10 things I don't 'get' about consumer technology

There are some things in this business that don't make any sense at all
  • Mike Elgan (Computerworld (US))
  • 13 October, 2010 06:25

We live in an age of invention and scientific discovery. But there are things about some inventions that science simply cannot explain. Here are 10 things that I simply do not understand about consumer technology:

1. Why did Apple make the iPad so slippery?

The Apple iPad is a marvel of usability, design and engineering. The hardware is sleek and elegant. The user interface is simply the best ever designed. It seems that every possible usability scenario has been carefully considered, except for one: You can't hold it.

The iPad's smooth metal back, contoured edges and all-glass front make holding the device not unlike holding a wet bar of soap. With all the innovation and usability genius invested in the iPad, why not just make a rubberized back.

Why make an expensive touch device so awkward and perilous to hold?

2. Why doesn't Twitter auto-shorten URLs?

Everybody knows that Twitter limits messages to 140 characters. Somewhere between 15% and 25% of all tweets have links in them. Because most URLs are way too long for Twitter, everybody's got to use URL shorteners, such as TinyURL, or

These services are a pain in the neck and should be unnecessary. They require extra steps to post, which is wrong because Twitter's sole benefit is speed and ease.

Second, there's always the risk that the URL-shortening company might go out of business and break all of your links.

In order to get those URLs as short as possible, services use the country code top-level domains (ccTLD) of other countries. As we learned this week, control is subject to the governments that have power over the ccTLD. Recently, for example, Libyan dictator Moammar Qaddafi began deleting services that shorten links to adult material. The "ly" ccTLD belongs to Libya. The site, owned by sex columnist Violet Blue, was nuked, and all the links created with the shortener are now broken.

Libya's is the same ccTLD, by the way, used by the leading shortener on Twitter:

Twitter knows everyone has to scramble to shorten URLs. Why doesn't Twitter just shorten them for us? Third-party Twitter clients do it without any problems. Why can't Twitter?

3. Why do people call the iPod Touch the "iTouch"?

Apple iPods have existed for nine years. All of them are branded as iPod something: iPod Shuffle, iPod Nano, iPod Classic and iPod Touch.

So why do people remove the word "iPod" for the iPod Touch? In my own experience, I've noticed that a solid majority call it the iTouch. I've even had arguments with people who staunchly defend their belief that the name of the iPod Touch is the iTouch.

That's not a media player. It's a confession.

(And, for that matter, why do some people call all Android-based smartphones "Droids"?)

4. Why can't GoogleChrome read RSS?

Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser, once the uncontested leader, has now sunk below 50% market share. Firefox had a good run but like IE is now in decline. Google's Chrome browser, while still No. 3 after IE and Firefox, is the only major browser that's growing its market share.

Everybody loves Chrome's performance. But why can't Google Chrome read RSS pages?

Sometimes, content Web pages are full of clutter, ads and other junk. It's better to bookmark and use the RSS feed version. It works great in IE and Firefox, but Chrome shows you the unreadable XML code.

Google is committed to open standards and aspires to be the world's No. 1 browser. Why can't it do something as basic as rendering XML pages?

5. Why does Windows cover the very button you need to click?

Those of us who maintain Web sites find ourselves constantly using Windows' drag-and-drop FTP feature. After editing a file, we just drag and drop it into the FTP folder that represents its location. Simple, right?

When you upload a copy of a file to replace one with the same name, Windows of course opens a "Copy and Replace?" dialog box that lets you confirm that you'd like to replace the old file with the new one. Choices include "Yes," "Yes to all," "No" and "Cancel." But here's the part that makes no sense: The moment Windows opens the dialog box, it immediately covers it with a second dialog box designed to show copy progress of the file. Of course, there is no progress because you haven't pressed the button. And you haven't pressed the button because the button is covered by the copy progress dialog.

Why would Microsoft cover a user-input dialog with another one that's waiting for that user input?

6. Why is iTunes for Windows the opposite of every other Apple product?

Nike President and CEO Mark Parker told a story this week about a call he received from Apple CEO Steve Jobs shortly after Parker took the helm. Parker asked Jobs for advice, and Jobs told him: "Nike makes some of the best products in the world. Products that you lust after. Absolutely beautiful, stunning products. But you also make a lot of crap. Just get rid of the crappy stuff and focus on the good stuff."

