Top 10 Technologies That Suck (And/Or That Suck At Explaining Themselves)

Don’t be one of the sheep. Think independently about new technologies before following the herd.

My original title for this piece was “Top 10 Technologies That I Don’t Care About,” but there’s the whole issue of ending sentences with a preposition that I didn’t want to put up with. (Yes, that “with” was intentional.) But these are really technologies that I’m sick of hearing about. (Again intentional.) Technologies that have been over-hyped by their proponents. Technologies that have been under-marketed (or under-skillfully-marketed) by their owners. Technologies that fail to answer the question, “Why should I, or any new user, care about this?” Technologies that don’t know or can’t communicate their value proposition. What is the key benefit of your offering? How do you differ from the competition? What is the value of the difference? Basic marketing 101 stuff. I embrace technology, but not blindly. Don’t follow the herd. Make your own decisions. But consider all of the issues. Do you need the technology? Or do you just want it? Could you do it yourself? Or would you be better off not doing it at all? Enough rhetorical questions, on to the list. In no particular order, here are my top ten technologies that suck.

1. Gmail (http://gmail.google.com/). Google’s Gmail service is free web-based email. Google pitches the service as follows: “Gmail is an experiment in a new kind of webmail, built on the idea that you should never have to delete mail and you should always be able to find the message you want.” The service is free, but you have to agree to Google’s terms and conditions. Your personal data lives on Google’s servers, where Google or subpoena-armed (subpoena optional these days) government entities may be able to access your data with or without your permission. Personally, I think that any lawyer using webmail such as Gmail is committing malpractice, and I think that anyone who trusts Google with their personal data is making a big mistake. Not only should you not keep all email (90% of it is spam), but you should periodically purge old email. Just because you can keep something doesn’t mean you should. Sometimes less is more. Every year, I purge financial records that are more than 10 years old, and I do the same for email and computer files. After 10 years, you gain a perspective about what is worth saving and what is not. Quality of data matters much more than quantity.

2. Bluetooth (http://www.bluetooth.com/). Bluetooth is a short range wireless connectivity standard. So you can … umm … to help you with … ahh. Whatever. Does anybody care about Bluetooth? Oh wait, I can use a Bluetooth-enabled wireless keyboard so that I can sit far away (well, not too far away) from my computer. But now I can’t see the screen. If I never hear the word “Bluetooth” again in advertisements for silly products, it will be too soon.

3. FeedBurner (http://www.feedburner.com/). You have to dig around on FeedBurner’s site to find their value proposition. And if you find it, it is not stated in a way that is meaningful to new users. Feedburner (sort of) pitches its service as follows: “FeedBurner helps bloggers, podcasters and commercial publishers get more value from the content they create. Our advanced feed management technology deftly delivers subscription services for publishers large and small so they can grow their reach, measure their audience and monetize their content.” What this means is that Feedburner will host your RSS or Atom feed and add bells and whistles to it. Do you remember the mid-1990s when lots of companies were selling personalized web pages (such as http://www.example.com/erikjheels.html) until people smartened up and realized they could get their own domain names and their own websites? That’s what Feedburner sounds like to me. An RSS (or Atom) feed is one or more files that are updated on a publisher’s website and are designed to be viewed or read in something other than a traditional web browser. Such as a desktop or web-based reader program. In this way, users can “subscribe” to RSS/Atom feeds and have new content delivered to them automatically. On my weblog, I have thousands of HTML pages and only one feed. Why would I want to let a third party host this one file? Feedburner can add bells and whistles to your feed, but any webmaster worth his weight in salt can modify a website’s feed to do everything that Feedburner does. How hard is it, really, to add an “email this” link to your feed? I tried Feedburner’s service and really tried to understand the value proposition. The fact that Feedburner has such a hard time explaining (to newcomers) why it matters suggest to me that, in the long run, Feedburner does not matter.

