Disappointing technology

[I wrote most of this in April, then wrote some more of it in May (sparked by an entry I wrote about Eudora problems), but didn't get around to finishing and posting it 'til now.]

I've been disappointed with lack of forward progress in various technological stuff lately.

Some examples, in way too much detail:

  • I was pretty satisfied with my Palm m500 a couple years ago, but there were various ways I wanted to see it improve--bigger capacity, faster, higher-resolution (and bigger screen), various sound-related improvements, WiFi support, etc. In mid-2005, I moved up to a Treo 650; my other option around that time, along a slightly different path, would probably have been the LifeDrive (which is now no longer available). Neither of those really does everything I want, though; I feel like Palm has been basically stagnating for a few years now. I still love the company, I still want them to succeed, I still own Palm stock--but I feel like we were zipping along the improvements curve and then suddenly stopped. The next-generation Treo 755p is out now, and it definitely appears to be an improvement over the 650, but not all that big an improvement. I would probably have bought one if the iPhone hadn't come along, but I'm still disappointed that Palm hasn't made any really big strides in the past couple years. (And don't get me started on the whole Palm operating system fiasco.)
  • Hard drive capacity in laptops has not increased nearly as fast as I want it to, at least not in Apple laptops. The PowerBook G4 I bought in 2002 had, I think, a 60GB hard drive; I think I later upgraded it to 80GB. My fifteen-month-old MacBook has a 120GB hard drive. Doubling drive capacity in four years is, I admit, pretty cool, but I would have expected it to double roughly twice in that period.
  • Software GUIs feel to me like they haven't significantly improved in a while, and in some ways are taking some steps backward. (Because AJAX apps, amazing and cool as they are, don't yet provide the full range of affordances and interactions that desktop apps do.) I was talking with Twig a while back about the threaded comments interface in LiveJournal, and it occurred to me that trn (a threaded newsreader) had a good tree-like threading interface twenty years ago, whereas today's threaded interfaces (including LJ's) seem generally clunky to me. I do like Slashdot's experimental new interface, where you can click an item and it'll expand right there in the window without a page refresh (go, AJAX!), but there are some mildly clunky things about that as well.
  • Tagging and folksonomies are certainly interesting, but they leave a lot to be desired. They don't really solve the Indexing Problem; it feels more like saying "the Indexing Problem isn't really the right problem to be addressing, so let's go deal with some other related areas." (Yes, yes, my employer's software is obviously one way of trying to address the Indexing Problem, and it does a much better job than I would've expected a few years ago. But still.) (This item isn't really like the other items on this list, but I decided to leave it here anyway.)
  • People have been saying that E Ink will turn into a usable product "within five years" for nearly ten years now. I saw a Sony Reader at Fry's back in April or so, and was really disappointed--it's a very awkward size, and the interface is really clunky, and the page background isn't very white so the contrast between foreground and background isn't as high as I'd hoped. I'm glad that it exists, and it's not awful for a first step, but I wouldn't want to carry one in its current form. I want something the size of a paperback book or smaller (and much thinner), with a natural and intuitive interface and a screen that really looks like paper. And I've been expecting something like that for years--there were clunky wrong-size ebook readers years ago, and I kept expecting that they would make big improvements over time. The iPhone screen is awfully nice, but at the moment there's no way to load long documents onto it, so it's not a good option either.