If Apple itself follows Jobs' advice, how do you explain iTunes for Windows?

I find iTunes for Windows literally the worst software application I have ever used.

Performance is comically slow. There's a full second or two between the moment I click on something and iTunes' response.

The user interface is hideously ugly. The type is too small. Among many other annoyances, it uploads my iPhone's apps to my iPad, forgets where it puts my files, and fails to transfer some random podcast episodes to my iPhone.

The listing of podcasts in List view (the only view that provides the information you need) barely differentiates podcasts from the episodes of those podcasts. Podcasts I listen to every day occasionally get sidelined because iTunes reports that I haven't listened to them in a long time.

ITunes is a train wreck. Why does the best user interface company make the worst Windows application?

7. Where are those Google personal-time projects?

Google employees are supposed to spend 20% of their time on projects that interest them, regardless of their job descriptions. The big stars of this program include Gmail, plus dozens of "Labs" products for Google, as well as the social networking service Orkut. Well, Orkut is a big star in Brazil, anyway.

Why aren't there more?

Assuming Google employees are the only white-collar Americans left who work only five days a week, 20% is one day a week, four days a month or 52 days a year.

If you assume an average two-week vacation per employee, 20% time adds up to 50 days per employee, times 20,000 employees, which equals 1 million days of work per year.

Stated another way, 20% of 20,000 people is the theoretical equivalent of 4,000 full-time employees. That's more than Facebook, Craigslist, Twitter, Digg, Wikipedia and Foursquare combined. Times two.

So 20,000 employees, each with a personal-time project? Where are the thousands of projects?

8. Why can't Facebook be used as an address book?

An address book or a contact database is simply a list of all the people I know, plus information on how to contact them. It's a social network, or at least a list of all the people in a social network.

Facebook is by far the most popular social networking service. Why can't I use it as an address book?

If you visit the URL!/friends/edit/?sk=phonebook, you'll see that (for most people, anyway) the phone numbers of most of your "friends" are already in there.

What makes perfect sense is for each Facebook user to fill in their address, phone numbers, e-mail addresses and so on, and choose which "Groups" to share them with. Then, each of us could use that as the basis for our contacts, synchronize it with our phones and generally use Facebook, the same way we use the contacts feature of, say, Microsoft Outlook.

But it would be better than Outlook because I wouldn't need to painstakingly manage it by hand: People would update their own contact information.

Why hasn't Facebook rolled out this obvious feature?

9. Why can't I use Google Reader as an RSS reader?

I'm a huge fan of RSS, and for the most part I really like Google's RSS reader, Google Reader. But it has one extremely annoying quality: It forces you to wade through items "shared" by people you have "followed" on other Google services, such as Google Buzz.

I like to follow a lot of people on Google Buzz. And I'd like to use Google Reader as my RSS reader. But I can't do both. All my RSS feeds, plus all of the content that is shared by my Google Buzz pals, is just way too much content.

I don't understand why Google doesn't let me use Google Reader as an RSS reader. Why don't they let me turn off "shared" content with one click. Why does everything have to be yet another social network?

10. Why are driving directions so tiny on the Google Maps iPhone app?

You're not supposed to use the Google Maps iPhone app to get turn-by-turn directions while driving. You're supposed to pull over and memorize every offramp and every turn. But nobody does that. In the real world, people use it while driving.

The iPhone app does not offer audible turn-by-turn directions. They have to be read on-screen. Those directions are displayed in incredibly small type. The typeface is white on a pale blue background, and behind that is the map itself, which you can see through the overlay. In bright sunlight while driving, the small type represents a colossal safety hazard.

Under what circumstances did Google think people would be reading driving directions? Why didn't Google make the turn-by-turn directions easier to read?

Well, there they are: my 10 things I don't understand about consumer technology. What are the things that you don't understand? Please add yours to the comments area.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. Contact and learn more about Mike at, or subscribe to his free e-mail newsletter, Mike's List.