4. D.e.l.c.i.o.u.s (http://del.icio.us/). The ridiculously named del.icio.us is a user-generated bookmark sharing service and directory. But don’t expect to find that explanation on their site. Their home page says “keep your favorite websites, music, books, and more in a place where you can always find them. share your favorites with family, friends, and colleagues. discover new and interesting things by browsing popular & related items.” I already keep my websites, music, books, and more in a place where I can always find them. On my computer and on my bookshelf. I consider my bookmarks file a trade secret, as I bookmark websites for my competitors, clients, and my clients’ competitors. Why would I want to share this? I already share my favorite information on my weblog. And I read lots of websites, weblogs, email lists, and magazines. I don’t think I need del.icio.us to help me find anything new. If anything, I need fewer sources of information.

5. BlackBerry (http://www.blackberry.com/). “Oh no, a patent dispute might shut down the BlackBerry service! No it won’t! Yes it will! No it won’t! The judge is telling them to settle! It might shut down I tell you! The sky is falling! No, they settled.” That’s a summary of the last six months or so of blogging on this non-issue. A company has a fiscal responsibility to do what is in the best interest of its shareholders. It is not in the best interest of the shareholders to allow a judge to shut down your service because you are unable to settle a patent dispute. Patent silliness aside, the BlackBerry is a handheld device that lets you send and receive email. Oh boy! More ways to get spam! Honestly, do we need to spend more time sending and receiving email? Oh yeah, their website’s home page says nothing about their value proposition, but you get this text if you search for Blackberry on Google: “A wireless email solution for mobile professionals. It provides easy access to your business email wherever you go.” If you use a BlackBerry, there is a high likelihood that your friends and co-workers think you are really annoying. You might not be, but why chance it?

6. Flickr (http://www.flickr.com/). Flickr describes its value proposition as follows: “The best way to store, search, sort and share your photos.” Why would I want to share my photos? I take photos primarily of my friends and family, and I’m sure they would consider it a violation of their privacy to share them with Flickr. I use Apple’s iPhoto to manage my photos. I can upload those to a web page if I need to (which I do rarely), and I can password-protect that website if I need to. But honestly, if my photos are really important, I don’t want to entrust them to a third party. A third party that might go away, compromise my privacy, share my information with the government, or worse.

7. LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/). LinkedIn is a good way to communicate with total strangers who don’t want to hear from you. Or to get contacted by total strangers who happen to know somebody who knows you. At least that’s how it worked for me. LinkedIn is a “social networking” service. But my address book is one of my most valuable possessions. Why would I entrust this valuable data to a third party? I teach my kids not to take candy from strangers. Why would I give my friends’ email addresses away to total strangers? Here’s an idea. Pick up the phone and call your contacts every once and a while. Or better yet, visit them. Or send them a card. Or a letter. Or an email message. Anything more real and meaningful than LinkedIn. Here’s their value proposition: “Reconnect with long-lost co-workers; Stay connected to colleagues and clients; List job openings and find high-quality candidates; Get the inside track to the job you want; Open doors and reach millions of professionals.” Or not. Their website says “LinkedIn Relationships Matter.” I think that real relationships matter, because if you cannot relate to the other person, then you have no relationship.

8. Podcasting (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Podcasting). See also http://www.apple.com/itunes/podcasts/. From Wikipedia: “Podcasting is the distribution of audio or video files, such as radio programs or music videos, over the Internet using either RSS or Atom syndication for listening on mobile devices and personal computers.” Snore. With the popularity of iPods and weblogs, webloggers started creating their own podcasts. There was a Saturday Night Live (SNL) sketch last week that satirized podcasting pretty well (season 31, episode 1440, host Matt Dillon, musical guest Arctic Monkeys). Most podcasts stink. Most radio programs stink. If I want to listen to the radio, I will listen to the radio. I briefly subscribed to one podcast, the very entertaining Jamie White and Danny Bonaduce on Star 98.7 (http://www.star987.com/), which I used to listen to (live) when I lived in Colorado. (See also http://www.thebestofjamieanddanny.com/). But then Star 98.7 fired Danny Bonaduce. Thus ended my podcasting.

