Ten things holding back tech

Ever get the feeling that we aren't quite yet where we want to be? Here are 10 factors that may be holding back the world's technological development

The pace of change in IT has never been faster — or has it? After 25 years of desktop computing and 15 years of the commercial internet, there are still plenty of frustrations, pains and throwbacks in our everyday technology experience. It's great having a terabyte hard disk, but not so great trying to manage it using interfaces and tools that have barely changed from the days when 40MB was respectable.

Many factors are holding back technology. Here is a list of 10 such barriers, in no particular order. We have almost certainly missed a few, so feel free to leave your comments using the Talkback facility at the bottom of the page.

1. Microsoft's stranglehold on the desktop
Windows unified the personal-computer market, and led it into the enterprise. A good thing, surely? Yes — if unity is more important than innovation, flexibility and a free market. The European Commission disagreed with that, as have courts around the world.

For most people, computing means Windows, not because they choose it but because the company's immense power in retail and business channels, together with the inertia that comes through decades of market dominance, make it a default that's hard to change.

So why does this hold back innovation? The European Commission ruled that computer users are unnecessarily used to products like Windows Media Player — applications that are mediocre just because Microsoft has no real incentive to make them better. Monopolies are anti-competitive and therefore anti-innovation. Just look at Internet Explorer's long stagnation.

Microsoft's stifling influence on new ways of thinking goes beyond applications, however. As Vista so readily proves, rehashing the same idea again and again does not make for progress. For everyone's sake, especially Microsoft itself, the company needs to learn to compete fairly again.

2. Operator lock-in
In Europe, we have only recently emerged from the dark ages of the mobile internet, as the market has forced operators to abandon the so-called "walled garden" approach. This meant that users could only access websites that had been pre-selected by their operator — the very embodiment of what net-neutrality advocates are seeking to block in the US. Of course, that debate revolves around fixed access, and is so relevant in the US because — unlike the UK — most of that country has very little choice of internet provider.

However, both situations show, or have shown, the harm that can be done to innovation when those operating the pipes of the internet decide they want control over content. Operators providing content is nothing new, nor is it a bad or surprising thing for them to do, but that provision needs to be in line with the founding principles of the internet if innovation is to flourish.

Any threat to the equality of access and provision on the internet is a bad thing for innovation, and a combination of the market and regulation is needed to hold such threats at bay.

3. Input methods
We haven't come far. Qwerty is 130 years old, and windows, icons, mice and pointers are 35. Both come from before the age of portable computing. So why are we reliant on these tired old methods for all our new form factors?

There are lots of new ideas — voice, gesture and handwriting recognition; video and infrared inputs that watch what we do with our hands and decide what it is that we want — but the mobile experience remains one of thumb-mangling, eye-straining frustration. A BlackBerry keyboard is a wonder of miniaturisation; shame the same's not true of most BlackBerry users.

Until we manage to break down the barriers erected between us and the machines back in the days before eight-bit processors, we'll be stuck back there too.

4. Battery life
All the newfangled input and display technology in the world doesn't amount to much when your handset and laptop struggle to support more than a few hours' hard usage.

Particularly on the handset side, the increase in processing power needed to support the internet and the mobile office puts huge demands on a device's battery, as do high-speed wireless data technologies like 3G — there is a good reason why the iPhone, which has to provide a reasonable simulation of the iPod's battery life, does not currently use 3G. Also, even when they refrain from exploding, the lithium-ion (li-ion) batteries used in a wide variety of electronic devices become less efficient over time. That means mobile technology will forever lag behind fixed technology.

But perhaps the greatest application for improved battery technology would be in electric cars. The concept is proven and on the street but, until it becomes possible to go as far on a charge as you would on a tank of fuel, only first adopters and urban eco-warriors will bother.

5. The mania for speed
Faster processors are great. However, there is more to computing than processor speed — a point which can be easily proven by comparing a two-year-old PC running Linux with a new PC buckling under the weight of Vista. Shrinking the manufacturing process to enable greater speed has proven essential, but it's running out of magic.

Too much R&D time and money goes into processor speed when other issues remain under-addressed. For example, could data not be handled a bit better? What about smarter ways of tagging data? The semantic web initiative runs along these sorts of lines, so where is the hardware-based equivalent?

It is all very well to be able to run the latest DX10 games on your PC, but untold mould-shattering developments lie on the other side of a concerted effort to rethink the nature of the computer. Whichever chipmaker becomes the first to...

...think beyond speed alone will gain a whole new advantage over its competitors: smarter, not faster, will lead to both smarter and faster.

