Nine tech torments I'd like to see fixed in 2014

For CNET's Stephen Shankland, 'tis the season to be a grinch about problems that sully his daily use of phones, PCs, and other devices -- especially those that can be fixed.

How to do things right: a keyboard long-press on the x key in Android's SwiftKey keyboard will reveal a bunch of currency symbols.
How to do things right: a keyboard long-press on the x key in Android's SwiftKey keyboard will reveal a bunch of currency symbols. If only Windows, Chrome OS, and iOS adopted a similar approach. screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

I know it's the season of thankfulness and giving, but it's time to complain.

I enjoy technology, and I appreciate how difficult it is to write all that software and design all that hardware. I use it every day, usually for many hours, and it has improved my life in countless ways. But when there are shortcomings I encounter over and over, my irritation skyrockets.

The thing is, many of these problems can be fixed. The computing industry is fixing big problems with USB ports and cables . I no longer have trouble getting iOS 7's control panel to show with a swipe up from the bottom of my iPad's screen. My ISP just upgraded my network at no charge to me so that my online backups take minutes or hours, instead of hours or days. Specks of dust on my SLR's image sensor were really irritating on my last camera but now hardly ever bug me. Improvements give me heart.

But for now, here's why my glass isn't always half full. I hope that some of these will be fixed in 2014.

Sat-nav silliness
Perhaps there are better models out there, but the satellite navigation systems I've used of late need to wake up and smell the Google Maps. The navigation they provide isn't bad (and certainly I've had plenty of trouble with Google Maps, too), but telling them where you want to go is excruciating.

The worst is the inflexibility about incomplete addresses, misspelled city names, and other sorts of you-didn't-fill-out-the-form-correctly problems. Even when I know exactly where to go, entering destination addresses letter by letter with unresponsive touch screens or crazy control knobs is an ordeal. Looking for points of interest, gas stations, and houses all requires some different trip through the system. Want updated maps? That's a service that'll cost me annual payments.

In contrast, with my phone, I speak my command to Google Maps or Google Now, and it mostly just figures things out. I don't have to worry about going into the points-of-interest mode before searching for a museum, and the database of useful locations is immeasurably larger. The improvements are enough to encourage me to use my phone for navigation even though it struggles with flaky mobile networks, battery consumption, and moments of imperfect satellite reception.

Five browser logos

Mobile browser launch times
I have acquired a Pavlovian reaction when I see Web links in e-mail, Facebook, Google+, and Twitter on my mobile phone or tablet. I grimace and think, "Do I really want to click that link?" Because doing so will launch a slow grind of a process that sometimes takes a half minute to produce anything useful.

I hear constantly about the importance of fast-loading Web pages, with usage rates plummeting the longer it takes for every second spent watching a "loading" animation. But the problem here is bigger: It begins with launching the browser itself.

I'm sure this one can be fixed, because Internet Explorer on the Nokia Lumia 1520 I'm trying is really snappy. But this needs to work on low-end hardware, not just the latest hero phone.

Gmail lags
I got hooked on Gmail back when it was fast. Now, even with browsers executing JavaScript programs at rates that would be unbelievable a few years ago, using Google's e-mail in a browser makes me sad.

Whenever I reload my browser, I have to wait for Gmail's status bar to dawdle its way across the screen.
Whenever I reload my browser, I have to wait for Gmail's status bar to dawdle its way across the screen. screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Loading the Gmail Web page is slow. Performing a search is slow. Opening the contacts page is slow. I use keyboard shortcuts and I often select five to 15 messages to archive or delete them, but when I do, they sit there in my inbox for waits of up to 10 seconds or so, instead of disappearing immediately. Sometimes it's annoying enough that I go away to do something else.

Maybe this is why Google wants to build Dart. Until then, I like Gmail, but no longer think of it as snappy.

Kindle icon

Kindle app
I read a lot of e-books with the Kindle app on my Android tablet, Android phone, and iPad. Over the past year, the Kindle app has begun irritating me with ever-longer load times. I'm not sure what grand challenge stands in the way of splashing a couple hundred words on an otherwise blank screen -- perhaps file-format and display improvements that let a much more complicated book be displayed? In any event, it's frustratingly slow.

And while I'm complaining, it shouldn't be my responsibility to set a bookmark every time I find a footnote so I can read it then figure out how to get back to my last position. And on iOS 7, switching back to the Kindle app from another app means a tedious wait for it to reload the text and redraw it on the screen.

OK, one more: why can't the Kindle app on Android actually go as dim as the screen? I read at night, and at least on my devices sorta-kinda-medium-dim is way too bright.

Cut and paste files in OS X
It took Apple 15 years or so before it wised up and stole one of Microsoft Windows' sensible user-interface features, the ability to resize a window by grabbing any edge or corner. Now Apple needs to purloin another advantage: the ability to cut files from a Finder folder with Cmd-X so they can be pasted into another folder.