9. Desktop Linux (http://www.kernel.org/). See also DesktopLinux.com and Linux Online (http://www.linux.org/). From the linux.org site: “Linux is a free Unix-type operating system originally created by Linus Torvalds with the assistance of developers around the world. Developed under the GNU General Public License, the source code for Linux is freely available to everyone.” You may be asking, “So what?” Good question. A question I suspect the majority of people who have never used Linux ask. But the Linux community (to the extent that it exists) differs on the proper answer. On one side are the zealots who champion “free software” for free software’s sake. On the other (pragmatic) side are folks like Linus Torvalds (who wrote the Linux kernel) who emphasize “reciprocity of software.” It looks like the pragmatic ones will outlive the zealots, and so their views should (thankfully) become dominant in the future. See, for example, the brouhaha over the use of Linux in TiVo boxes (http://www.forbes.com/technology/2006/03/09/torvalds-linux-licensing-cz_dl_0309torvalds2.html), about which Torvalds said, “I only care that they give the source code back, not that they make it easy, or necessarily even possible, to play with their hardware.” Which brings me to Linux on the desktop. I don’t care about Linux on the desktop. I have installed Linux on desktop computers. And Linux on laptops. It’s just not ready for prime time. Servers yes, desktops no. Sorry guys. I have friends who use Linux on the desktop and swear by it, but they are also willing to spend all day getting a particular Linux desktop or laptop working with a particular piece of hardware (scanner, printer, monitor, or the like). I could do the same thing with Macintosh OS X or (gasp) Windows in about five minutes. I built a tree house with my kids. I could have build the tree house using nothing but hand tools, and I’m certain that I would have learned a lot more about carpentry and construction in the process. I’m also sure that it would have taken much longer.

10. TiVo (http://www.tivo.com/). For all the hype, TiVo’s website does an incredibly poor job of describing what it is and why it matters. It’s a television recorder that can also pause (etc.) live television. The homepage says “Only TiVo gives you the freedom to watch your favorite shows any time, anywhere.” Which is not true. You can use BeyondTV (http://www.snapstream.com/), MythTV (http://www.mythtv.org/), or even BitTorrent (http://www.bittorrent.com/) for the ethically challenged (your legality may vary). But the real question is, “Why bother?” Is television really that good? I haven’t watched a sitcom regularly since Seinfeld went off the air (the same day my daughter was born). I enjoy watching Saturday Night Live, Late Show With David Letterman, and Late Night with Conan O’Brien, but all of those must be watched late at night – and preferably when you’re tired – in order to get the full effect. SNL over breakfast just doesn’t cut it. I enjoy watching Red Sox baseball games and American Idol, but those must be watched live. What else is there? Honestly, do I need to be spending more time watching television? Never in the history of television have we had so many channels to choose from and so little worth watching. How about if I read a book or practice the guitar instead? TiVo users say that it changes your life forever. So does a lobotomy.

12 Replies to “Top 10 Technologies That Suck (And/Or That Suck At Explaining Themselves)”

  1. [this overlong response was written in too tiny a comment window to edit properly, so forgive me if it doesn’t hold together. –bdv]

    Erik, I think that with years of therapy you might identify your education at MIT as a formative factor in your reactionary response to the cultural landscape shifting out from under us as we approach middle age. 8^)

    Seriously, it sounds a bit like you’re saying that you like email, Cable TV, and Microsoft Windows just fine how they were ten years ago, and nobody’s going to convince you otherwise. That’s perfectly valid, but that won’t prevent the world from changing.

    TiVo changed TV, but it’s a tiny, pathetic half-step toward the future where all content will be available on demand. TiVo asks you what you want to watch in the future, then snags it out of the grid for you. But iTunes will already sell you any episode of Lost any time you want, and everyone from Apple to Google, Netflix, and Amazon are falling over themselves to sell you I Love Lucy and the Rockford Files on demand.

    Sure, you grew up watching TV when the scheduling guys told you that you should, but your kids won’t live that way.

    Likewise, comparing podcasting to radio misses the entire point, which is the democratization of content production. There certainly aren’t any Clear Channel radio stations producing regular content on Multiple Sclerosis, the pro surfing circuit, or the inner workings of the IETF, but if you’re interested in these topics you might find even amateurish podcasts worthwhile.

    You wouldn’t say, “blogging sucks because nobody blogs half as good as Dave Barry writes!” because it’s just not true–there are lots of people writing out there with skills and something to say. PS if you’re not reading Defective Yeti, you’re really missing out.