6. Intellectual property law
John Tehranian, a University of Utah law professor, has worked out that someone doing a job like his could, under US law, be committing more than 80 infringements of copyright a day — even without any P2P file-sharing shenanigans — and end up with multi-billion-dollar fines every year. Even whistling a tune in public is a multi-thousand-dollar mistake.

Intellectual property law is broken. Creativity needs protection, but the current system isn't working. Designed to encourage inventiveness and the building of ideas on ideas, it instead rewards power and influence with more power and influence. The ideal world of the intellectual property lawyer is one where nothing can move without permission; no idea can happen unless it is approved.

This is no model for a world where ideas can spread like never before and information is freer than even the most utopian could have imagined 50 years ago. A new way of thinking about information ownership is needed, and quickly.

7. Skills inequalities
Applications and technology might become more intuitive and creative if more women were involved in the industry. Diversity breeds innovation.

Technology has traditionally been terrible at attracting anyone but the technically minded. Seen by many as incredibly dull and exclusive, the industry most needs the influence of those who give it the least thought. Even the best technical process could benefit from a little humanity.

Industry is also waking up to the developing world and beginning to hear its voice. Technology has the capability of leapfrogging the biggest problems, but only if it's built to match the needs of the people it serves.

The more IT listens to and gives power to those it has traditionally excluded, the better it will be suited to solve real problems for us all.

8. Web 2.0
Speaking of daft innovations that do little to better the lives of humanity, Web 2.0 has a lot to answer for. So the web's gone two-way. Great. But the extremes of enthusiasm shown by financiers and business people are verging on counterproductive.

Do we really need applications like Twitter? What price a poke on Facebook? Microsoft's recent purchase of a chunk of Facebook valued the social-networking company at $15bn (£7.2bn). This is a company that does not yet have a proven business plan, despite having big aspirations as a marketing hub. Two years ago, eBay bought Skype for $2.6bn and Skype — a mostly free service — is currently struggling to justify that price.

It's nice to see the vanguard cashing in. But they're not really worth their valuations or the mountains of cash they have received from venture capitalists, whose money could probably find better use in other areas of technological innovation.

With the global economy in its current, credit-crunched state, Web 2.0 runs the risk of not only taking funding away from worthier areas of research but also contributing to a downturn that may hit the tech industry particularly hard. It remains a crucial element of the way we interact through technology, but its business models need a lot of work.

9. National interests
Every country places a high value — often the highest of values — on the rule of law. So why do they insist on behaving towards each other in a state of virtual anarchy?

If we view technology as a globally collaborative effort, one of the clearest barriers to its development is that of national interests. Look at the interminable arguments in organisations like the International Telecommunication Union. Countries defend the interests of their indigenous corporations and lobby groups; the idea that these interests may be better served in the long term by ceding ground in the short is as popular as skinny-dipping in the Antarctic.

Sometimes it is hard to escape the notion that certain countries are deviating from the pack just for the sake of it, much as Napoleon and the US had horses and carriages use the right-hand side of the road for no other reason than the British used the left.

Despite the upcoming Olympics, China is still dragging its heels over the deployment of 3G because it wants to use its own home-grown standard, TD-SCDMA. Its motivations for this include avoiding payments to western patent holders, but the main driver is the fact that China has a large enough internal market to not have to worry about inconsistencies with international norms. Overall, progress is yet again slowed down.

Some national interests have an almost absurdly negative effect on international technological development. For years, the US government classified encryption technology as a munition, and had export laws that forbade the distribution to the world of chips using the RSA algorithm. The ban proved unworkable in the long term but, for a long while, it seriously held back the development of security technology around the world.

10. The current lack of global wars and/or disasters
Forget peace, love and understanding. For a real boost, technology needs war. World War II gave us radar, rockets, the jet engine and digital computing. It also gave us 50 million dead.

These days, warfare still results in misery and death, but the technological benefits are harder to appreciate. There's not much in a stealth fighter or bomb-disposal robot that helps away from the battlefield.

Let's stick to metaphorical warfare. That's something politicans are good at promoting, but bad at executing — the "war on drugs" and the "war on terror" both sound good but have generated little of note, beyond copious government expenditure on ever more inventive ways to annoy their own citizens.

If we must have war, we might as well use it wisely. The biggest threats to mankind are environmental change, disease and international political and economic upheaval. Putting the nations of the world on a war footing against this terrible triad would produce a flowering of new, focused thinking and technologies — and nobody would get hurt.

Rupert Goodwins contributed to this article.


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