This holiday season the technology industry is navigating some awkward and perilous transitions as it negotiates the first major financial downturn in nearly a decade and tries to figure out where the next fortunes will be made.
Is the wireless Web the future? Will broadband finally give birth to interactive television? Will peer-to-peer programs like Napster prove to be a fad or a fixture?
Anyone who claims to know sure answers to these questions is a fraud; experience counsels skepticism, if not cynicism. While the big money waits to see which future pans out, though, I have some more modest suggestions for products and technologies the industry could be providing today -- innovations that might not change the world but would certainly make life easier for those of us who depend on computers for our here-and-now work.
Industrial-strength e-mail software that never lets you down
Long ago the world realized that e-mail was the "killer app" not only of the Internet itself but of the entire "new economy." Fast, cheap and out of control, e-mail now dominates the high-tech workplace and is its one essential tool, surpassing even the Web itself on the can't-live-without-it meter. My own daily e-mail volume -- like that of many of you reading this, I don't doubt -- long ago crossed the line into four figures.
When you need to deal with that kind of e-mail load, you need to be able to count on your e-mail software. You need it to be able to filter hundreds of incoming messages fast. You want great indexing and search capabilities. Most of all, you want it to be able to store gigabytes worth of mail without choking. And you have to count on it not to crash and burn and corrupt the files your work life depends on.
Today, what are your options? For the heavy-duty professional user, Web-based e-mail is a joke. Old Unix e-mail tools are reliable but clumsy, and not much help unless you're using Unix or one of its variants. Microsoft Outlook is the default choice for millions, but it stores all your e-mail in one big file (while archiving older mail) and begins to stutter and die when that file gets too big. Eudora, my friend over the years on both Macs and PCs, is pretty good, but it still crashes more often than it should, and as your e-mail volume increases its anomalies multiply.
Some of these problems arise because for too long e-mail "client" software has been treated as a throwaway or a giveaway rather than an essential business tool. Other problems no doubt stem from the way these e-mail programs interact with the operating systems they depend on to manage and manipulate the large files that result from our accumulation of monster e-mailboxes.
But so what? I guarantee that any company that brings to market a truly bulletproof e-mail program that scales up to today's volume of e-mail will find throngs of customers willing to pay hard cash for the productivity and peace of mind such software would bring. I will be first in line.
Computers and operating systems that don't take five minutes to start up
Every time you boot your computer you wait precious minutes while it laboriously loads its operating system, along with all the other crud that has insinuated itself into your start-up queue over the years. While the loss of a few minutes here and there might not seem like that much, multiply it by millions of users and hundreds of times a year and you have a stunning productivity loss. Laptop users are hit especially hard by boot-up delays.
It's not as though a variety of solutions to this problem, involving keeping a computer's memory powered up and its operating system loaded even when it's "off," don't already exist. The sad truth is that today's commercial desktop operating systems have to be rebooted once or more each day because they begin to misbehave over extended use -- sooner or later, memory glitches, system resource allocation and "lockup" problems or application crashes force you to restart. (Linux-based operating systems are superior in this regard.) So the "instant on" computer probably depends on some serious operating system improvements from Microsoft and Apple. Don't hold your breath.
Better on-screen typefaces
Despite all the hype about broadband and all the delightful images the Web sends our way, most of us still use our computers to read text, as you're doing right now. But unless you have a big, big monitor, set your screen resolution really high and then bump your font size way up, the type you're reading on-screen is going to give you a headache sooner or later. There just aren't enough dots to make the edges of the type sharp enough.
OK, not everyone can afford a 21-inch monitor, but surely there are fonts out there that work better at everyday resolution than Times and Courier. (Some type-improvement schemes on the horizon, like Microsoft's ClearType, have so far been aimed exclusively at e-book readers rather than general-purpose word processing or Web reading.)
I don't doubt that there are smart font designers around the world who have already addressed this problem. But you still find the same lousy set of fonts bundled with your operating system and most commercial applications. Sure, it would cost Microsoft some money to license some better fonts and roll them into Windows. But what else is Microsoft going to do with all its money? Improving fonts isn't as sexy-sounding as, say, ".Net," but it just might save millions of people's eyes.
Real browser innovations that actually improve the Web experience
In case you hadn't noticed, a funny thing happened once Microsoft won the browser wars: As predicted by the hoary tenets of antitrust theory, browser development basically stopped dead. When we do see new browser releases today, they are almost always intended to further some marketing initiative on the part of the browser's parent company rather than to enhance the user's experience.
What kind of browser innovation am I imagining? Well, off the top of my head: Tools that give users more control over how Web pages render. Much better management of bookmarks/favorites. Smart bookmarking that notices your usage patterns and suggests additions or automatically builds new bookmark categories. Smarter cookie management for users that lets you squash unwanted cookies without destroying cookies from friendly sites that make those sites easier to use. And so on.
No doubt the really interesting innovations are those I can't even imagine but that a good development team with the right kind of leadership could brainstorm.
Internet business magazines that are actually readable
You probably noticed that as the "new economy" business magazines bloated this year with insane volumes of advertising, they actually became materially less useful to readers. When you have to wade through a dozen full-page ads to find one nugget of content, you'll probably give up first. And when magazines start scraping the bottom of the editorial barrel in a desperate effort to find some reading matter to drape around that monster advertising pileup, you'll probably walk away.
Isn't there some kind of rule of thumb about the ratio of content to advertising that could shame these publications? Isn't there a law that says a magazine should weigh less than a volume of Gibbon?
OK, I admit this wish is not a technological innovation at all --- it's simply a reader's plea. It also looks like the only wish on this list that's already beginning to come true: As the dot-com downturn accelerates, it is putting all these magazines on a crash diet. Their profits will no doubt sag, but at least their readers may return to the fold.
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These ideas might not win hundreds of millions of dollars of venture-capital investment for your start-up. But I bet they'd find actual markets and customers. Products that people need right now and could use today -- what a concept! In today's financial environment that might be the best investment of all.
What's on your year-end technology wish list? Send me your suggestions for what real-world improvements the industry should be offering in place of vaporware and next-big-thing hype.