    About gmail you write:
    > After 10 years, you gain a perspective about
    > what is worth saving and what is not. Quality of
    > data matters much more than quantity.

    But you and I have a mutual friend who kept ten years of appointment history on his Palm Pilot, and as a result he could recall the names of people that I’d worked with in the past that he’d only met once. Art used that technology to augment his memory, and that is the problem that Gmail and Delicious both attempt to solve. I’ve been squirreling away all the interesting web sites I’ve come across in the last two years on Delicious, and because I’ve tagged them with my own vocabulary, finding them is much easier than a Google search from scratch every time.

    However, I do agree with you about the privacy concerns, and unless you say otherwise, I’ll take this as solid legal advice. 8^)

    One final point–you dismiss Flickr because you have no interest in sharing your photos online. That’s not really a criticism of the solution, is it? It’s just a curmudgeonly way of saying that you don’t understand the problem.

    Grammatical cuteness aside, I think your original title is more appropriate: this article isn’t about technology, it’s about your indifference to it.

    Except Bluetooth–that’s one overhyped piece of crap that I just don’t get!

  2. All good points. It’s not that nobody is going to convince me otherwise, it’s that these technology companies have to let the marketing people (and not just the marketing people, good marketing people) get their message across in a way that non-geeks understand.

    Del.icio.us will always be a fringe service until they wrap it in marketing language that non-techies can understand.

    Same with FeedBurner. They should explain why it matters, in one sentence, on the home page. Their entire website should be rewritten. It’s dreadful.

    Too bad Dave Barry stopped writing his column. I no longer have a reason to read The Boston Globe Magazine. You mentioned http://www.defectiveyeti.com/, which I will check out. See, I didn’t need anything more than my blog to find out about this site. ;-)

    I think I’m surprised at how willing people are to trust their data – including their private (or trade secret) data – blindly with third parties. Stunning to me, actually. But somebody else (my friend Paul, who works at Sun) told me recently that my perception of technology is like the car dude’s (you know the guy I’m talking about, the guy in high school who rebuilt his engine in his spare time) perception of the Slant Six engine. He’s closer to it, and, as such, has a different perception of it. So Flickr, LinkedIn, and their ilk are not my cup of tea. It doesn’t mean that the public at large isn’t eating (or drinking) this stuff up.

    By the way, I don’t delete all of my old email, just the stuff that I’ve determined is no longer valuable. I end up saving about 10% of it, which seems about right to me.

  3. I know what you mean, Erik. Your car guy can’t look at a passing car without visualizing how it’s put together, just like T (who is a talented musician) automatically deconstructs music as she’s listening to it. It does take some of the fun out of it for her, I think.

    I didn’t understand before that your main point was the failure of these companies to explain their value to you–I know what you mean, there. Del.icio.us, anyway, existed for years before the marketing slogans were half-heartedly slapped on the front page.

    As for not needing anything more than your blog to discover new sites–you must have a much smaller appetite than I do. 8^) Seriously, the main difference between your private bookmark collection and del.icio.us is the social aspect. I subscribe to the linkstreams of about 20 individuals just to see the cool things they find, bookmark, and implicitly recommend.

    I consider linklogging to be the primal Ur-blogging, a form that we still practice today with the scumpa Cool List. As Structured Data Guy, I prefer to share my links in XML these days instead of concatenated emails, so to me del.icio.us isn’t really a web app–it’s a database with an API that I can use however I like.

  4. When this post is done on SNL, I want Dana Carvey playing you, banging his fist on the table and saying, “In my day…” :)

    You say you’re closer to the tech… but I wonder if that’s really true? Have you played with MySpace? Youtube? Facebook.com? I can’t figure MySpace out for the life of me, it has zero interest to me. I’m definitely not in their target market, that’s for sure – but I bring it up because they’re now among the most visited sites on the Internet. I think you and I are closer to certain aspects of the technology, but Brian’s right when he says that our kids will experience the tech in ways that we can’t fathom.

    When we travel, the kids get annoyed when the hotel TVs don’t have a pause, rewind or ‘now playing’ button like our TiVos at home do. And sharing pictures and videos? You and I have a fundamentally different notion of ‘privacy’ than the generation growing up with camera/video phones and flickr (or Youtube, or any of the other similar sites). I can’t even begin to predict how that plays out.

