Adapting to Technology

speakersI’ve read several product reviews lately for smartwatches and other electronics devices where some of the reviewers lamented about how they felt they had to work hard to adapt to the technology, and how they wished things were more intuitive to use. Today’s blog is my own lament about how we have been nudged over the years  to adapt to technology, as opposed to technology adapting to us.

As an example, look at our music. There was a time back in the 70s and 80s when anybody serious about music was at least a bit of an audiophile. Anybody who loved music loved it even more when it sounded great. And people who were serious about music, which was a lot of people, did what they could within their budget to buy the best listening experience they could afford.

I am not a very materialistic person; I drive my wife crazy at Christmas and my birthday because I really don’t want things. But when I was younger I wanted better speakers. I remember that perhaps the happiest purchase I ever made was the day I got my first pair of Boston Acoustics speakers. I sat in front of them all day listening to my favorite albums. I heard things in the music I had not noticed before with cheaper speakers. I was hooked as an audiophile.

But our music world started changing with technology. First came cassette tapes. To an audiophile cassette tapes were crap. After that came CDs which had the potential to be great for new music that was mixed directly for the CD format. But CDs did a lousy job of capturing older album music unless that music was mixed again from the original source (and thus the whole genre of re-mastered CDs).

Then along came the iPod and internet download music files and the music world was turned on its head. Every audiophile groaned because MP3 files are generally of much lower quality than any original music source. The process of converting music to a new format will, by definition, chop off the highs and the lows, robbing the recording of the nuance and crispness of the original.

Worse than that, the iPod came with crappy earbuds that further degraded our music experience. But let’s face it – an iPod let you listen to your own music collection in an airport or on an airplane, and so we adapted to accepting inferior music for the sake of convenience. Next, the industry took another huge left turn and everything went to online streaming services like Spotify. The quality is nowhere near as good as a quality CD, but who can resist the fact that there are millions of songs to listen to? And we listen to these songs on our computers or with bad earbuds or with tiny Bluetooth speakers. The audiophile in me cries for the good old days.

The same thing has happened to video. There was a time in the 90s when we all went out and got the best large screen we could afford with the best resolution. Even for people like me who didn’t watch a lot of TV, seeing my first football game on an HD TV was impressive.

But now streaming video technology is luring us away from that quality and into watching video on our computer screens, on tiny cellphone screens, or on tablets and laptops. And we will suffer through some really crappy video and audio quality to watch the latest funny cat video on YouTube.

I just find it interesting how marketing has changed over the years. In the old days the expensive marketing went to lure us to upgrade – get better stereos, better speakers, better TVs. But today we are lured to accept much lower quality content on NetFlix, YouTube, and Spotify, and we do it because the range of content available makes us give up quality for quantity.

I expect that after we have all gotten used to this new world where we can watch anything, anywhere, at any time, eventually the desire for quality will creep back into the conversation. For now, we (and I include me) are happy enough with the huge selection of music and video available to us that we will tolerate a poor experience for the joy of watching things that used to be impossible to find. I notice that there are already young people who grew up with ubiquitous video and music who are rediscovering the beauty in the old stereo systems. So perhaps over time we will realize what has been lost and the move back towards quality will start all over again.

Wearables Were Doomed to Fail

WearableOne thing I’ve noticed about tech is that the industry shows amazing exuberance for any new product. Just in the last few years we have seen huge sales forecasts for various home automation devices, for 3D printers, and for wearables. But all of these products have not done nearly as well in the market as industry analysts predicted.

We are certainly seeing that with wearables. Analysts had predicted that 90 million wearables would ship in 2014 and the actual count was closer to 52 million. And shipments should drop sharply again this year. It seems like every company that builds technology jumped into the fitness tracker market. It felt like a new brand hit the market every few weeks.

The exuberance for fitness trackers has me scratching my head. My wife runs long distances, and she did not see any reason to buy a fitness wearable. She uses a generation older technology which is basically a pedometer with GPS and that works well enough for what she needs. The device tells her how far she runs and can track her routes, and she feels no need to have a machine that tracks her 24 hours per day. If somebody who is a serious runner doesn’t see the sense in the device then there are probably not that many people who really need what a fitness tracker can do.

The market for the devices wasn’t helped when several studies last year showed that fitness trackers aren’t even very good at some of their basic functions like measuring calories burned. I never expected them to be because there are a lot more variables in that equation than just the steps that somebody runs.

The real question with fitness trackers or most other wearables is the value proposition they offer to people. How many people are willing to shell out the money and then use a device to tell them how many steps they have taken or how many calories they have burned? I think the people who made fitness trackers had an unrealistic hope that the devices were going to somehow change behavior and get millions of people off the couch and out running. But devices don’t change people. To be successful a device needs to be relevant and fit into our existing life. The device must have a compelling reason for us to use it.

Wearables in their current form don’t fit into very many people’s lives. They don’t, of themselves, make you fitter, thinner, or happier. They do supply you with basic data, but it now seems that we can get that same information for free from our smartphones. For a device to be successful it has to give people immediate satisfaction.

I think this is why the only two really successful devices recently have been the iPod and the smartphone. The iPod had a big market burst because everybody wanted to carry around all of the music they love. And the smartphone hit the market at exactly the right time. We already had a generation of people who were online and the smartphone added mobility to something we were already doing. But the smartphone didn’t stop there and it stays relevant by adding new amazing functions for those willing to delve into apps.

We now see fitness trackers morphing slightly into smartwatches. Apple is trying hard to paint the smartwatch as something brand new, but they look no more compelling to me. What can a smartwatch do that will significantly enhance my life if I am already carrying my smartphone? If the smartwatch makers can answer that question then they have a chance for success. If not, it will be another fad and a tech device bubble that will soon burst.

I hope I don’t sound too pessimistic, because I think the time will come when everybody will have a wearable. But we are a generation or more away from that time. We need a few more cycles of Moore’s laws to make chips smaller, faster, and more power-efficient. Almost every futurist paints a picture where the infosphere surrounds us wherever we go. And that probably means having some sort of computer that is always with us, and that means some sort of wearable. These future devices will take over all of the functions of the smartphone, and as such they will be wildly successful.

But there needs to be a number of breakthroughs made to get to those future devices. There needs to be a really accurate natural voice interface so that we can talk with our device easily. There needs to be some way for the future device to show us images, perhaps by broadcasting them straight to the lens in our eyes. When these devices become a true personal assistant we will find them compelling and mandatory. But until then, every device that does things that a smartphone can also do are doomed to market failure.