Ten things holding back tech

Ten things holding back tech

Summary: 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

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TOPICS: Tech Industry
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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...

Topic: Tech Industry

David Meyer

About David Meyer

David Meyer is a freelance technology journalist. He fell into journalism when he realised his musical career wouldn't pay the bills. David's main focus is on communications, as well as internet technologies, regulation and mobile devices.

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5 comments
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  • No one ever got fired for..not taking a risk

    The old adage
    Andrew Donoghue
  • # 10 was dead-on-target as were the others.

    10. The current lack of global wars and/or disasters ....

    We don't need wars killing millions of kith_&_kin, destroying nations, religions .... We don't need dogma wars imposing and sustaining vapor-power (political, official, family ... nepotism titles), organized-crime (drugs, prostitution, gambling ...), corporate-welfare (RIAA, IPR, Farm, Drugs ...), religious-myth (My-god, Sex-sin, Different-evil ...).

    The dogma afflicted will never reason effectively and should have no more responsibility than a drunk alcoholic, cocaine addict, and/or the mentally and emotionally disturbed person suffering hallucinations.
    oldhawk777
  • Interesting write up - disagree with a few points

    I'm not sure I agree with Windows desktop as holding back technology. Matter of fact, the only ones held back are the 10% of the population that can acutually use a system to its full potential. My users operate on Windows, Linux, and Solaris... They require more "personal" time from our SysAd's on the *nix side of the house then imaginable. We even sat a SysAd right next to them permanently.

    Point to be made is, developers can develop new apps faster and with more capability because of Windows API's than for *nix. So the new releases are 6 months to year ahead of their *nix counterpart. Then add the familiarity of the the Windows desktop because users check their mail and surf the web at home and they are 10x more efficient than the *nix users. I think the *nix develops are holding back the industry by not creating standard API's for "numerous" desktops.

    Processor speed is an intersting animal. Once again it's not the chip manufacturers at fault here. It's the industries delay in adapting new technology. *nix, particularly Solaris has been operating at 64bit for close to 10 years. I have been using XP 64bit and now Vista 64bit for the last 2-3 years and refuse to load the 32bit versions. I find it amazing that developers write code for 32bit first and 64bit as an after-thought. Shouldn't it be the other way around. I can't even find 64bit drivers or code for some hardward or apps. This isn't saying that 64bit is the answer, but the "industry" lacks the desire to change and opts for backwards compatibility. In the past I could not say MS without some derogatory comment before or after. Now MS is one of the first to develop a new app (directX 10.0) that is extremely limited in backwards compatibility. Not to mention only offer it on their newest operating system. MS is forcing new technology and upgrades and everyone is balking at it????

    What of x86 architecture. I surely thought we would be operating on a new architecture by 2008. Years ago their were talks of rewriting operations to function with less datastreams. IE. 3bit computing that performs the same amount of instructions in the same time a 32 or 64bit cycle could.

    If Intel and AMD offered a new chip that made all your old applications obsolete, would the consumer be willing to purchase a new machine and all new applications? I would... Just like I upgraded to Vista 64bit when there was limited support. And the same reason I write manufacturers and post to their forums like Symantec asking why they do not support 64bit yet? (Recently they have added support for Vista 64bit, but do not offer a XP 64bit solution with their "new" Norton 360 app.)

    The innovation on input devices makes me laugh a little. I did a little test to see how fast I write, and then counted my WPM while speaking clearly as if dictating. QWERTY does me no wrong. The only invention I can see outperforming QWERTY would be a mind reader or USB port behind my right ear directly inputing my every thought onto the screen.
    mc808
  • Some standards are worth keeping

    Great Post! especially about battery life; you'd expect that by now there'd be batteries on the market that could last 24 hours.

    I do however think that some things are worth keeping at a standard, specifically, input devices. take the QWERTY keyboard for example; its impressive that it's survived in its current arrangement for 130 years, not many things last that long. It's certainly by no accident, its the easiest arrangement possible, can you imagine the mess we'd have if every manufacturer came up with their own arrangement?

    The mouse has evolved over the years and will probably be around until voice command or another technology can be used. windows are also evolving; in the future we might see AJAX-style applications on our desktops.
    harpless
  • QWERTY issues

    Good points, but on the QWERTY issue - many people argue that a simplified version, like the <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dvorak_keyboard">Dvorak keyboard</a> could make things faster. We are of course used to QWERTY, but its layout derives from the quirks of early mechanical typewriters (it reduced jamming) and is no longer strictly necessary. Like the Windows issue, it becomes a matter of balancing the possibilities for improvement with the benefits gained from sticking with what we know.
    David Meyer