  • I've been wanting a good To-Do-List application for years, one that would run just as well on my Mac desktop as on my PDA or smartphone. I was thrilled a few years back when someone pointed me to Shadow Plan, but it still just doesn't quite fit my model of how I want a To-Do List to work. (If I could really articulate my model, maybe I could write the app myself, but I can't quite.) And the Mac desktop version is really minimal and not very Maclike. The guy who wrote Shadow has often been extremely responsive to customer input, but his development cycle tends to be a little slow, and the arrival of a child in his family has slowed it further; the last official release was nearly two years ago. Kam (I think?) recently pointed me to iGTD, which sounds potentially promising, but the GTD system has never really fit my head (but iGTD isn't completely wedded to GTD), and anyway there's no to-do-list app for the iPhone yet so I wouldn't have my to-dos with me all the time.
  • Fifteen years ago, when I started my tech writing career, I learned to use FrameMaker, which was one of the most powerful document-processing systems available. It ran on UNIX, Windows, and Mac, and it was the tool of choice for Tech Pubs departments everywhere, except the ones that used Interleaf. (And a few that used things like MS Word, and a few holdovers that were still using SGML tools.) When I left SGI, I bought my own personal copy of FrameMaker, I liked it that much. It had various major UI clunkinesses, but we got used to working around those, and it was incredibly powerful. But development on it was extraordinarily slow. Major bugs and deficiencies went years without being corrected. A few years ago, they decided to stop developing it for the Mac entirely. So I started looking around at the Mac word processor scene, and there just wasn't anything out there that came anywhere near the power of FM. I have an idea in my head of what I want the ultimate tech-writing tool to be, but it generally starts with building a pretty GUI on top of DocBook--and when I talk with my friends who've actually used DocBook, they near-universally dislike it. As far as I can tell, there's no longer one preeminent obvious tool to use--and the tools that are out there mostly don't even have the power that FM had fifteen years ago. (And by "power" I don't mean featuritis.) These days for my personal writing I use a mix of Pages and BBEdit, and my tech writing is all in HTML at this point so I can mostly use Dreamweaver, but there's always a background frustration level that the tools aren't improving very fast.
  • And then there's Eudora. As I described in that entry back in May, I love many things about Eudora. But development on the Mac version has been near-nonexistent for years. QualComm promised a big new version, saying it was just around the corner for a couple of years; then they finally decided to cease development altogether. The development team is now working on Penelope, which appears to essentially consist of adding something resembling the Eudora GUI on top of Thunderbird; after about ten months, they're on the verge of releasing version 0.1beta, and they don't recommend it for use by ordinary Eudora users until version 1.0, probably due out in 2008 at the earliest. I did try out Thunderbird briefly a couple months ago and found it much more to my liking than I had expected, so it's possible that Penelope will eventually suit my needs. But probably not anytime soon; also, as of late July, Mozilla wants to reorganize the way Thunderbird is developed. See the several postings after that for lots more info, including a depressing-to-me suggestion that the world seems to be moving away from desktop email clients. (I'm fine with the world doing that; it's just that it has a negative effect on me personally, because I love desktop email clients and don't like in-browser email clients; see earlier notes about AJAX.) But what other options are there? I tried Apple's Mail.app briefly, and didn't like the GUI or the relatively low-power filtering; but that was a couple years ago, so I may try it again at some point. I've heard good things about Mailsmith, but it hasn't been updated in over two years; I don't think I want to move from one abandoned mailer to another. Anyway, the cost of moving from one mailer to another is high, given the volume of mail I get and the ten-plus years' worth of archived mail that I'd have to port; I haven't yet found an easy way to try out a mailer for a little while and still be able to switch back to Eudora if I need to.

