Elgan: Why not give users what they want?

Common-sense features are often missing in glitzy products

Flashy new technology always gets attention. But after the chatter fades, users are often left with frustration over products' failure to do basic, common-sense functions.

I was reminded of this widespread phenomenon this week when Toshiba's digital products division announced what it calls "sleep-and-charge USB ports." Basically, Toshiba will sell laptops that charge your USB gadgets while the laptops are in sleep or hibernate mode.

Wow! What a spectacularly unspectacular-but-welcome feature! Toshiba actually noticed that travelers often need to charge cell phones and other devices all night, but they don't want to leave their laptops running. Why didn't USB charging work like this from the get-go? And why are so many high-visibility products missing seemingly simple and basic features?

Massive companies like Intel and Microsoft have been investing millions to develop fantastic ultraportable devices, called ultramobile PCs. Dozens of companies have poured their engineering and manufacturing prowess into building mini-PCs that can run Windows Vista and do all kinds of amazing things.

However, while these sophisticated devices were failing miserably in the market, along comes Asustek, a company most people had never heard of, with a cheap mini-laptop, priced at $300-$500, with a minimal but functional install of Linux. The Asus Eee PC is dominating the market. Why? Because it just works. And it's cheap. That's all it had to do. That's all users ever wanted. Nothing fancy.

So many offerings in technology simply don't pass the common-sense test. Here's my semi-random list of bleeding-edge products and services that are missing some obvious features or functions.

Gmail. Google's April Fool's joke this year was a fake feature called Gmail Custom Time, which would let you send e-mail to the past. Just set the time — say, to a year ago — and the e-mail would go back in time to the user-configured arrival time. The joke wasn't funny, though, because it highlights Gmail's inability to choose the time of delivery for e-mails into the future, a standard and easy-to-implement feature found on desktop rivals like Outlook. Choosing a future date to send e-mails lets you forward e-mail to yourself to be dealt with later or set up nag e-mails for colleagues at the time you ask them to do something. You can set it and forget it. Gmail really should have this.

Google Calendar. People use their calendars mainly for two things: appointments and reminders. Appointments get delayed, and reminders can pop up when you're in the middle of something. When that happens, Google calendar doesn't have something that every software or online calendar should have: a "snooze" or "delay" button that tells the reminder to go away, then come back later. With Google Calendar, you need to either change the time on the appointment or lose the reminder and forget. Give us a snooze button!

Xbox. The sole purpose of game machines like Xbox is to maximize the quality of the sensory experience, both sight and sound. So why does the Xbox sound like a 747 preparing for takeoff?

Windows. You can find many examples of common-sense features completely missing from Windows. One example is the lack of a single way for the machine to go into a coma. What's the difference between sleep, hybrid sleep, hibernate and standby? When you press the power button on a Vista machine, which state does it go into? Nobody knows. Nobody cares. (Please don't send e-mail explaining the difference to me — you'll put me into a "hybrid sleep" state. I personally know the difference. The problem isn't that users don't spend enough of their time researching stuff like this, but that Microsoft doesn't make things simple.)

Blogger. For several years, the spell-check in Goggle's Blogger flagged the words "blog" and blogger" as unknown words. If the world's largest blog creation tool doesn't know what "blog" means, or even recognize it's own name, what hope is there for mankind? Fortunately, the company has fixed it. See? Was that so hard?

Phone-number words. It drives me crazy when technology companies, or any company for that matter, provide their phone numbers using letters instead of numbers. ("Please call 1-800-WE-B-LAME for more information.") People, it's not 1975 anymore. We have cell phones now and probably don't have letters on our phone keys!

Anti-malware. It amazes me that anti-malware companies make software that interrupts our work (or our PowerPoint presentations) to inform us that something horrible is going on, but can't tell us what is happening or what is causing the problem. Alerts tell us, in effect, "Something is doing something to something." Gee, thanks. Sometimes I just look at my anti-malware software and think: The malware is you.

iPhone. Apple's first phone is the first major device to provide a next-generation user interface, with multitouch, gestures and physics. The physics appears on the iPhone in several areas where you can scroll through lists with a flick of your finger. When you flick, the scrolling is fast at first but slows down gradually like a slot machine. It was fun for the first 10 minutes. But when in the alarm feature or calendar, it's just annoying. It would make much more sense to be able to just enter the numbers.

And the Mother of All Annoyances in technology is the sheer quantity of cell phone types, service plans and other options contrasted with the number of phones and plans that enable you to make good phone calls. Cell phone handset makers and carriers shouldn't add cameras, video or GPS functions to a phone until they've first figured out how to enable the phone to make calls that aren't dropped or garbled.

What common-sense features are lacking from your hardware, software or services? Let me know at the address below.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. He blogs about the technology needs, desires and successes of mobile warriors in his Computerworld blog, The World Is My Office. Contact Mike at mike.elgan@elgan.com or his blog, The Raw Feed.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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