Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The customer used to be the King, not anymore

I don't care about corporate interests or revenue streams. I'm the consumer, and as far as I'm concerned it's all about me.

It's frustrating that so many recent trends in consumer technology seem to not have the consumer's best interests at heart. Thankfully, though, some of the trends mentioned here are starting to fall by the wayside as corporations bow to consumer pressure. Here's a look at ten of the most annoying trends that take the "consumer" out of consumer technology.

10. Closed source technology

"Open source" means that the software code used to create the product is made available for computer-savvy individuals to tinker with, modify and improve to their heart's content, while closed source software, on the other hand, comes with restrictions on copying and modifying. The open source philosophy has resulted in the creation of some ingenious modifications that have only served to strengthen the overall product, with two shining examples being the Firefox web browser and Linux operating system, while their closed source counterparts, Internet Explorer and Windows, have been criticized for seeming stagnant and slower to address issues.

9. Over-promising and under-delivering

Remember the Segway scooter? Expectations for the gyroscopically-controlled personal transportation devices were through the roof when it launched in 2001, with Apple CEO Steve Jobs even predicting that it would be "as big a deal as the PC." Alas, it was not to be. Only 6,000 Segways were sold in 2003, and two recalls due to safety concerns - one in 2003 and one in 2006 - further hurt it. Several municipalities have banned Segways from being used on sideways, and these days it's languishing in near-obscurity as a niche product for disabled people and tourists.

The Segway is one example of companies making lofty promises about their products and then under-delivering. Then of course there's Microsoft's Zune audio player. Touted as an iPod-killer, the Zune did nothing of the sort. Instead, was criticized for its crippled video playback and a song-sharing feature that was heavily restricted by DRM. And we're still waiting to see the PlayStation Home (the MMORPG-like social networking platform that Sony announced for PlayStation 3 users).

8. Fanboys

The definition of fanboy (or fangirl) is an individual who harbours a fanatic devotion to something without logical reason. In the case of consumer technology, it can be applied to a situation where a person's self-esteem and sense of self-worth is attached the success of a particular product or brand. Whatever happened to just buying the best product? Instead, consumer technology buyers are broken into hostile camps: Apple vs. Windows, PlayStation vs. Xbox, iPod vs. everything else. Read an article about a Windows product and you can count on a few Mac users showing up and leaving snarky comments about how much they love OS X. Why do people feel such fierce loyalty to a corporation? You can rest assured the corporation doesn't feel the same level of loyalty towards you.

7. Region encoding

Technical advances like the Internet are making our world smaller and smaller, which is why it makes no sense for manufacturers to divide the world up into little self-contained sections. Historically, if you bought a video game in Japan, it wouldn't always work in your North American console. Similarly, a North American DVD collection wouldn't work on a European DVD player. Add to the fact that not all movies and games are released world-wide, the only chance a North American gamer might have to play certain Japanese titles is to import them.

It seems strange that companies would rather deny consumers the right to experience games or movies altogether simply because they haven't been officially released in that consumer's country. In the digital age of online shopping, it's so easy to order something from another country and have it shipped, which seems to be a solid argument as any for the abolishment of region encoding. Thankfully, some video game console and home entertainment manufacturers have started to change their policies. Sony's PlayStation Portable, for example, will play games from anywhere - but region encoding still applies to UMD movies.

6. Licensing Fees

Ever wonder why the band you hear performing "War Pigs" in Guitar Hero II sounded a lot like Black Sabbath, but wasn't quite right? It's because it wasn't Black Sabbath. It was a group of session musicians imitating Black Sabbath, because given the time and money it would have taken to secure the rights to license the actual Black Sabbath version of "War Pigs" - along with other songs in Guitar Hero II - it just wasn't worth it to the publisher. It's a sad reality of the music industry that has unfortunately impacted consumer tech as well, with music game fans being the ones to lose out the most.

5. Format wars

HD-DVD and Blu-ray, I'm looking at you. The high-definition disc format that will eventually replace DVD has had a relatively slow adoption by consumers despite its superior high-definition picture quality and increased storage capacity that allows for the inclusion of some killer special features. The reason is that there are two formats, HD-DVD and Blu-ray, that are warring for market share. Although the solution seems frighteningly simple - just endorse the creation of players that can accept both kinds of disc - the respective backers of each format seem fortified in their trenches. The fallout, of course, is that consumers are taking the "wait and see" approach until one format takes hold, when they could be enjoying HD content right away.

4. Proprietary File Formats

There's a reason why MP3 has been the ubiquitous digital audio file format for so long, and it has nothing to do with quality. While there are plenty of file formats that can outstrip the MP3 when it comes to size-to-quality ratios, MP3 has stuck around for one simple reason: it's compatible with every device under the sun! The freedom to transfer files seamlessly from one device to another is an enormous convenience, especially when it comes to audio - as anyone who's tried to import WMA audio files into iTunes will attest to. Consumers should be able to listen to the same file on their PC, portable music player, cell phone, or even streaming wirelessly through a videogame console. Unfortunately, sea of formats, which include WAV, WMA, AAC, ATRAC, OGG, FLAC and others, makes it impossible to do so without using annoying conversion software.

3. Annoying web ads

Online advertising, when done well, can be clever and entertaining. But ads that are trashy, overbearing or deceptive do nothing but annoy the consumer. Advertisers take note: A web ad should NEVER:

* Scream at me or otherwise force audio out of my speakers
* Cover up whatever I was trying to look at
* Try to trick me to click through by showing a fake "close window" button
* Waste any more than 5 seconds of my time by delaying my visit to my intended page

2. High cost of wireless data plans

When compared to countries like the U.S., U.K. and Australia, the exorbitantly high cost of data plans seems to be a peculiarly Canadian problem - and according to analysts it's one of the things that contributed to the delayed launch of the iPhone in Canada. There are several explanations as to why prices are so high: lack of competition among service providers, difficulty in deploying networks across such a vast and sparsely populated country, and the fact that service providers have historically targeted business users who are willing to pay higher prices. Whatever the case, with consumer-oriented smartphones like the iPhone, HTC Touch and newly announced Sony Ericsson W960 starting to hit the market, data plans need to come down, and fast.

1. DRM
This is a no-brainer. DRM (aka digital rights management), the industry's answer to piracy, has probably incited more consumers to pirate content than anything else in the history of consumer electronics. In a typical example, a song with DRM applied to it can only be transferred to a certain number of devices, including being burned to CD, before it stops working. "Why should I pay for a song that I can only copy three times," the software pirate's argument goes, "when I can simply download the same thing through a file-sharing program and have it forever?" The most tragic thing about DRM is that it's alienating ethical people who would otherwise pay to download songs, but who resent the restrictions that these songs come with.


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