Dear tech companies: Stop shipping unfinished shit

Commentary: If 2016 taught us anything, it's that shipping in beta is not okay.

Sean Hollister Senior Editor / Reviews
When his parents denied him a Super NES, he got mad. When they traded a prize Sega Genesis for a 2400 baud modem, he got even. Years of Internet shareware, eBay'd possessions and video game testing jobs after that, he joined Engadget. He helped found The Verge, and later served as Gizmodo's reviews editor. When he's not madly testing laptops, apps, virtual reality experiences, and whatever new gadget will supposedly change the world, he likes to kick back with some games, a good Nerf blaster, and a bottle of Tejava.
Sean Hollister
4 min read

Here's a New Year's resolution for tech companies: Stop ruining things by releasing them early.

Yes, I know it's tempting to test the waters and beat competition to the punch, but what if things go bad?

What if your drone falls out of the sky? What if your smartphone explodes? What if someone dies using your app? What if your pocket-monster-chasing game is actually a huge global sensation, but software bugs and missing features keep it from being more than a fad?

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The infamous Samsung Galaxy Note 7.

Josh Miller/CNET

In 2016, every one of those things actually happened. So maybe 2016 is the year we all learn the lesson.

These days, companies expect us to buy unfinished "beta" products and then spend our time helping them work out the kinks. Usually, this pays off because we don't notice minor flaws in the products, or aren't bothered enough to get our money back. We instead just lust after new gadgets, buy into the hype, throw so much money at the next big thing that companies promise even more products and features that they can't deliver on time.

Not without taking a few shortcuts, that is.

But this year, a whole lot of rushed, unfinished products failed in some pretty spectacular ways -- ways that may make people think twice about trusting the companies that made them.

For instance: Would you buy a drone from GoPro, knowing that the company's first drone got pulled from shelves in November for a tendency to fall out of the sky?

Watch this: GoPro recalls Karma drones because of power problems

How many years do you think it will be before Samsung recovers from the Galaxy Note 7 fiasco, when apparently a too-big, too-tight battery caused over 100 phones to burst into flames? (Particularly after the supposedly safe replacement phones also caught on fire?)

Would you give your children a McDonald's Happy Meal gadget, after the company's cheap-o fitness tracker, introduced in August, was found to irritate some people's skin?

How about buying a Samsung or GE washing machine -- after some Samsung models shook themselves to pieces or in the case of GE, caught fire?

With so many examples like these in 2016, maybe companies will think twice about rushing their products to market.

Watch this: Galaxy Note 7 fires may be to blame on tight battery

Particularly companies that use lithium-ion batteries; between the devastating hoverboard fires, the embarrassing Samsung Galaxy Note 7 fires and Intel's overheating Basis Peak fitness tracker -- all three were recalled this year -- you'd best believe brands are going to be extra careful with products that use flammable energy cells.

But 2016 wasn't just the year of huge consumer recalls. (Also see: exploding Takata airbag inflators and Cuisinart food processor blades.) Plenty of unfinished products shot themselves in the foot without consumer protection agencies needing to get involved.

Would you rely on Tesla's Autopilot self-steering car feature, after this driver's fatal crash while using the beta in May?


As one backer put it, "Seriously, @scanadu? So you effectively charged me $200 for the privilege of participating in your private study. #scam"


Would you ever buy anything from Scanadu, the company that shipped a $200 (roughly £160 in the UK or AU$280 in Australia) smartphone-connected medical sensor without first getting FDA approval -- meaning those $200 devices are about to become useless paperweights? (The company isn't offering refunds, either.)

Will you rush to download the latest Apple software updates, now that you know they can occasionally brick your watch, tablet or phone?

Do you trust your Samsung water-resistant phone to actually be water-resistant, after the first batch of Samsung Galaxy S7 Active phones weren't?

Do you think maybe Electronic Arts wishes it hadn't shipped an early beta of its big new game, Titanfall 2, only a couple months before launch -- which convinced some of the original games' biggest, most vocal fans to write it off? (Reports suggest the game has sold poorly.)

And do you think the creators of Pokemon Go wish they hadn't squandered its massive global popularity on server issues, bugs and missing features that drove players away?

Do you think Uber should maybe have tried to work with regulators before it built a fleet of self-driving cars that are now banned from California roads?

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Uber had to pull its fleet of self-driving cars from California roads, after the DMV revoked their registrations.

James Martin/CNET

It didn't have to be this way. With a little more time in the oven and a little more thought in 2016, these brands might have saved their products, their reputations and maybe even lives in the process.

(The creators of Pokemon Go didn't respond to concerns about road safety until two Japanese pedestrians were allegedly hit and killed by truck drivers playing the game -- despite their previous game, Ingress, already having a speed limit feature which could have saved them.)

I'm not saying every product has to be fully tested before it gets released to the public. Some, like the voice recognition software that powers the Google Home voice-activated speaker, genuinely need real people to use it for years before it can work well -- and video games like Titanfall 2 can genuinely benefit from player feedback in an early beta release.

But too many games use their "betas" as just one more marketing vehicle to help sell people on the final product -- and too many companies aren't testing their physical gadgets properly. (I'm also willing to bet that if Google Home had waited for Netflix support, it would have been much better received.)

For their own sake, these companies need to slow down and build better products, but we also need to reward the ones that do. We need to stop throwing our money at ideas, and only spend it on finished products with excellent reviews and solid customer support. We need to be willing to pay extra for a finished, quality product instead of jumping on an early bird deal.

And we reviewers need to stop reviewing products based on their potential instead of how they actually work in reality.

Let's not give these companies reason to think we'll settle for anything less than the best they have to offer.

The biggest tech turkeys of 2016

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