Drag-and-drop was revolutionary when Apple brought it to the masses nearly three decades ago with the Macintosh. But the novelty of carefully positioning the windows so you can drag files from one to the other wore off at least two decades ago. Especially since OS X lets you copy and paste files, it's time to go all the way and let you cut and paste, them too.

The tabbed Finder in OS X 10.9 Mavericks helps alleviate the problem. But as long as we are talking about tedious window-positioning work, I'd also like OS X to adopt Microsoft's window-snapping technology. With that, you can drag a window to the left or right edge of the screen and dock it there, filling that half of the screen, or drag it to the top to have it maximize and take up the whole window.

Diacriticisms
Meanwhile, Microsoft can return the favor by stealing Apple's approach to diacritical marks -- letters with an accent, umlaut, ring, diaeresis, and such.

A long-press on many OS X keys reveals a range of options for easily typing accented characters.
A long-press on many OS X keys reveals a range of options for easily typing accented characters. screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

There are some clunky ways to get foreign characters to show on Windows, but nothing beats the simplicity of Apple's approach: long-press on the letter a, and eight options for accents appear. You can click on the one you want or type the number corresponding to each one. It's fast and painless.

Google needs to embrace this in Chrome OS, too. Right now, when I need to type accented characters in Google Docs, it's easiest to search for them and then copy and paste them into my document.

The SwiftKey keyboard on Android also gives you a world of possibilities with a long-press on a key. And it doesn't limit the idea to diacritical marks: long-presses can get you numbers, punctuation, quotation marks, pound signs for hashtags, and many other useful characters without having to flip between various keyboard entry modes. One particularly great thing for a person such as myself living in France is better than any PC keyboard: a long-press on SwiftKey's letter x will pop up an option for the symbols for pound, cent, dollar, yen, and euro currencies. The Internet means we live in an international age now, where such symbols are useful, and the long-press option is better than a custom keyboard for every country. It also means it'll be easy to add the bitcoin symbol when the time comes.

Browser tab overflow
For anyone with more than 10 or 15 tabs open, seeing what's open and switching back and forth among the tabs is a problem. This is a thorny problem, and honestly, I'm not sure there's a solution for it.

My preferred approach is Chrome's which shrinks tabs down to just their favicon graphic -- and then even more if necessary. When I have 25 tabs open, I like to know that. In contrast, Firefox, Internet Explorer, and Safari refuses to shrink tabs too much and instead present just the subset that will show on the screen. When it's time to move among them, it's hard to find the one you want unless it's right next door on the tab strip.

Chrome is best at handling tab overflow -- the condition that afflicts people with too many browser tabs open.
Chrome is best at handling tab overflow -- the condition that afflicts people with too many browser tabs open. screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Tab overflow may seem a nitpick, but I often have 20 or 30 or 40 tabs open in a window, even when I pull off tab groups into separate batches. So this is a real problem I encounter frequently. It's one feature that keeps me using Chrome.

Task switching is hard, though. Apple's Mission Control, Windows' task bar, and the alt-tab that works with both of them and Chrome OS -- they're all useful, but I fear nothing is going to make it easy for humans to juggle among many concurrent tasks.

The deleted right-delete key
Until my direct neural interface arrives, I'm going to have to type a lot of text. That's why I'm so resentful that some computer makers have dropped a tremendously useful button from many laptop keyboards: the right delete key.

Deleting text to the right of the cursor is something I do hundreds of times every day as I write stories, e-mails, Facebook posts, and shopping lists. When I am refining that text, the right-delete key is tremendously useful. But on my MacBook Pro's otherwise stellar keyboard, the only built-in way to delete text to the right of the cursor is the ergonomically awful cross-keyboard combination of function-delete. I've worked around the problem with a terrific utility called KeyRemap4MacBook, reassigning the option key on the right side of the keyboard to become a right-delete key. On Google's Chromebook Pixel, it's slightly less bad with the option of alt-delete, which at least lets me right-delete with one hand, but there's no obvious option for remapping keys to give me back what I need.

I understand that a lot of people don't need this key. But for those of us who actually write words, it's tremendously useful -- certainly more so than caps lock, backslash, and the reverse apostrophe. Heck, I probably use right-delete more often than the letters X, J, and Q.

Printing Web pages
It's almost 2014. I'm beginning to suspect the paperless office will arrive before the ability to print a Web page does.
Web pages often print gracelessly.
Web pages often print gracelessly. screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Even if you resist the impulse to print Web pages most of the time, there are still times it's useful. Some banks don't let you download statements, and you might want to print to a PDF file, for example. Online receipts for expense reports are another occasion. I don't want a jumble of awkwardly large or badly formatted text, with images missing, half printed, or occluding text underneath.

Happily, Web developers are working hard on Web formatting that makes it easier to build magazine-like layouts and to let Web pages adjust fluidly and automatically to a variety of screen sizes. And things are getting better. For example, I can now use Wikipedia to make a quick guidebook to a city I'm visiting on the spur of the moment.

So maybe this problem, along with my other complaints, will be fixed by this time next year.

 

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