The CES cesspool is all our own fault

The CES cesspool is all our own fault

Summary: It seems that most of the products at CES are "solutions in search of problems". That might be all our own fault, though...

TOPICS: CES, Hardware
Don't talk to me about the fridge.

To tell this story, I’m going to have to share more about my personal life than I might otherwise like. But, you know what they say about "comfort zones" -- sometimes you have to stretch them a bit.

When I was a kid in the 1980s my dad was a computer consultant. He loved his work -- it’s probably fair to say that he was obsessed with it, and I developed an obsession with computers to match his obsession with work. Anyway, when I was eight I decided I wanted to move to America and be a computer programmer for IBM, as by extension I felt that doing that would bring me and my dad closer.

Throughout my whole childhood I kept writing software, first in BASIC, then in C for DOS, then QuickC for Windows, in the hope that one day I could realise that dream and make my dad happy.

Eventually I started work for a small software company in London developing Windows software. Shortly after they started to trust me to do anything actually useful, I went to see my dad and excitedly recounted the capabilities of the new set of features that I’d implemented. What those features actually were are lost in the mists of time, but I do remember being immensely proud of the work I’d done. These were all my ideas that my boss had let me put into the product.

And I remember him in quite a dismissive fashion telling me that what I’d done was a "solution in search of a problem" and that he "wondered what value the features delivered to the company's shareholders". He didn’t say what he did in an unkind way, but I was hurt because I was so proud of what I’ve done.

I was a young lad, still very rough around the edges, and having spent over a decade of my childhood working towards starting a career that I’d thought he’d be pleased with, the first thing I’d reported back to him that I had done in my role as a professional software developer he’d instantly turned around and told me was (paraphrasing) a pointless waste of time and money.

I was devastated.

It would take me years to realise it, but what he’d done there was given me about the most useful lesson I’ve ever learned as as professional working in the software industry. The most dangerous thing that technologists do is invent products for the sake of invention. Because the actual process of building anything regardless of what it is is so full of buzz and excitement, our perception of the related value proposition tends to be rather secondary. And so we end up -- all of us -- building things that are solutions in search of problems.

The fridge

And so to CES.

Oh the fridge. Save me from the fridge.

I can’t remember a time when technologists were not proposing that we put computers in or on fridges. "Oh, this’ll be great, because it can tell you when you run out of milk!" Exactly how is it ever going to do that? A little robot camera that hovers around in the fridge examining each item therein for freshness and fullness? "Oooh, those carrots look past their best -- better email my owner!" Or are we supposed to buy milk where the container has a little sensor that wirelessly feeds back to the fridge that it’s getting low? Because I really want to bind up more copper and other rare earth metals in food packaging. Not.

In fairness to Samsung, they haven’t gone so far as to build an intelligent fridge that can be some sort of grocery buying robot. They’ve just proposed that for $4,000 they’ll sell you a fridge that has an Android tablet embedded into one of the doors.

What I like to do in these situations is imagine the meeting in which these products are pitched. Did Dilbert teach us nothing?

That’s not the most stupid idea I’ve seen at CES, but it is the one that I’m predisposed to react to strongly because our industry has been trying to ram rubbish like that down the throats of normal human beings for longer than I can remember.

Ubiquitous computing is great, but the idea is to be a little more nuanced than just slapping some form of embedded computer into anything that you can deliver power to. (Mind you, I think it’d be genuinely useful if my washing machine would email me when it’s finished doing a load. I just don’t want to spend thousands of dollars for the privilege.)

Other bad ideas include the Asus laptop that has a screen on the inside of the lid where laptop screens normally are, and also on the outside. I’ll just point out that the outside of the lid is the opposite side to the one you actually look at. This is the Asus Taichi. The idea here is that Asus wanted to demonstrate how much rare resources they could waste by building a secondary screen that would never be used, whilst at the same time garnering as many page views as possible.

Actually, this article is giving oxygen to this stupid idea so seeing as I’m inadvertently promoting Asus even though they’ve produced a stupid product I might as well keep doing so: Asus, Asus, Asus, Asus, and Asus.

More? Lenovo, which are in fairness coming up with some good products at CES, decides to partner with BlueStacks who have developed a product that allows Android apps to run on Windows PCs. My ZDNet colleague Adrian Kingsley-Hughes took this ridiculous proposition apart already. Spoiler: Running Android on Windows is a stupid idea and anyone who tries to convince a normal, non-technologist human being that it’s a good idea needs to be banned from working in the IT industry.

