Technology's 10 most inexcusable failures

ZDNet's David Berlind has his dander up about half-baked technologies that still don't do what they're supposed to.

8 min read
As a former lab director, I was part of a testing and reviews team that lauded great products and raked the poorly done ones through the coals. Despite bad reviews, it was possible to lose sight of where technology was not only failing us but also doing so inexcusably.

When you look at the problems technology has solved, it's appalling that the simpler issues still linger. I say this knowing that these problems are likely being solved by a solutions provider somewhere out there. Invariably, in response to my complaints about one problem or another, I get e-mails from vendors who say, "We solve that problem" or from the Apple faithful who scream, "Get a Mac!" But that isn't good enough. These problems are blatantly killing the productivity of thousands of people, and there's no excuse for them to not be universally addressed.

When I think about the number of times I've had to rekey a complete number into a landline phone...I feel embarrassed for the people who make them.

Quite frankly, I'm tired of the finger-pointing. I just want it fixed so I can rid my life of repetitive, time-draining nuisances. Using our TalkBack feature below, feel free to chime in. If your suggestion winds up filling the last, vacant spot in the following Top 10 list (or bumps one of my peeves), I'll dig through my pile of unopened FedEx and UPS boxes and send you whatever trivial goodies I can find. And so without further ado, my Top 10 list of inexcusable technology failures that drive people batty:

• Eight years ago, when I was in Europe, I watched with envy as my future in-law called directory assistance on his cell phone. The operator simply programmed my in-law's phone over the wireless network with the number of the restaurant he was trying to reach. How many times, in the U.S., have you called 411 a second time for the same person's or business's phone number? Enough said.

• Speaking of phones, we're getting there too slowly. It's still taking too long for all landline phones to work the same way cell phones do. Specifically, I'm talking about the way you can edit the complete phone number you're about to dial before finally dialing. When I think about the number of times I've had to rekey a complete number into a landline phone (either on the first dial or redial), I feel embarrassed for the people who make them.

• I get dozens of e-mails every day where the line-feed is inserted into the middle of a Web URL in a way that makes it impossible to go directly to that Web page with a single click. Instead, I have to cut and paste the URL in pieces from the e-mail into my Web browser. With really long URLs from shopping sites, this process makes me want to jump out a window. While we wait forever for the forced line-wrap problem to be eliminated from our lives, perhaps the people who make our e-mail systems can detect situations where URLs get chopped up. Please figure out a way to put them back together again. Part B to this problem covers the e-mails that have no text in their bodies and instead require you to open an attachment in order to read the e-mail message. Try opening that e-mail with a PDA or smart phone.

• How many times have you received an appointment request from someone who doesn't share the same e-mail system? How many times have you had to cut and paste a bazillion times from the e-mail message to your calendar? OK, so there have been some proposals for calendaring standards, but for whatever reasons, they're not universally supported. Or maybe they're supported, but not "embraced," if you know what I mean. I don't care. Regular Expression text pattern recognition technology has been around for two decades, and what text patterns are more recognizable than dates and times? Sure, there are enough variations in date and time formats to throw a 10-year-old PERL programmer for a loop. But not an infinite one. With a halfway-decent software developer, a month's worth of free pizza and a couple of cases of Jolt Cola, most e-mail clients could be programmed to recognize 99 percent of the data that needs to be pushed into the new calendar item's fields. I'll take anything--anything!--over the way it works now.

I'll be in a meeting, and my calendar pops up a reminder. When I dismiss the reminder, why isn't it then wiped out in all the other places where my calendar is replicated?

• In addition to appointment requests, there's another collection of data that invariably shows up in my e-mails that I wish would be handled a little bit more intelligently: contact info. So far, vCard has been a complete failure. Although most e-mail clients can handle it, hardly anyone actually uses it. Almost every e-mail I receive has all of a person's contact data (first name, last name, addresses (physical, e-mail, Web, IM, etc.), and phone numbers inconveniently placed at the end of their e-mail (where the signature goes). Not only should it be relatively easy to push all of this data into the right fields in my contact manager, I should be able to push it to any contact manager (and not necessarily the one my e-mail provider decides I should be using).

