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<nettime> 10 Things Holding Back Technology
Paul D. Miller on Sun, 3 Feb 2008 05:03:43 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> 10 Things Holding Back Technology

This is one of the more amusing articles I've seen in a while about the eerily
stagnant culture of actual consumer deployment of technologies that are held
back by sheer cultural intertia. The only thing even more amusing is the rise
of "killer-apps" that fill the ecological niche of whatever milieu they
interact with. Ipods, cell phones, and of course for the urban scene early
stuff like beepers (have you seen a beeper in ages?), kind of reflect this kind
of thing, but nonetheless, it spells out some amusing anti-developments


10 Things Holding Back Technology
David Meyer


The pace of change in IT has never been faster ??? or has it? After 25 years of
desktop computing and 15 years of the commercial internet, there are still
plenty of frustrations, pains and throwbacks in our everyday technology
experience. It's great having a terabyte hard disk, but not so great trying to
manage it using interfaces and tools that have barely changed from the days
when 40MB was respectable.

Many factors are holding back technology. Here is a list of 10 such barriers,
in no particular order. We have almost certainly missed a few, so feel free to
leave your comments using the Talkback facility at the bottom of the page.

1. Microsoft's stranglehold on the desktop Windows unified the
personal-computer market, and led it into the enterprise. A good thing, surely?
Yes ??? if unity is more important than innovation, flexibility and a free
market. The European Commission disagreed with that, as have courts around the

For most people, computing means Windows, not because they choose it but
because the company's immense power in retail and business channels, together
with the inertia that comes through decades of market dominance, make it a
default that's hard to change.

So why does this hold back innovation? The European Commission ruled that
computer users are unnecessarily used to products like Windows Media Player ???
applications that are mediocre just because Microsoft has no real incentive to
make them better. Monopolies are anti-competitive and therefore
anti-innovation. Just look at Internet Explorer's long stagnation.

Microsoft's stifling influence on new ways of thinking goes beyond
applications, however. As Vista so readily proves, rehashing the same idea
again and again does not make for progress. For everyone's sake, especially
Microsoft itself, the company needs to learn to compete fairly again.

2. Operator lock-in In Europe, we have only recently emerged from the dark ages
of the mobile internet, as the market has forced operators to abandon the
so-called "walled garden" approach. This meant that users could only access
websites that had been pre-selected by their operator ??? the very embodiment
of what net-neutrality advocates are seeking to block in the US. Of course,
that debate revolves around fixed access, and is so relevant in the US because
??? unlike the UK ??? most of that country has very little choice of internet

However, both situations show, or have shown, the harm that can be done to
innovation when those operating the pipes of the internet decide they want
control over content. Operators providing content is nothing new, nor is it a
bad or surprising thing for them to do, but that provision needs to be in line
with the founding principles of the internet if innovation is to flourish.

Any threat to the equality of access and provision on the internet is a bad
thing for innovation, and a combination of the market and regulation is needed
to hold such threats at bay.

3. Input methods We haven't come far. Qwerty is 130 years old, and windows,
icons, mice and pointers are 35. Both come from before the age of portable
computing. So why are we reliant on these tired old methods for all our new
form factors?

There are lots of new ideas ??? voice, gesture and handwriting recognition;
video and infrared inputs that watch what we do with our hands and decide what
it is that we want ??? but the mobile experience remains one of thumb-mangling,
eye-straining frustration. A BlackBerry keyboard is a wonder of
miniaturisation; shame the same's not true of most BlackBerry users.

Until we manage to break down the barriers erected between us and the machines
back in the days before eight-bit processors, we'll be stuck back there too.

4. Battery life All the newfangled input and display technology in the world
doesn't amount to much when your handset and laptop struggle to support more
than a few hours' hard usage.

Particularly on the handset side, the increase in processing power needed to
support the internet and the mobile office puts huge demands on a device's
battery, as do high-speed wireless data technologies like 3G ??? there is a
good reason why the iPhone, which has to provide a reasonable simulation of the
iPod's battery life, does not currently use 3G. Also, even when they refrain
from exploding, the lithium-ion (li-ion) batteries used in a wide variety of
electronic devices become less efficient over time. That means mobile
technology will forever lag behind fixed technology.

But perhaps the greatest application for improved battery technology would be
in electric cars. The concept is proven and on the street but, until it becomes
possible to go as far on a charge as you would on a tank of fuel, only first
adopters and urban eco-warriors will bother.

5. The mania for speed Faster processors are great. However, there is more to
computing than processor speed ??? a point which can be easily proven by
comparing a two-year-old PC running Linux with a new PC buckling under the
weight of Vista. Shrinking the manufacturing process to enable greater speed
has proven essential, but it's running out of magic.

Too much R&D time and money goes into processor speed when other issues remain
under-addressed. For example, could data not be handled a bit better? What
about smarter ways of tagging data? The semantic web initiative runs along
these sorts of lines, so where is the hardware-based equivalent?