    I’m with Brian, though. Bluetooth blows.

  5. In response to this piece, Rick posted a reply about why FeedBurner matters on his weblog (http://www.rklau.com/tins/archives/2006/03/14/why_feedburner_matters.php). I think that the key to the future of these technologies is how well they are able to communicate to the masses. Check back in five years – heck, two years – to see if these companies still exist and/or are still relevant (or still employing Rick). Those that succeed will have been able to communicate more clearly to the masses.

    The following is a summary of what I emailed to Rick this morning.

    I think that writing about stuff can help us figure out what we’re really talking about. See my friend Brian’s comments (and my reply to his). My basic complaint with most of these sites is that:

    (1) they may, in fact, be cool, or they may be full of fluff and/or security/privacy issues;
    (2) geeks may get it;
    (3) to matter long-term, you have to explain it – and make it matter – to your mother and grandmother;
    (4) few do #3 well now; and
    (5) it may be that some, in fact, do matter, but it’s hard to tell the difference between fluff and substance when the marcom is so bad.

    In fact, a Linux list that I am on recently had an extended thread about why RSS/Atom matters, which is not at all obvious, even to my techie friends. I should note that, in that thread, I was (and remain) a proponent and defender of RSS/Atom. I also predicted that Atom would prevail over RSS because it has a cooler name.

    For discussion. If [fill in name of company you dislike here] bought [fill in name of company listed on my top 10 list above], how would you feel?

  6. Greetings Rick,

    You should write the marketing for TiVo et al. You do a much better job of explaining it than they do.

    I may give some of these technologies a second try. I am actually quite willing to be sold. I just don’t have a lot of patience for bad marketing or bad selling. I just gave a telemarketer a chance to sell me on attending a conference. I asked, “Why should I, a patent attorney, care about this conference?” The salesman was unable to answer the question. If you a pitching a product/service, you should always be able to tell your target audience why the product/service matters.

    Just for fun, I have rewritten FeedBurner’s 100-word elevator pitch by translating it to Japanese and then back to English with Babel Fish (http://babelfish.altavista.com/).

    “FeedBurner helps bloggers and podcasters, the commercial publisher obtains many values from the contents which are drawn up. It conveys the subscription service for the publisher to whom our high-level supply management engineering deftly is large, is small and therefore you raise the range, it measures the audience, monetize is possible contents. Being established in 2003, FeedBurner makes that reaches to the contractor of 190 countries due to many where the publisher crosses the earth of some 1,000,000 possible. And that is many people. We are the closed company which is placed on the headquarters in the city where Chicago the wind is very strong.”

    Regards,
    Erik

  7. I can’t say I disagree with your conclusions in #3 and #4… But surely you’d cede that there’s a time and a place to explain/evangelize to the mass market? It seems to me that FeedBurner’s not yet at that point – with RSS still in an early adopter phase (where it will remain until IE 7 ships and Microsoft Vista is released later this year), we’re still talking to an early adopter crowd. People who don’t blog, do a podcast, or produce a commercial publication don’t need FeedBurner. And if they don’t fit into one of those categories, they don’t really need to understand what we do – we’re simply of no concern to them.

    Not surprisingly, I tend to disagree with some of your other takes. That flickr isn’t right for your individual photo sharing needs doesn’t obviate the benefit it brings to groups. The ways delicious can be used to collaboratively share and describe content make it a tremendously powerful tool for communities to share information. You saw my comments on TiVo – it remains the single best UI of any electronics device I’ve ever seen, and it’s more significantly affected our day-to-day activities than any computer ever has. (And the secret? It doesn’t help you watch more tv, it helps you watch less… A 1 hour show is now 40 minutes long. And instead of being constrained by what’s on *now*, I can watch what I want, from a buffet of shows that I’ve decided I like. It’s a much better use of my/our time.) I could care less that their website doesn’t do a good job explaining how it works – after 15 minutes of having a TiVo, you fundamentally change how you think about TV. It makes my TV usable. MythTV? Give me a break. I’m supposed to devote a stand-alone PC to downloading, installing and configuring Linux, then a specialized app, then configuring the hardware? NFW. It’s like saying that you shouldn’t fly commercial because you can build your own hobby plane.

