consumer experience, technologies

Technology end-games and when it all falls down

Hopes in the cloud?

Technology’s greatest strength, and arguably its biggest, weakness is that there is rarely an end-game, one perfect final solution.  Everything just keeps developing, for better or worse.

In an introductory video for The Guardian’s new iPad application, Editor In Chief Alan Rusbridger explicitly states: “there will be no final incarnation of The Guardian.”  It’s equally unlikely that there will be a final incarnation of much web-based technology we see around us today.  Will there be a final Facebook solution?  A final iPhone?

Maybe one day.  But this seemingly relentless forward march means consumers are always being asked to keep up, upgrade, download, update – which can grow tedious after a while.  People don’t always welcome change upon change upon change.  They want consistency and reliability.  Facebook continues to aggravate a constituency with its changes, (“could they just leave it alone for one week?”) – not that it appears to care.

Many of these updates require active consumer opt-in decisions, to visit an application store and update, to tick a box and accept revised terms and conditions, to visit a shop and buy the latest new thing.  The weighty volume of these requests you might argue is beginning to subtly narrow consumer preferences.  “I don’t use half these apps and don’t care if they’ve been upgraded. I’ll delete them.”

Anecdotal suspicions they may be, but if there’s a tension between the tide of incremental enhancements and consumer patience when things are running smoothly, imagine what happens when it isn’t.

When it all falls down

There’s an outcry when popular technology stops working these days.  You can’t have failed to hear the bloodcurdling, anguished screams of BlackBerry users echoing around Twitter, or even on the high street.  Maybe in playgrounds too.

We tend to pay most big technology suppliers a considerable wodge of cash (except Facebook, who we pay with our personal details and preferences), and we place them on a glamorous and powerful pedestal.  We expect a reliable and efficient service as consumers.  For businesses though, this trust and dependence gets even more serious.

Having no emails arrive on my BlackBerry throughout the whole course of the day: that’s a big deal.  I didn’t even realise how much of a big deal it was until I suddenly didn’t have it anymore.  With technology, as with lots of things, we don’t realise how much we take it for granted until we can’t have it anymore.

Added to the day’s frustrations, later that evening I tried to open the latest iOS Facebook application, updated the day before but not looked at.  It wouldn’t open.  A welcome screen was all I saw.  I was vaguely aware of reported glitches in the new iPad app, but this was on an iPod Touch.  I whined in a frustrated malaise of technology.

Service accountability

Service accountability for technology giants can be a disappointingly flimsy notion.   How is it possible for applications, especially Facebook applications, to not be adequately tested?    The iPad version had been in gestation for a remarkably long time, yet it still had bugs.  BlackBerry’s colossal data outage has limped into a third day.

If a small to medium sized business fundamentally failed to deliver a service, it would not get paid by its customers.

Does BlackBerry’s position in the mobile value chain as a mere device manufacturer mean it’s protected from offering any consumer compensation?  (Presumably important corporate customers would be prioritised thanks to SLAs).

Perhaps an arrangement could be made with mobile operators, which could be passed on to customers.  But given the technical complexities involved, it’s hard not to be sceptical of that.

Play for today

A deeper issue is the suggested negligence at BlackBerry maker, RIM.  It’s been claimed that doubts were raised over the development of an infrastructure which could cope with significantly inflated traffic, and this has never been addressed.

One former RIM employee told The Guardian that RIM has been ignoring problems with its server architecture that could prove its downfall for years.

A glaring lack of contingency has been shown in the technology, and in BlackBerry’s crisis communications: of the problems, of the efforts made to address them and of apologies to customers.  Messages which have been sent have sounded token, corporate and clueless.

Similarly ill-considered can be promises of ‘future-proofing’ solutions, of which there are probably more guilty organisations than just RIM.  Fatalistic ‘play for today’ attitudes may prevail where product pipelines look empty.  Up until not too long ago there were comparable mutterings about the billing platforms of mobile networks being figuratively stuck together with sticky tape and glue.  You squeeze the revenue stream you know for as long as possible.

If the former RIM employee is correct, perhaps this might prove their downfall.

What of tomorrow?

Might there be more of these outages or an even bigger tech-pocalypse on the horizon?  Web monsters like Google have globally spread, monster data centres and have presumably built in as much contingency as possible.  But can we really know exactly who we rely on, and for what?  There can be infinite cogs in a machine and it really might all come down to an iffy ‘core switch’, as RIM has suggested.

As we move into unchartered territory and data traffic continues to bulge at the seams, you wonder how much load-bearing will simply be guess-work.

One thing is growing clearer.  With continued failings, the drumbeat for 4G, LTE and more sophisticated IP connectivity grows louder than ever.  Technology won’t stop pushing ahead so there’s little choice but to roll with the tide.  Forward march.

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