new one for a new location than lug one around with me (this applies, for example, to the extra Xbox and PS2 consoles); 3) because a family member needed one (e.g. the second Zen Micro – which also failed – for my wife, Pentax and Motorola phone for my daughter); 4) because it was something I needed (e.g. the power tools); 5) Because I thought it might be needed and could be fun to play with (e.g. the Sidekick II, my blog, Nikon DSLR, etc.); and 6) because I wanted it even though I had no real need for it but was willing to fabricate a need if pressed on the subject (e.g. the Xbox 360, the DirecTV receiver for my Texas office, etc.).

In reality most of these items are ones that I could have done without and still be happy and technology sated, never mind richer. Technology is not cheap. Nor does it seem to generally save time. I’ve spent too many weeks during 2005 trying to figure out how to maximize my use of many of my acquired technology items, and still only know a fraction of their capabilities. Even as I am writing this column I am getting distracted by e-mail, my son and daughter running into my office to get me to help them defeat the latest shadow monster boss in Kameo on the Xbox 360, and making a list of what DVDs I want to convert into MP4s so I can play them on my new video iPod during my upcoming travels.

Technology, while increasingly more capable and fascinating, has also at the same time become more and more complex. And ironically, the documentation supplied with much of the new technology that has come into my possession lately is thinner than ever, forcing me to Google for answers to figure out how something should work (e.g. “How to create play lists on my iPod without getting sucked into iTunes”), or why something does not function the way I think it should. And every chunk of technology has its own user interface, its own way of providing positive or negative feedback to users, and frequently too many exposed buttons to create problems with.

Of all the regular tech toys I have acquired this year, the simplest to use so far is my Roomba. I press the “Clean” button when the power light is green, and off it goes. When it’s done, it goes back to recharge itself.

The Roomba is the exception rather than the rule. The reason is that too many technology purveyors are trying to combine too many functions into unitary devices. Witness the latest generation of mobile phones – featuring cameras, video, digital TV, messaging, predictive word spelling, MP3 playback, and who knows what else. Oh, and you can use them to receive and make telephone calls too – at least sometimes. An exception to the thin manual rule, the manual that came with the Motorola V-330 phone was quite thick and took the better part of a day to parse and I still don’t think I understand everything the phone can do.

Microsoft spent the better part of the year trying to convince the media and anyone else who would listen that the Xbox 360 was designed to be easy to use by anyone in the family, including the proverbial female significant other who has in the past shunned game consoles. Well, my female significant other still leaves the room when the Xbox 360 gets turned on. And while I deem myself to be rather technically competent, I found the Xbox Live configuration of the Xbox 360 to be tedious and annoying. And, I believe setting the Xbox 360 up as a Media Center Extender to be beyond the skills of a normal non-techie computer user (since it’s the computer part of the system that does not work smoothly, at least at first).

I picture my parents as the typical non-techie computer users. Both are skilled Photoshop users, and know how to use e-mail, but anything dealing with hardware configuration or replying to computer-prompted technical questions on their screens scares the dickens out of them. The “user friendly” Xbox 360 would give them a heart attack. That’s why I am not planning on ever sending them one.

2005 was a year of many great developments in technology – ranging from cheap high capacity flash RAMs and truly amazing all-in-one cell phones to the Xbox 360 and 10+ megapixel cameras, but a large chunk of the population which can afford this technology are the same folks that pre-lit Christmas trees are designed for and marketed towards – people who want things that work out of the box and don’t require a lot of tinkering or playing with to accomplish their function. Just because a device can be made to do a bunch of cool things does not mean it should.

Unless technology makers can somehow simplify their devices, they will limit their markets to either the mostly younger folks out there who don’t mind being user interface guinea pigs or technology addicted folks like us who spend too much money on functionality we’ll never figure out but keep coming back for more, for some unfathomable reason. Call it a primal urge for or addiction to the latest tech toys. Or maybe it’s simply some variant of obsessive compulsive disorder?

What 2006 Holds

Bring pragmatic, I see 2006 as the year that I will need to build a larger living room. I have already started saving money for this expansion project. I simply have run out of space for game consoles, game controllers, battery charging stations (for the wireless controllers), as well as all the game and DVD content I want to have in my living room. And 2006 will bring us the $399 Sony PS3 (I predict a launch in Japan to coincide with E3 in May) and the $199 Nintendo Revolution (November 2006 U.S. release) to add to my living room. That will also require more ventilation – I may even need that now, as the larger-than-a-brick sized heat-generating power supply for the Xbox 360 is merely a taste of what’s to come with the Sony PS3, no doubt.

And speaking of the Sony PS3 – it will support dual HD displays, and that means I need to get a second 62” DLP to complement the current one – that’s at least another 5 foot extension of the living room right there alone.

And perhaps I should not stop at just one living room – after all, I have been enjoying playing over SystemLink on the Xbox with my son, so maybe a duplicate living room so that can continue (and so I can play my games in one living room while my kids use the other one) would be a good idea too.

Of course, none of these things make my wife very happy. She thinks we spend to much time playing games as is. The fact that she may be right is totally beside the point. After all, 2006 will be the Year of Next Generation Video Gaming, and we must welcome the year into our homes in proper style. For those folks whose Blackberry units stop working because of the injunction by NTP, as part of NTP patent litigation against Blackberry, playing video games will be the only way for them to get their frantic button pushing fix.

But the expense for the living room expansions, new consoles, extra HD displays, and batteries for all my new wireless controllers is not the only one I will need to budget for in 2006. 2006 will also be the year of the Split Cent. Microsoft will be revered by software and content makers world wide for bringing us Microsoft Points – a way to charge people fractions of a cent (typically many multiples thereof) for content they don’t need, but for some inexplicable reason are willing to spend vast amounts of “points” on, bringing the oft coveted (by mobile carriers) nickel and diming strategy widespread in the mobile phone business where people will spend $1.99 for a fraction of a song to use as a ring tone when that same whole song can be had from Yahoo! Music for $0.79, just to make a statement. And that sort of mobile phone expenditure pales compared to the sum of spending on lots of small amounts on things like text messaging, overage, e-mails, image transfers and everything else the carriers can get away with charging for.

Microsoft Points, and equivalent micropayment systems, will start becoming ubiquitous on devices other than mobile phone. Some smart entrepreneur out there will start giving away free PCs but you’ll have to pay in points for usage. 10 points to boot the system, one point per character typed in a document, etc. Renting software usage on-line a la “Live” is only the first step in being able to charge for everything a user does on a computer, bring back memories of how mainframe usage used to be charged for on timeshare systems.

But Google will still be free, and continue to be advertiser and stock market subsidized. Although Google Points will be available, and even offered as a reward to frequent Googlers, to be used on cool merchandise, like USB memory devices in the shape of a piece of sushi.

And while it won’t happen in 2006, but may a year or two after that, I suspect we will see Microsoft Points, Google Points, Nintendo Points, Paypal Points, etc. all traded on international currency bourses. In fact, with point-based MasterCard debit cards, it will be possible to shop anywhere in the world – in person or on-line, forsaking a national currency for a virtual one.

Of course, there will be the issue of point interoperability. AOL will no doubt at first refuse to accept Microsoft Points in trade for AOL Points, but when Open Source Points are created as a non-proprietary point system and Google announces that their Google Points are interchangeable with Open Source Point, the other big guys will work things out.

I am looking forward to 2006. It will leave me a lot poorer, but I’ll have fun spending my money. Better than being pointless, right?