For example, even though I use Outlook for e-mail, I wouldn't dare use it for contact management. For that, I have a relational database (based on Sybase's SQL Server, if you must know). Because of its relational capabilities, the program allows me to see everybody I know (PR firms, employees and end-users) who's connected with IBM (or any other vendor for that matter). E-mail clients should have the intelligence to parse contact data found in an e-mail and the ability to easily push that data into some fields in a user-designed form. And when the user presses the save button, he or she should be able to direct that data flow to the contact management database of his or her choosing. The capability is there to do this today, but you have to be a software developer to use it. C'mon, folks. It's 2005.

• Imagine if 10 years ago software vendors set themselves on a course to turn error messages into interactive software-repair assistants. Using the error dialog box, you would then be able to catalog the error in a log of your choice, forward it to some central repository (either corporate or with the vendor) and generate a trouble ticket for your support staff. Better yet, maybe you would be able to repair the problem with one click. Things today are a little bit better. But these stopgaps are a far cry from what I really should be able to do with an error dialog. Half the time, the cut-and-paste simply doesn't work. In some situations where it does, the error message means absolutely nothing to anybody who might care (including the vendor of the software). Where the error messages exhibit some limited interactivity with a vendor, they are too fixed in what they can do. For example, what if I want to be CCed on the information being forwarded to a vendor or want to add something? While this fundamental issue remains largely unaddressed, vendors somehow still find it in their hearts to add significant amounts of bloat to their products that only a small fraction of users are interested in. Sigh.

• Are your appointments replicated to some place other than your primary system? A system at home for example? A PDA? A Smart phone? Having my calendar available to me (and others) at any time and in any place is a huge advance. But here's the rub. I'll be in a meeting, and my calendar pops up a reminder. When I dismiss the reminder, why isn't it then wiped out in all the other places where my calendar is replicated?

• I've complained about this before, but it's worth mentioning again. When I upgrade to a new system, I invariably need to buy some third-party software to help migrate 80 percent of the data on the old system over to the new one. Then I have to spend several weeks doing the heavy manual lifting to cover the remaining 20 percent. That's ludicrous. If I owned a Dell notebook and the company made it possible to migrate to a new Dell notebook by attaching the two to each other and pressing one button, I'd think long and hard before buying a competing laptop. Same goes for desktops. Booting into a Firewire-based hard drive mode, as some systems can do, seems like a step in the right direction, but one that should have been taken about 15 years ago.

• The more people telecommute (especially now that the U.S. government is requiring it), the more they'll be taking notebook systems that are designed to access the network resources at work and using them to access the network resources at home. For example, a printer. Try doing this when the two systems (the one that wants to print and the other that's host to the printer) run a different operating system, are part of separate domains or workgroups, or one of the systems is currently logged in to a virtual private network. Doable? In some situations, yes. But it's still way too painful.

My printer at home is attached to a Linux box. I gave up on Samba. Now I just use the Internet Printing Protocol. But that's because with IPP, I only have five problems instead of 10 (four of which are other family members requesting technical support). You can't tell me that this isn't a problem that could have been solved ages ago. Some of you are out there saying, "It was! It was! You're just an idiot for not knowing how to do it." Like I should need to know more than pressing the print button and picking a printer. Call this the mixing-work-with-pleasure problem. Business networks and home networks don't mix. As home networks become more important in the scheme of things, the problem is going to get worse. Not better.

• I'll leave this one open for you. Got a gripe? Perhaps my list is too narrowly focused on computer stuff. Maybe all the automobile manufacturers are making the same mistake with their technologies. Choose your poison. Or replace one of my mine. Let me know what's getting under your skin. Maybe some manufacturers will listen.