Here’s another one: Dell’s Project Ophelia is a small USB stick that plugs into an HDMI-capable monitor and throws up an Android desktop. That sounds great, but you have been able to buy these things for years and years, and they’ve hardly set the world alight because it always has been a solution looking for a problem and no one cares. Dell already knows that these things don’t sell, so why on earth are they producing one?

It goes on and on. Tune into any CES coverage from any of the tech news sites and you’ll see the same thing -- the majority of the products being pitched are desperately looking for a problem to solve. I don’t mind, and expect, the odd idea to be a bit strange -- what I object to is that it’s the majority of products coming out of CES as far as I can tell are solutions looking for problems.


What I like to do in these situations is imagine the meeting in which these products are pitched. Did Dilbert teach us nothing?

Someone -- with their serious face on -- has to call a meeting where they sit down and say "You know what would be really cool? We need to build a fridge that has an Android tablet embedded in it."

What’s the next thing that happens in that meeting? Ideally, the meeting should end and the person who called the meeting should be signed up for a program of extensive re-education. What I can only assume happens here is that most of the people think that it’s a good idea and off everyone goes merrily goes building prototypes, putting together marketing materials, and bizarrely managing to get a perfectly capable and respectable company like Evernote to put their name against it. At no point does it appear in the majority of cases that anyone, ever asks "Hang on, is this just a solution in search of a problem?"

I do wonder in those situations how much people lose their jobs, either willingly quitting the team or company because what’s proposed is just too stupid for words, or because they’re deemed not a team player and fired. (Similarly, how many staff did Microsoft lose over Windows 8? There must have been plenty of people in Redmond who wouldn’t drink that particular pitcher of Kool-Aid.)

But, it will always be thus. For every genius who knows how to innovate something genuinely useful -- and for some reason I keep thinking of the gentleman or lady who worked out that putting a wheel on the top of a mouse would make scrolling easier, because whoever they were they deserve a medal -- for every one of those there appears to be a thousand technologists who seem to just randomly smush bits of technology together to try and make new products not giving two hoots whether they’re delivering any value.

We could do something about this though. Although what my dad said to me was difficult to hear, there’s nothing wrong with intervening when good technologists go bad. If someone proposes to you that they’d like to develop a product that makes no sense at all you can ask them to reflect on whether it’s a solution in search of a problem, and still remain good enough friends to take them down the pub for a beer. The reason why the industry is in this state is our own fault, and it’s something eminently fixable. Innovation doesn’t just happen randomly, yet our industry behaves like it does.

We can do much, much better than this, and we've all got a part to play.

What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.

Image credit: Samsung

Topics: CES, Hardware

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  • Apple does it

    Apple does the same thing but it works for them most of the time. I do not think that anyone asked for an iPad.
    Progress is full of dead ends. For one winner there must be thousands of losers. Just think how many tablet designs never gained traction before iPad. All companies whom we consider "losers" pave the way for winners by showing what does not work and by developing components that one day may be used in a winning device.
    • The reason it worked for Apple...

      ... is because they kept an idea under wraps for years at a time, until the technology was mature enough to release to the general public.
      Remember pundits claiming that Apple should release a netbook?
      Well they never did, but in 2010 they came out with the iPad that shook an entire industry to it's foundations, despite the fact that many laughed at the idea that 1st year.
      • correction

        ...shook an entire industry to its foundations...

        its instead of it's
        • Medical term for you...

          anal retentive
          • Psychology term for you

            Mind your own business and STFU.
          • ZDNET is a cesspool of bad writers desperate for clicks

            Take for example the Asus Taichi that this genius tears into. It is thinner and lighter than a MacBook Air which he probably thinks is a brilliant device. The Taichi also has the exact same internal specs as a MacBook Air, but it bumps the screen resolution on both sides up to 1080p, unlike the low-resolution MacBook Air. And then he pretends as though the second screen is pointless either out of complete ignorance or total dishonesty, but the screen on the back is actually a touch screen. Both screens are not on all the time, when you close the lid the ultrabook becomes a tablet. A tablet that is much thinner and lighter and with a higher resolution screen than the Lenovo Yoga which this writer probably thinks is a good device. And on top of that the Taichi includes a stylus and inking support. So here you have a device as thin and light as a MacBook Air with a much better display, and more versatility than a Lenovo Yoga to act as both ultrabook and tablet. But the jaded jerk who can't get over his daddy issues dismisses all of that and tears into one of the most innovative PC designs at CES because it wasn't invented by Apple.

