From the June 2012 issue.
Some of the greatest luminaries in the tech world have never had a book written about them. Never had a film made of their life. Got little or no public notice at all. But today, leaders of tech companies are accorded the same status as movie stars.
Call it the bling of tech. The state in which style has become more important than substance. Consumer preferences outweigh the business applications of new technologies. A world in which the color of a device’s shell is more important than what it can do.
This isn’t about dumbing down the devices. From a technical standpoint, technology is providing today the same or better levels of improvement. Smaller, more powerful processors. Sharper screens. New and better formats. In fact, the problem doesn’t seem to lie in the research and development departments at all but in the marketing and PR departments.
And this trend of style over substance will have serious ramifications for people who depend on technology for their livelihoods. Including most accountants and tech consultants. Consider just a few:
- It is getting harder to separate reality from hype. A good example is the Blackberry Playbook, which was (and still is) touted as a “business” tablet, but which launched with no way to manage contacts, calendars or notes on its own. No telephone applications. No text editing capabilities. No PDF manager. Better yet, consider that the launch of a new version of an application or operating system is celebrated with the same hoopla as a Hollywood premier. But, of course, without a news release noting the changes made in the new version. Welcome to the party, but figure out the technology on your own.
- We’re the beta testers. For the first two decades of my tech career, I was a beta tester for most of the major hardware and software vendors. Beta testing was an arduous process used to ensure that the products that shipped were, from Day One, ready for use. But today, new operating systems, new applications, and even new devices are thrown into the marketplace with virtually no pre-testing, so that the end user becomes an unpaid testing crew. Think that is okay? Wait until that new operating system decides to go belly-up in the last weeks of tax season.
- Useful life has been compressed. We have transitioned from personal computers that had a useful life of three to five years to a newer, cellular model in which all devices become obsolete in 18 months. This was a pattern we almost adopted for software (to the detriment of users, who could not afford such frequent updates), but avoided by shifting to the online, Software-as-a-Service model.
- The technology becomes more proprietary. With an ever more rapid pace of product introduction, success often becomes a matter of emphasizing trivial features over technology depth. A cell phone is sold for its ability to watch television, not for making effective phone calls. The speed of the browser becomes more important than the speed of connecting. This is necessary because core technologies are often leased and thus offer no proprietary features. Consider having to sell a device merely on the fact that it uses the Android operating system?
- IT Departments become more powerful. With the dawn of the desktop computer, the power of the IT department to control devices and software began to wane. Rather than gatekeepers, the IT staff began to be perceived as the people you had to work around to get new tech into the company. That’s turning back, as companies realize that individuals may not be prepared to make tough buying decisions about technology.
The list could go on. We could discuss how computers are sold in an array of case colors. How cell phones have interchangeable “skins” so that you can match them to your outfit for the evening. How the next operating system from Microsoft is cleverly disguised as a cell phone interface. Bling!