10 broken technology ideas -- and how to fix them

Here are 10 high-tech ideas that sound good but don't work out so well in practice

Sometimes a technology idea is too good to be true. A flexible keyboard, Internet voting and watching feature films on your smart phone are examples. Today, these concepts are still evolving, but they're broken right now. I'll tell you why and what could be done to fix them once and for all.

1. Ultracompact PCs

Call them whatever you want: ultramobile PCs (UMPC), mobile information devices (MID) or subnotebooks. I call them small PCs, and they are almost indistinguishable from a good smart phone.

For example, the BlackBerry 8820, with its built-in GPS capability and excellent e-mail client, is a better device than the Samsung Q1 Ultra, described by the company as an "ultramobile personal computer." The only real difference is that you squint less with the Q1. But most people don't use a Q1 for gaming or writing long business documents.

As Jon Stewart pointed out at the Oscars, small-screen video is not fun on a device such as the iPhone.

The Apple iPhone is a smarter, sexier, more useable computer than just about any MID, such as the new Toshiba prototype. Meanwhile, there's more power in the OQO, than a regular UMPC, but the screen is just as tiny.

I figure that in less than three years, Apple will release a successor to the iPhone that works more like a Mac and will become the first company to make a true pocket computer -- one that runs any Mac OS X application natively, with a mini-DVI port.

2. Satellite Internet

My main problem with satellite Internet providers is their fair use policies, which penalize users who download too much by throttling their speed back to almost nothing, and then slowly adding more speed over a 24 hour period. Both WildBlue and HughesNet do this, and they claim it helps all users.

However, the Internet is not just for e-mail and simple browsing anymore, it's a pipeline for television, network back-ups, remote access and a myriad of other activities -- not to mention Web apps and streaming media.

Other ISPs -- such as Charter Communications and Qwest-- don't throttle your speed at all. Others, such as Comcast, may use "network management" techniques such as throttling BitTorrent traffic, but they aren't as aggressive as the satellite providers.

Another issue is that the stationary modem that you need for satellite Internet is a bulky device and uses coaxial cable that most people need a technician to install. Also, the required antenna is bigger than a wheel rim, but there's no reason it couldn't be reduced to a size that works with your laptop.

Yet I like the satellite concept because it could make the Internet much more ubiquitous across large swathes of the U.S. Satellite Internet has slowly increased in speed, starting out at only 512Kbit/sec. and currently at about 1.5Mbit/sec. If the technology and speed improve, it could be a solid option.

3. Contact managers

I'd like to retrieve the lost hours spent building up a contacts database. Not long ago, I stopped meticulously entering names, addresses, phone numbers and e-mails and now rely on other methods.

For example, I search Gmail.com for names and addresses. When I want to send a new e-mail, I just type a portion of a name to get the full address, type the message, and send.

For names not in my Gmail archive, I use an online address book such as YellowPages.com or LinkedIn.com.

However, a good contact manager could work like the iPhone: It would see phone number in an e-mail and allow me to right-click and add the name and phone number to a database automatically within Gmail. The database would be smart enough to know if a phone number already matches an existing name, and it would weed out duplicates automatically. I'd never have to type in contacts, because this "auto-database" would work as easily as a mobile phone, support any e-mail client and work in the background. Some contact managers come close -- such as Now Up-to-Date & Contact -- but it still involves a manual process.

4. Digital streaming adapters

They have names like Apple TV, Netgear Digital Entertainer and Sonos, but they all do the same thing: move music, video and photos from your PC in the office to the HDTV in your family room.

They are supposed to solve a persistent dilemma: a PC just doesn't work with a television. A keyboard and mouse are meant for a desk, not a sofa. These adapters add another appliance to an overcrowded entertainment center bulging with DVRs and game consoles.

mediasmarttv.jpg
Putting the digital media adapter in the TV, like this MediaSmart TV, makes sense -- less clutter in your entertainment room.

The fix? Put them right into the television itself. Hewlett-Packard Co. started this with the MediaSmart TV, but I'd like to see it as a standard feature that is more open -- not just based on Windows Media Extender, but supporting any media format over Wi-Fi.

5. Video on a phone

A phone screen is too small for video, and even the iPod Touch can cause eye strain when you watch a two-hour feature film. I'm convinced that anything you only do once or twice in dealing with new technology and find it hard to do -- like load a smart phone with video clips or swap contacts with your laptop over Bluetooth -- is just a novelty and often not worth the effort. I will likely never do it again; it's not worth the time.

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