Things Old and New That Do Not Work

In this age of modern computers and amazing gadgets, it would be right to assume that most of the fundamental problems regarding technology should have been fixed already. After all, these problems have very straightforward solutions and it doesn’t really require ten Albert Einsteins’ to fix them.

One age old problem is the absence of a universal standard for the wall plug. This problem already borders on the ridiculous. I remember owning a cell phone charger whose plug is as big as the plug that goes with my 2 horsepower air conditioner. Yes, plugs come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. What works in one country does not work in another. Good thing most chargers accept a wide range of voltages. Imagine the mess if chargers only work in one voltage (i.e. 110 volts only) and when you go to Europe, you find out that you couldn’t charge your cell phone because the current over there runs on 220 volts. Steps are being undertaken in the right direction. Nowadays, most cell phones and digital cameras can be charged using a USB connection. Still, there are six types of USB plugs and there is no set pattern that dictates whether a Type A connector should be used or Type B. Cell phones and compact digital cameras have roughly the same dimensions because they need to be held with one hand. So it would be safe to assume that because of similar form factors, they would use the same size of USB connector. But, as you may have observed, your cellular phone’s USB cable won’t fit in the USB socket of your camera. Standardization of the USB standard needs further work. Because of the rapid rate of obsolescence of electronic gadgets, managing the ever growing heap of incompatible power cables with different plugs is becoming a serious environmental problem. If plugs were standardized they could just simply be reused as is, which is a far better deal than getting them recycled.

Another age old problem is the remote control. In my house, I have at least three remote controls in the living room – one for the television set, one for the DVD player and one for the stereo system. If you have a media center PC, it may come with its own remote control too. The remote control of one brand of DVD player won’t work with another DVD player brand. Some of us may have already reached the breaking point and bought another remote control which is claimed to work with a wide range of gadgets. Yet, when it is time to set up the universal remote control in the vain hope of being able to control all our gadgets, we are made to read a manual with fine print or if not, undergo a lengthy trial and error filled process of matching numeric codes with different brands and types of devices. Why can’t they make a universal remote control that works out of the box?

Computers have been here for the past 40 years and the personal computer took its form in the 1980s. Internally, computers rely on similar chips, hard drives and processors. Now both Apple Macs and Windows computers run on Intel chips. Most Linux powered personal computers run on Intel chips also. But why, despite similar hardware, are most computer files incompatible with other software running on the same platform? Why are files that come from a Mac become unreadable when they are opened in a Windows computer? What is needed is a universal file format for storing data that is fully understood by other software. One encouraging step has been the adoption of XML as a file format for universal data storage and exchange. But because the world’s largest software company, Microsoft, has an ambivalent outlook on the OpenDocument format, the XML standard isn’t really going anywhere.

Fans of virtual rock band games such as Guitar Hero on the PlayStation or Rock Band on the Xbox have to contend with incompatible guitars and drum kits. People are missing out on something big when they find out that they can’t play together just because a guitar from one console won’t work on the other. Thankfully, developers such as Harmonix and Activision have seen that more money could be made if they make compatible instruments.

We have been so used to the experience when the batteries of our flashlights and remote controls die out, we just replace them with a fresh set. But when the batteries of our mobile phones expire permanently, we just can’t go to the nearest electronic retail store to get a replacement. We have to contact the maker of the phone or the carrier where you got the phone. What makes cell phone batteries so special that no over the counter replacements are available? Thankfully, the IEEE Cell Phone Battery Working Group is working on standardized packaging. But judging by past IEEE recommendations, we won’t see fruit of this in five years.

Our online identities represented by avatars need to standardized as well. Currently, there is no way of using one avatar in different virtual worlds. If the internet is the future of human interaction, the way we represent ourselves needs to be consistent. That is why IBM, Linden Lab, the Web3D Consortium, and Multiverse are looking for ways of allowing avatars to traverse different virtual universes, if not, worlds.

Region Free DVDs are crying out for adoption. Currently DVDs bought in the United States will not work in DVD players from other countries. Regional encoding is so last century and will face eventual death when the internet becomes a viable option for delivering movies and other forms of audio-visual entertainment online.

We know what a word processing program looks like. We also know how it works. Most applications have well defined structures and functionality. But software bunched together as security suites work in ways that are not easily understood by most of us. In the real world, things that provide security are well defined. We know what a padlock is and we know how a safe works. A padlock and a safe are manufactured to standards and that is why we understand how they function. But security software for PCs are not defined by standards. As long as they have the labels “anti-virus” or “firewall” attached, people will continue buying them (well as long as Microsoft makes leaky software). The Common Computing Security Standards (CCSS) Forum is establishing baselines that define what security software is but adoption of a standard baseline will always be years away as long as big names like Symantec and McAfee are not signing in.

Another problem that has been bugging millions of people who use some form of instant messaging software is that their software can’t talk to users of other IM software. Yet it is dismaying to note that VOIP, which is really instant messaging on steroids works no matter what software is used. The communication barrier that ironically exists between IM apps has been around for a decade and badly needs a fix.

It has been the dream of many cell phone owners of nationwide signal availability and uniform rates. But with the current structure of multiple providers dominating in several areas, this dream will never become reality. There was a faint glimmer of hope when Google bid for the newly vacated frequency bands left by analog television. It was the hope of many that the information provider giant will set up its own network using radio frequencies previously allocated to analog television. But rival firms Verizon and AT&T won the bidding wars, thus the status quo remains.

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