    I think you’ve let your general distaste for marketing (you do, after all, have little tolerance for marketers who approach their roles differently than you would) cloud your ability to judge a technology on the merits; poor marketing does not equal poor product. (Though the inverse is almost certainly true – better marketing *would* equal better products, in that more people would understand how to use them.) But you didn’t focus on how to improve them, you focused on explaining why their marketing shortcomings meant that the products/services themselves were lacking… And I don’t buy that premise.

    –Rick

  8. 1. Gmail
    Definitely over-rated. But useful in the same way that YahooMail or any other free mail is useful. I can use the address to post to public forums and keep my work/personal e-mail relatively spam free.

    2. Bluetooth
    My phone headset is useful. But sure, in general, it’s an over-hyped technology.

    3. FeedBurner
    I think FeedBurner does ad some value to feeds. However, I think in the end they won’t matter because there is nothing they do that someone else can’t do. They have “market share” because they were first to market. Good, for now…

    4. D.e.l.c.i.o.u.s
    If your bookmarks are a trade secret, I hope you’re doing a lot more than just not using del.icio.us to keep them under wraps. That said, I *love* del.icio.us and use the hell out of it. Not only does it make it very easy for me to keep track of sites with useful information, by subscribing to feeds of people in my industry, I get *very* useful information before I see it in other sources. Frankly, I think del.icio.us can be a really fantastic tool for gaining new information–in the right industry. Maybe not for law, but for technology, it rocks.

    5. BlackBerry
    Never had one, don’t want one.

    6. Flickr
    Well, first, you can make photos private on Flickr, so only people you designate as Friends/Family can see them. It’s a very nice way to share with distant friends and family, because they can see them, comment in one easy location so that other friend/family can see what they thought, or even order prints for themselves. If you want to keep your snapshots to yourself, that’s cool… but Flickr does ad real value to photos for a lot of people. You don’t have to be an exhibitionist to get value out of it, on the contrary.

    7. LinkedIn
    Agreed. I think this is actually a pretty annoying “service”.

    8. Podcasting
    Well, most “podcasts” are worthless. But commercial “podcasts” (using the term loosely) are pretty valuable. It’s how I get to listen to fantastic NPR shows that I otherwise wouldn’t get to hear because I don’t own a radio outside of my car.

    9. Desktop Linux
    Agreed. Great on the server. On the desktop, I’ll take OSX.

    10. TiVo
    Yes, television is really that good. At least some of it is… but most if it that *is* actually good isn’t on at a time when I’m near a TV. Which is exactly why Tivo matters. (Again, Tivo in the generic–I know trademark attorneys are cringing at that one–sense of the word.) And you’re wrong: my wife and I watch American Idol after it has aired, when we get home from class and work. The voting lines are still open and bonus, we can fast forward not only through ads, but through horrible performances as well.

  9. Looking past the privacy issues and storage advantages of Gmail, the real differentiator is the auto-grouping of emails as conversations. Of course, this is harder to explain than “we give you a lot of storage” so it won’t get much press.

    I couldn’t believe how hard they made it to delete emails when it first went live. It was more than a year before they added a delete button rather than forcing people to use a drop-down menu to delete emails.

  10. I’ll go one step further – MOST all of the technology we use on a day-to-day basis SUCKS. I’ve been steeped in this tripe for 20+ years now (yes, as an occupation, on several different levels), and have grown to despise it for what it does to humanity, and for how far it has disconnected us from the *real*, finite, non-digital realm. And to despise it for how incredibly transparently (at least to some of us) we have become so entirely addicted to it. I could go into further dissertation on this subject, but it is always pointless to try to point out these shortcomings to the masses that have so blindly enslaved themselves to their silicon “captors”. I’m no luddite, but am beginning to see more and more value in being, or becoming, one. Someday, soon, many of you will realize exactly where I am coming from, and what I am feeling. Never mind the fact that some Stuxnet-type attack on ‘net backbone/infrastructure hardware/software will probably make you realize it even before you would have realized on your own.

    Good day.
    SC

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