Tech Watch: Audi, HP, and Google Get it Wrong

Why do so many huge companies fail to be successful with the latest "innovation" they release? We examine Audi's A1, HP's TouchSmart and Google's latest features for the answer.

With the resources they possess, most big companies should be able to dazzle us with their technology; instead, their innovations frequently limp out of the gate, half-baked. That bad products exist is a reality of any market, but it's when truly good ideas are tied to bad products that it's worth taking notice.

So it has gone with new innovations from several otherwise-admirable outfits, announced recently: the new A1 concept hybrid from Audi, the now open-for-development TouchSmart PC platform from HP, and a couple of nifty but flawed Google features announced this week. Ahead, the product and the potential - and the lack of parity between them.

The Audi A1 concept, shown off at the Paris Motor Show in October, is emblematic of what seems to be worldwide retardation in automobile innovation. It's a hybrid, yes, and that sounds like progress; to boot, it's one of the best-looking Audis to come out of the German company, even with its recent history of head-turning designs. It has a sophisticated drivetrain that marries a 20kW electric motor with a 1.4TFSI gasoline engine, via a S-tronic dual-clutch transmission that can either be fully automatic or manual, sans clutch. It's no slouch, either, going 0-60 in 7.9 seconds, thanks in part to smart engine controls that can boost low-end torque using the electric motor when the car is in "sport" mode.

So what does all that technology get the new A1 concept? With a smart drivetrain, two propulsion systems, sophisticated computer controls and more? Drumroll... 72MPG. All the expense and pageantry of the hybridized drivetrain, which Honda and Toyota have been doing for years now, to achieve a miles-per-gallon rating that is almost equaled by a standard turbo-diesel engine. Audi's own turbo-diesel A1, sold in Europe, gets about 50MPG, and while the A1 hybrid's price has yet to be set, you can bet on a hefty markup from the low-tech turbo-diesel model thanks to the hybrid technology.

Inefficient cars are the norm; why is this one a disappointment? Because the vehicle does incorporate other terrific ideas. The electric motor, like that on the forthcoming Chevy Volt, can power the car by itself for 60 miles when the vehicle is in "efficient" mode, and the gas engine only kicks in once the car senses the battery is low. That's a great way to introduce consumers to the idea of battery-only propulsion without forcing them to fret about charging locations or battery life. Even more fantastic is the car's in-dash navigation system, which when used for directions, can plan energy use for the course of the trip; the computer will account for changes in elevation as well as distance, and figure out the most efficient combination of gas and electric power for each leg of the route.

Equally innovative is the car's user interface, which sports four simple navigation keys and WLAN functionality that will allow many popular mobile phones to monitor and access the car's computer from afar (to alert owners of a break-in, an expiring parking meter, or a window left open in the rain), or operate the audio and video systems.

Volkswagen, a branch of Audi AG, has a fully electric concept that could make it to production, but the car-maker will have a lot of ground to cover if it is to catch up to BMW; that company's Mini brand has already launched a pilot program leasing a small fleet of fully electric cars here in the US.

HP has the opposite problem; while the company's hardware is well-designed and innovative, its software has yet to leap to its potential. The company's well-received TouchSmart PC operating system, which overlays Windows Vista on HP's touchscreen all-in-one computer, is now open to third-party developers; as of this week the company has made its Developer Guidelines publicly available for free to anyone with the inclination to code for the platform. To jumpstart development, HP is hosting a developer contest in which one application will be chosen for demonstration at CES 2009.

That's great progress, as is the specter of a rumored TouchSmart laptop waiting in the wings. But it's been clear for ages that Microsoft can't sell Vista to the public. Why hasn't HP gone ahead and developed its own open-source operating system? It's clearly amenable to open development, and it obviously has the ideas and capacity to develop intuitive software suites. Wouldn't it be great if there were two hardware-plus-software companies like Apple [AAPL] vying for the title of industry maven? Developing an independent platform would also give the company an edge in the burgeoning netbook market, where lean, efficient Linux-based operating systems hold significant advantages over clunkier operating systems like XP and Vista.

Google could be that kind of innovator, too, now that it's showcased its talent for cooperation with the G1 Android-based smartphone from HTC. But even the venerable search giant seems to be stumbling this week. The company just announced that it would be making online copies of printed documents fully searchable and viewable in HTML, opening up thousands of documents in formats like Adobe PDF for indexing. It's doing so by utilizing its homegrown optical character recognition (OCR) software to turn the printed words back into digital text. The addition to Google's search engine will be subtle; users can now click on a "View as HTML" link that will pop up with a PDF-format search result that might not have otherwise been found.

So what's the problem? The Web is home to millions of PDFs, many of them official paperwork listing personal information like addresses, Social Security numbers, and phone numbers. PublicResource.org, a non-profit that works towards online governmental accessibility, recently discovered amongst a trove of court documents almost 2,000 that listed Social Security or alien ID numbers. That's very bad news for privacy, something Google usually champions thanks to its "do no evil" mantra.

Another of Google's recent stumbles is its transition to the OpenID framework, which should - ideally - eliminate the need for multiple user accounts across widely-used sites. Just like Microsoft and Yahoo, which have also adopted OpenID 2.0 protocol, Google has disappointingly elected to keep its own sign-in branding for their sites. That makes the use of OpenID on all three sites practically invisible to users, who are still asked for their "Google Account" or "Windows Live ID" when they sign in. Discordantly, Google has been an especially vocal advocate for net neutrality, which would seem in the spirit of truly open identification between sites.

And even though all three companies are now using OpenID, you can't sign into one provider with an account from another, because they're not interchangeable. All OpenID gets users, despite its hype, is the ability to sign into smaller sites like AOL, MySpace [NWS], Plaxo and Zoho with your Yahoo, Google or Microsoft ID. But your information won't automatically transfer if you elect to start an account with those sites; the big three are still silos. Imagine if you could buy something discovered with Live Search using your Google Account credit card, or send off a Yahoo News link from a list of contacts imported from Gmail. Call it cross-platform pollination.

In a weakening economy, big companies that lumber are increasingly vulnerable to smaller, nimbler and more disruptive competitors; now is not the time for smart companies like Audi, HP and Google to hedge investment in good ideas.

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