The CES cesspool is all our own fault

It seems that most of the products at CES are "solutions in search of problems". That might be all our own fault, though...
Written by Matt Baxter-Reynolds, Contributor
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

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