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Five mobile technologies that didn't change the World

By Mike Elgan, Computerworld on Feb 27, 2012
Mike Elgan About the author

Mike Elgan, Computerworld

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture.

Last year we all got excited about mobile-computing products that failed to deliver

It's an awesome time to be a gadget-happy consumer electronics freak. Multi-touch user interfaces. Huge advances in miniaturization and battery life. Cloud-based storage. Mobile computing has never been better.

But sometimes, when companies announce incredible new products or technologies, and everybody proclaims that a new era has dawned, and that culture-shifting transformations are about to take place -- nothing happens.

Here are five mobile technologies from last year that were supposed to change the world, but didn't.

Siri

Apple seemed to do everything right with its voice assistant strategy.

The company acquired the leading app maker with the best technology. It spent two years perfecting and integrating the technology, and bulking up on servers to handle the number-crunching required to deliver human-like voice interaction.

Siri was then launched to huge fanfare.

Overnight, people changed how they interacted with their iPhones. Instead of calling up an app, they just pushed the iPhone button and told Siri things like "Send a message to Steve and tell him I'll be 10 minutes late," or "What's my next meeting?"

It was great for a couple of weeks. But then Siri became unreliable, telling users that it couldn't access servers, or couldn't process their request right now. Even successful queries took a lot longer than they once did.

Everyone thought the glitch was temporary, and that Apple would quickly build capacity to deal with the load. But nearly five months later, Siri still can't be counted upon.

And a lot of people say Siri often doesn't understand what they say.

Instead of getting better, Siri seems to be getting worse.

As a result, many users have wandered away, and gotten out of the habit of turning to Siri for help. A USA Today poll , for example, found that about half of all iPhone 4S users don't use Siri anymore.

Yes, the technology is still officially "beta." But overall, Siri so far is a huge disappointment.

webOS

Less than two years ago, HP paid $1.2 billion to acquire Palm Computing -- with its Pre and Pixi phones and its webOS multi-touch operating system.

Palm technology had always been promising, but it had been stymied by a lack of vision and fickle decision-making.

Many Palm fans were thrilled that HP acquired Palm. Sure, it was a mostly enterprise-facing company. But at least HP would provide long-term stability and consistency for the platform.

A year ago, HP announced that it would use Palm's webOS platform on all HP mobile devices. It announced a couple of webOS phones. In July, it announced the HP TouchPad tablet.

The tablet wasn't great, and it failed in the market. But the webOS interface was ideal for tablets. Surely future versions of the TouchPad would be great.

But in August, HP executives did a complete about-face on webOS, saying they wanted to sell the Personal Systems Group, including the webOS hardware business. Then in December, the company said it would release webOS under an open-source license.

This month, new HP President and CEO Meg Whitman said the open-sourcing of webOS "will take three to four years to play out" with the initial rollout not happening until September.

If that doesn't sound like a long wait, consider that Google is activating some 750,000 new Android devices per day! Apple recently announced that it sold some 37 million iPhones during the forth quarter of last year. All these new Android and iOS users are buying apps and developing loyalty to those platforms. By the time any webOS handsets actually ship, it's going to be too late.

With its incredibly innovative multi-touch user interface, webOS had the potential to compete with iOS and Android and provide real innovation and a real alternative. Now, the future of the webOS is murky, delayed and broadly disappointing.

The $35 Indian tablet

India's human resources development minister, Kapil Sibal, made an astounding announcement in the summer of 2010. Indian universities, he said, had made a "breakthrough" in hardware engineering that would enable the government to provide millions of students with solar-powered touch tablets for just $35 each.

Some time last year, Sibal emphatically promised on camera that the Indian government would manufacture 1 million of the "Aakash" tablets by the end of 2011.

It would be a new era of Indian education, where e-books and video lectures would transform the country's educational system at incredibly low cost.

It never happened.

Two months after that deadline passed, the project has delivered 1% of the tablets promised -- just 10,000 units. They aren't solar-powered. They aren't built by an Indian company. They cost more than $35. And worst of all, they're barely usable.

It turns out you can make a tablet for $50 (not $35), but you have to sacrifice usability to do it.

Now the partnership between the Indian government and DataWind, the U.K.-based company that manufactures the tablets, has collapsed, with each side pointing fingers at the other. Nobody wants to be associated with the products as shipped, because users are complaining that they're pieces of junk.

Now the Indian government is looking for another company to make the tablets.

The Aakash tablet has been a monstrous disappointment, especially for millions of Indians counting on their government to keep its emphatic promises.

Wireless charging

The great thing about wireless devices is that they're, well, wireless. As is no wires. Even the iPhone doesn't require physical connectivity anymore when synchronizing or downloading music, thanks to recent iCloud integrations.

But charging? That does require a physical "wire."

It wasn't supposed to be like that. For a few years, "wireless charging" has promised to untether phones altogether. Just drop a phone onto a special mat, and it would charge through inductive coupling, via an invisible electromagnetic field.

Last year, it looked as if wireless charging might take over as the default way to charge a phone. This year, wireless charging still hasn't become a major feature on any major handset line.

The only big vendor to embrace it on a mainstream phone was Palm, which offered a very cool and innovative wireless charging station called the Touch Stone. But that product line was terminated by HP.

Two of the biggest proponents of wireless charging, Duracell and Powermat , formed a joint venture in September to advance the cause of wireless charging. They offer a range of products for name-brand phones, including the iPhone.

But so far, these third-party wireless charging systems require very bulky cases. In order to gain the convenience of wireless charging, you have to lose the convenience of a small phone. Because they're aftermarket devices, they have to use the phones' charging ports, making them unavailable for conventional charging unless you remove the case.

Wireless charging was promising but turned out to be very disappointing.

High-def haptics

For the past two years, a company called Immersion Corp. has been demonstrating incredible haptics technology -- systems that generate the buzzes and vibrations that can provide tactile feedback on handheld devices and peripherals.

Anyone who has played Call of Duty on Xbox knows just how much haptics can transform the experience of using a handheld gadget.

The Immersion demos involved realistic game haptics, as well as vibrations that help you navigate a touch interface.

The company says its technology provides " high-definition haptics ." And it says mobile phones and tablets are key targets for the application of the technology.

But where are the haptics? It's 2012 already, and our phones and tablets just buzz and vibrate. In order to be truly intuitive and engaging, they're going to need the kind of haptics offered by Immersive.

Haptics in mobile devices have been very disappointing so far.

The mobile computing landscape last year looked like it would be transformed by Siri, webOS, the $35 tablet, wireless charging and haptics. But all of those technologies have failed to live up to the hype and promise.

Oh, well. There's always next year.

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