With all of this stuff, I keep using the old stuff, hoping that sooner or later something new will come along that'll work better for me. And, really, most of the old stuff does a reasonably good job of meeting my needs. I've just gotten used to new WOW! technology coming along all the time (to be fair, some pretty WOW!-looking technology does come along every now and then, like the iPhone), and I'm frustrated that after periods of rapid improvement, several of my favorite pieces of technology feel like they've been stagnating for years.

And let's not even get into the fact that we don't have jet-cars yet.

7 Responses to “Disappointing technology”

  1. Sumana Harihareswara

    You may find The Future: A Retrospective interesting — it’s Leonard Richardson’s (my husband’s) ongoing audit of a 1989 book of technological predictions.

  2. Will

    A friend got a new handheld device a few months ago. It’s everything but a phone–web browser, word processor, e-book reader, mp3 and video player, etc. WiFi, but no phone. I think it’s by Nokia, but I can’t find anything on their website which isn’t a phone, so maybe not. Anyway, it runs Linux and looks beautiful and has both keyboard and handwriting recognition. I didn’t play around with it too much, but my brief look at it suggests it might be the next step towards some of the solutions you want to see.

    It wasn’t as beautiful as an iPhone.

    But I’ve got one big unanswered (well, and unasked so far) question about the iPhone–and by requiring you to carry a separate phone, this other device sidesteps it and doesn’t charge you for having a phone included. Can you use the iPhone as a WiFi web browser and a phone (with Bluetooth headset) simultaneously? If not, how can you take notes or look up directions while you’re on the phone? Or do you find you never actually need to do that? (I’d think I would, but it’s so hard to anticipate usage patterns for new technologies.)

  3. Jed

    Sumana: Wow, that’s a great site — thanks for the link! I especially like the line “a fairy-tale-like row of three toilets, each more intelligent than the last.” I’ll have to drop by again and read more of it … IN THE FUTURE! Ahem. Anyway, for anyone who didn’t follow the link, the site is required reading for would-be futurists (and for anyone who believes anything written in Wired).

    Me: It’s funny–I polished this up last Friday and set it to post automatically today, little realizing that this morning would be the day of Apple’s latest big announcement: as of today, the iPhone costs $200 less, and there’s a new phoneless iPhone, called the iPod Touch.

    Oh, and the Penelope Beta shipped on Monday, or maybe over the weekend. I haven’t tried it out yet because I’m not sure whether it can coexist with the Eudora that I use, but I’m glad to see them release it.

    Will: See my comment above about the iPod Touch–although the device you’re describing does sound better in various ways, notably the fact that it includes a word processor. I’m hoping that the iPhone evolves over the next few months into something that will do all the things that my Palm and Treo could do that the iPhone currently can’t, most particularly (a) long-document reading, (b) some kind of word processing, and (c) small-database viewing/editing.

    Re the iPhone: I haven’t tried a Bluetooth headset, but with wired earbuds, yes, I can talk on the phone and use the WiFi web browser (and Google Maps and whatever else) at the same time. Unfortunately, you can’t use an EDGE data connection and the voice line at the same time–but the equivalent was true on the Treo as well. It is indeed very useful on occasion to be able to talk to someone on the phone and also do a web search or a Maps search at the same time; I did that with Mary Anne a week or two ago, to help her find a store in Oakland that would sell her something she needed.

    Sadly, note-taking is not one of the things the iPhone is good at, so far. There’s a note-taking app, but it’s very primitive and it doesn’t sync with the Mac. But I’ll be astonished if that doesn’t change in the next six months.

  4. Will

    Yeah, I was reading on one of the live-blogging sites as Jobs spoke yesterday, and, wow! I was shocked at the price drop on the iPhone, and I’m now on the brink of getting one… or the iPod Touch.

    The iPod Touch may win me over–twice the hard drive of the iPhone, presumably better battery life, easy to do phone and internet simultaneously, and I can continue to use Verizon Wireless’s voice network and free in-network-calling. And it’s cheaper by $200 than the price of the iPhone before yesterday (which I’d considered several hundred above my price bracket). The price drop on iPhone makes it attractive too, but I think the other factors all point towards the iPod Touch for my needs. Steve Jobs’s Orbital Mind Control/Reading Lasers win again.

    Not only does the Linux box of my friend have a word processor, but I think it was actually Open Office. You can install any software you want, unlike iPhone/iPod Touch where, as I understand it, Apple limits third-party applications? Presumably this means I’ll have to switch to something like GMail (instead of Pine in Terminal) for using an iPortable.

    I don’t think I object horribly to the lack of syncing notes–I’m guessing I’d just be writing Stickies (or the iThing equivalent) which would only really be need on the iPortable.

    Do you think it’s a safe assumption that the few issues I have with the iPod Touch are likely to change with software upgrades (ie, downloads to an existing product), and aren’t dependent on hardware upgrades (ie, new product releases)?

  5. David Moles

    I don’t know how you can even mention LJ and GUIs in the same bullet point without cracking up laughing.

  6. jacob

    Will — I’m pretty sure you’re talking about the Nokia 770 Internet Tablet, which looks like a nice device.

  7. Will

    Almost–it was the 2007 version of the 770, the N800 (a major improvement according to Ars Technica). At $50 cheaper than the iPod Touch, this is intriguing. Negatives: to get to 16 GB storage, you have to purchase two 8 GB SDRAM cards (another $150?)…


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