            If Apple had invented the Asus Taichi or the Asus Transformer the entire tech media including this man would be salivating over it and talking about how Apple had done it again. They'd be talking about how Apple had reinvented products like nobody else had thought of and how stupid the PC manufacturers were. Honestly all that would have to be different would be an Apple logo and a presentation by the worlds greatest salesman (Steve Jobs). We've actually come to a point now where the tech media whispers of how Apple is going to reinvent TV watching and we just need to wait and they do this with knowing absolutely anything about what Apple is doing or if it will actually be anything worthwhile.

            Fortunately consumers are finally getting sick of Apple and the stock is going down.
      • No...

        It's called marketing. Apple spends so much to convince you that you need their product and that it's better than everyone else's. Will the average user notice much of a difference from one model to the next? Jimmy Kimmel already proved how stupid people are by giving them a 4S and claiming it was a 5.

        I have always bought AMD chips over Intel. Unless I'm benchmarking, am I really going to notice that 1/10th of a second difference? Biggest improvement I have ever seen in computing is going from a HDD to an SSD. Sadly, the only place I really even see that is boot times, which still impress me, but only happen once or so a day. I have Windows 8 and MS Office on that drive. Office programs launch maybe a second faster. I don't really know though because Windows 7 with an HDD and the same components opened it Office fast enough I didn't think about it being slow.

        If I can convince you of a need you didn't know you had, you'll buy it. That just happens to be a monster "if". It isn't working with the PC market right now because systems are working just "fine", even with XP. One of the main reasons it had been working for smartphone users is that they were still so under-powered relative to PCs. Now that the gap has narrowed there is less and less need to be upgrading all the time... hence why you have companies making updates inaccessible for "older devices". If you look at the percentage of the population that buy the latest and greatest every launch you might just trip over it looking for that data, even Apple. Of course, if you follow tech news, you'd think everyone and their brother, sister, aunt, and uncle were doing so on a regular basis.
        • Actually, no

          Some of us had tablets long before the iPad was ever on the drawing board, because we knew the value of what tablets brought. My Fujitsu Stylistic ST5112 is still working today, albeit with a stylus and not finger-touch.

          Most of the idiots who ran around saying that a tablet was useless are now eating their words. A few of them still can't bring themselves to admit their failure of foresight.

          Apple did not make a perfect tablet, but one that was compelling enough and which could be enhanced with apps enough to suffice as a "main use"device. However, I think that Windows 8 will prove to be a much better foundation for tablets in the long run, once the hardware catches up.

          But that's always been the case: Apple leads with strong hardware and software that always leaves something to be desired, whereas Microsoft sticks innovative, forward-leaning features into its OS before most common/popular hardware is ready to take advantage of it.
          • What " innovative, forward-leaning features" would those be?

            There is a reason tablets went no where, there is a reason that people said tablets were useless. Because except for very isolated special niche markets, they were. And Windows was a great part of the reason.
    • Yes we have...

      We've been asking for iPads since we first saw them on Star Trek:TNG
      • Ha! Seriously.

        An iPad is not a tricorder. Its not much of anything and a Windows tablet is only a little bit more unless you go Pro.

        Nobody asked for an iPad. Apple just told everyone they were magic, and purely due to high sales of the iPod and iPhone everyone beleived them. Now we have millions who are dedicating themselves trying to fnd a way to may tablets worth what they paid for them. Those who work in IT dont see it. Those who deal daily with the real genuine Joe Averages do.

        An iPad is not bad tech, a Windows or Android tablet is not bad tech. They are just a solution begging for a problem to solve.

        Like any situation; look hard enough, you will find problems. Thats the problem with IT people who swear they find great use for their tablets of any brand. They looked hard enough and they sorted out a problem that didnt really exist to have their tablet fill.

        The real issue is, most non IT people are not near clever enough to come up with such problems to have tablets be any more of a solution than a clever toy that makes for a spectacular papre weight on their coffee table waiting for someone who cannot be bothered to walk over to their PC to check their email.
        • Been living under a rock?

          Have you been living under a rock? My wife who is not a person to use the latest and greatest is completely convinced by a tablet. She used to read books, as in paper books. Now with a tablet it is tablet, tablet, tablet. She even has two of them. I have multiple tablets as well.

          The point is that tablets are useful and Apple made them useful due to the following things:

          1) Battery life! 10 hours! This is the norm that everybody is measured against.
          2) Instant on. Before this to find anything, or do anything on the internet required booting and waiting. No need to wait, information at your finger tips.
          3) No stylus. The ability to use your finger to navigate did wonders as it made computing less hoekey.
          4) It is light enough to easily be dragged around without getting hot.