It is all very well to be able to run the latest DX10 games on your PC, but
untold mould-shattering developments lie on the other side of a concerted
effort to rethink the nature of the computer. Whichever chipmaker becomes the
first to think beyond speed alone will gain a whole new advantage over its
competitors: smarter, not faster, will lead to both smarter and faster.

6. Intellectual property law John Tehranian, a University of Utah law
professor, has worked out that someone doing a job like his could, under US
law, be committing more than 80 infringements of copyright a day ??? even
without any P2P file-sharing shenanigans ??? and end up with
multi-billion-dollar fines every year. Even whistling a tune in public is a
multi-thousand-dollar mistake.

Intellectual property law is broken. Creativity needs protection, but the
current system isn't working. Designed to encourage inventiveness and the
building of ideas on ideas, it instead rewards power and influence with more
power and influence. The ideal world of the intellectual property lawyer is one
where nothing can move without permission; no idea can happen unless it is

This is no model for a world where ideas can spread like never before and
information is freer than even the most utopian could have imagined 50 years
ago. A new way of thinking about information ownership is needed, and quickly.

7. Skills inequalities Applications and technology might become more intuitive
and creative if more women were involved in the industry. Diversity breeds

Technology has traditionally been terrible at attracting anyone but the
technically minded. Seen by many as incredibly dull and exclusive, the industry
most needs the influence of those who give it the least thought. Even the best
technical process could benefit from a little humanity.

Industry is also waking up to the developing world and beginning to hear its
voice. Technology has the capability of leapfrogging the biggest problems, but
only if it's built to match the needs of the people it serves. The more IT
listens to and gives power to those it has traditionally excluded, the better
it will be suited to solve real problems for us all.

8. Web 2.0 Speaking of daft innovations that do little to better the lives of
humanity, Web 2.0 has a lot to answer for. So the web's gone two-way. Great.
But the extremes of enthusiasm shown by financiers and business people are
verging on counterproductive.

Do we really need applications like Twitter? What price a poke on Facebook?
Microsoft's recent purchase of a chunk of Facebook valued the social-networking
company at $15bn (??7.2bn). This is a company that does not yet have a proven
business plan, despite having big aspirations as a marketing hub. Two years
ago, eBay bought Skype for $2.6bn and Skype ??? a mostly free service ??? is
currently struggling to justify that price.

It's nice to see the vanguard cashing in. But they're not really worth their
valuations or the mountains of cash they have received from venture
capitalists, whose money could probably find better use in other areas of
technological innovation.

With the global economy in its current, credit-crunched state, Web 2.0 runs the
risk of not only taking funding away from worthier areas of research but also
contributing to a downturn that may hit the tech industry particularly hard. It
remains a crucial element of the way we interact through technology, but its
business models need a lot of work.

9. National interests Every country places a high value ??? often the highest
of values ??? on the rule of law. So why do they insist on behaving towards
each other in a state of virtual anarchy?

If we view technology as a globally collaborative effort, one of the clearest
barriers to its development is that of national interests. Look at the
interminable arguments in organisations like the International
Telecommunication Union. Countries defend the interests of their indigenous
corporations and lobby groups; the idea that these interests may be better
served in the long term by ceding ground in the short is as popular as
skinny-dipping in the Antarctic.

Sometimes it is hard to escape the notion that certain countries are deviating
from the pack just for the sake of it, much as Napoleon and the US had horses
and carriages use the right-hand side of the road for no other reason than the
British used the left.

Despite the upcoming Olympics, China is still dragging its heels over the
deployment of 3G because it wants to use its own home-grown standard, TD-SCDMA.
Its motivations for this include avoiding payments to western patent holders,
but the main driver is the fact that China has a large enough internal market
to not have to worry about inconsistencies with international norms. Overall,
progress is yet again slowed down.

Some national interests have an almost absurdly negative effect on
international technological development. For years, the US government
classified encryption technology as a munition, and had export laws that
forbade the distribution to the world of chips using the RSA algorithm. The ban
proved unworkable in the long term but, for a long while, it seriously held
back the development of security technology around the world.

10. The current lack of global wars and/or disasters Forget peace, love and
understanding. For a real boost, technology needs war. World War II gave us
radar, rockets, the jet engine and digital computing. It also gave us 50
million dead.

These days, warfare still results in misery and death, but the technological
benefits are harder to appreciate. There's not much in a stealth fighter or
bomb-disposal robot that helps away from the battlefield.

Let's stick to metaphorical warfare. That's something politicans are good at
promoting, but bad at executing ??? the "war on drugs" and the "war on terror"
both sound good but have generated little of note, beyond copious government
expenditure on ever more inventive ways to annoy their own citizens.

If we must have war, we might as well use it wisely. The biggest threats to
mankind are environmental change, disease and international political and
economic upheaval. Putting the nations of the world on a war footing against
this terrible triad would produce a flowering of new, focused thinking and
technologies ??? and nobody would get hurt.

Rupert Goodwins contributed to this article.

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