          So the tablet did not provide solutions to non-existant problems. It provided solutions to existing problems.
        • Your nerd credentials are officially revoked!

          Tricorder? On TNG? The device in question was called the PADD, NOT a tricorder. The TNG tricorder looked like a flip phone.
        • I was asking for an iPad

          I wanted an iPod Touch but with a bigger screen for better browsing experience and affordable (< $500). Apple hit the bulls eye. Google's Nexus(for $200) is a home run. Nokia (Maemo) totally missed the bus :-(
    • Not exactly

      People had been trying to get tablet computing to work for a decade before the iPad hit the market. People wanted tablets for a long, long time. The trouble was that companies weren't developing form factors and user interfaces that actually worked for tablets - they were essentially plopping a touch screen onto a Windows XP laptop and calling it a tablet. For obvious reasons (weight, battery life, poor interface) they never caught on.

      Apple's innovation wasn't the idea of the tablet; it was the understanding that a tablet is different than a desktop, and has to be designed differently.

      So I don't think it's particularly correct to say Apple creates solutions for non-existing problems. I would contend that Apple has often been the first company to really put smart design (both hardware and software) into refining already-existing solutions for existing problems.
      • Actually ZDS did it first

        the cruisepad was developed in the early '90s to be an IT help desk portable device for network admins. Truly way ahead of it's time. And the iPAQ I used back in the early 2000's did everything current phones do, other than actual be a phone. I could use it for gps, mp3's web access contacts etc. So yes Apple didn't do any of this stuff first. What they have been able to do is create the same products and charge people twice as much for them by creating the image of a premium brand and good industrial design.
        • same?


          I think what you must be trying to say is that it's all about the experience and execution, not the capabilities.
          Surely you're not saying that the IPAQ is the SAME as an iPod Touch (iPhone minus phone capability) aside from brand and price!

          • Um, what?!?

            Hint: Development of the Newton started at Apple in 1987!

            IPAQ? Really?!?
    • iPads just.....

      Bring a larger screen and less portability to the 'fray'! It won't do nearly as much as my smartphones, and MUST have a Wi-Fi connection to be of ANY use! Which means of course, there HAS to be a computer somewhere in the mix!
      However my Iphone can be of use without Wi-Fi, due to the fact that I'm using the providers computers! It's the main reason I won't buy a tablet! As a techie, a tablet to ME, is STILL a solution in search of a problem! The limited usefulness they have don't warrant their price, and to be TRULY useful, you have to get one that is 3 or 4G capable and put it on your monthly bill! Yes to some, reading a book or a Ziff-Davis publication is, what, easier? Lighter?....on a tablet? Oh that's right! You have a 'zoom' capability!
      I bought my grandson (an Apple kid! iPods, iPhones, MacBooks! Anything Apple!) a Samsung Galaxly Tab for Christmas! HIS words, not mine! "Grandpa!! It's so much BETTER than an iPad! I can control my TV with it!" And control his remote-control car with it! But it still has to work of their Wi-Fi! He can make Skype calls with it..while on Wi-Fi..... You get the picture! I'm glad he's pleased! But, being a power user, to me it's nothing but a toy! And THAT'S what I think this whole thing is actually about! Toys! Our smartphones gave us new ways to compute and stay in contact with our friends, and the world for that matter! Check email? Yep! Find the restaurants phone number while driving around? Sure! CALLING said restaurant by pressing a link!
      But the tablet without a phone, to ME, serves only one purpose! Gives me a larger screen to read my email on! And the REASON there isn't one WITH a phone? To hard to hold up to your ear? Probably! They want me to buy a tablet? Put a phone on it, give me a Bluetooth headset to answer my calls, make it 4G-LTE, then I'd be interested!
      Otherwise it's a solution in search of a problem! I can read books! Don't need a tablet for it! I can entertain the kids with a Nintendo, better than a tablet! And darn sure don't need one in my fridge!
      • I disagree

        I've been a techie for 35 years and I have found the iPad to be the perfect portable solution for me. I went from carrying "lugables," to laptops, to netbooks, to a Verizon 4G iPad. Once I got the iPad I stopped using everything else. Just because YOU don't have a use for an iPad, it doesn't mean that it isn't the perfect device for millions of us. It's thinner and lighter than a netbook, with longer battery life and a bigger screen. It created a new market specifically because it filled an existing need for millions of us.