Like just about everything else that happened this year, technology in 2017 was a complete mess, from Equifax’s total incompetence to Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube sucking up advertising money from bad people, to the FCC’s Ajit Pai obeying his telco masters and killing your internet rights. And when it came to hardware design, there were screw-ups galore, too. Here are a few of the biggest.
Home Assistants Nobody Seems To Use
Despite Jeff Bezos doubling down on the Amazon Echo device line in 2017, his digital majordomo is still failing to become anything but a glorified voice-activated shopping button that can play songs, set a timer, turns lights off, and tell you bad jokes. User engagement is very low, and while there are over 20,000 third-party Echo apps–called Alexa Skills–their adoption rate is incredibly low. According to the latest report by VoiceLabs–a company that provides analytics data to business that develop voice applications–there’s only a 3% chance that someone will use a third-party Alexa Skill again after installing it.
With the exception of users who are 45 and up, most people don’t seem that interested in their home assistant after a few days, and no camera-equipped alarm clock is going to change that. Perhaps it’s because we already use the assistants we carry around in our pockets. Or the fact that 74% of assistant users interact with it while driving or during other outdoor activities, not at home. Or maybe most people just don’t like to talk to machines out loud. These assistants simply aren’t the Enterprise’s computer that Gene Roddenberry and Majel Barrett gave us in Star Trek. Perhaps that’s why Apple is marketing Homepod as a home stereo system rather than a Siri for the home.
The Smartphone Featuritis Plague
The iPhone X is the epitome of fluff-over-function. It’s a phone packed with features that nobody asked for. Its edge-to-edge-but-not-really screen is impossible to use with only one hand and wastes hundreds of pixels on its round corners and top notch. FaceID created a user experience nightmare by eliminating of the home button in favor of arbitrary gestural UI. Yet Apple’s marketing has managed to successfully polish these unnecessary features into the “Phone of the Future.”
To be fair, Apple is not alone. The Samsungs, LGs, Huaweis, Xiaomis, and Oppos of this world suffer from the same terminal illness in a market that has plateaued: Featuritis. Many of these smartphones are virtually indistinguishable–and thus, their makers desperately need distinct features to attract buyers. Take the Galaxy S8, with its needlessly curved display, three methods of biometric authentication–fingerprint ID, crappy facial ID, and iris scanners–and lousy Bixby assistant. Or the LG V30 and its alleged military-tested durability (its screen shatters just like any other phone) and its three-microphone system for recording concerts. Or Oppos’s absurd artificial intelligence-powered selfie beautification engine.
It’s an arms race for superfluous features, all powered by the same OLED screens, comparable cameras, and “neural” processors. And don’t look for it to change anytime soon. There’s no motivation for companies to break the one-year-upgrade-cycle and actually come up with a truly innovative product. Featuritis is here to stay.
Snapchat Spectacles were another product that tried to capitalize on the desire for the new and flashy rather than be actually useful. Every Snapchat user wanted a pair after the company’s announcement–but the hype died almost immediately after their release. The first buyers didn’t really use them and the word spread: They were useless pieces of junk. The Spectacles only connected to the Snapchat app. They only recorded low-quality 720p videos. They transferred data slowly, and interrupted the video transfers half of the time, all while quickly gobbling up your phone’s battery.
The Spectacles were sunglasses, so you couldn’t wear them indoors without looking like a jerk, especially in dark venues like bars and concerts–some of the main places people actually use Snapchat. They didn’t take photos and they recorded video in a proprietary circular format that looked like crap on other social apps, like Instagram, which turned them into a circle vignetted in white. And like Google Glass, they still creep people out.
In the end, they were trying to solve a problem that had been solved by the smartphone–a device that we already carry around, that never gets in the way, and is far more functional. It’s no surprise that Snapchat only sold about 150,000 units to a market of 178 million daily Snapchat users. The surprise is that anyone thought this ugly plastic novelty item was a good idea in the first place.
Mattel’s Aristotle (and other tech for children)
2017 confirmed what we already knew: an unregulated internet of things for kids is a terrible idea. In February, Germany and Norway banned the creepy doll My Friend Cayla, an internet-connected toy that chatted with children and labeled it as an “espionage device” accessible to any hacker. Its worst sin, though, was sending all user conversations to its manufacturer, Nuance Communications. Then, in November, the German equivalent of the FCC prohibited the sale of any smartwatch for children with eavesdropping capabilities for the same reasons: Non-existent privacy measures that left children and adults around them completely unprotected.
But the most notable children’s privacy failure in the U.S. was Aristotle, Mattel’s smart baby monitor. This “Alexa for kids” was supposed to help parents take care of their toddlers by soothing them, answering their questions, and reading bedtime stories–all with help from Microsoft’s assistant Cortana. Yet that functionality, coupled with Aristotle’s microphone, camera, and internet connectivity, made parents very nervous. Was Aristotle going to teach your kids about the birds and the bees if they asked where babies come from? Could someone watch the camera without authorization? How was a child’s data being collected and used? After the negative PR wave, Mattel canned Aristotle, saying that it wasn’t “aligned” with their technology strategy.
Parents and politicians prompted Mattel’s decision–but ironically, the uproar didn’t touch other, similar products already on the market, like My Friend Cayla, which is still available on Amazon. In the end, the only way to avoid potential privacy violations and abuse is by strongly regulating this market.
The Vibrator That Surveilled Your Sex Habits
The internet of things isn’t just a privacy nightmare for kids. Adults were exposed to multiple privacy breaches this year, too. Possibly the most outrageous reached its inevitable conclusion in March 2017, when the Canadian company Standard Innovation was ordered to pay about $7,800 to each user of its smart sex toy We-Vibe 4 Plus after consumers won a $3 million class-action lawsuit against it.
The product–a U-shaped vibrator designed to be used alone or during intercourse to stimulate a woman’s clitoris and G-Spot–allows partners to control the device through a smartphone app, either locally or remotely via the internet. The problem was that the app and the connection weren’t secure. Two hackers, known as “goldfisk” and “follower,” exposed the problem at the Def Con 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada, demonstrating how to easily take control of the vibrator. According to the hackers’ talk, this left We-Vibe’s users wide open to “unwanted activation” and “sexual assault.”
The failure here wasn’t just that the company did a terrible job protecting its consumers, but it was actively violating their privacy by collecting information about their sexual activities, including vibration patterns, intensity, and temperature.
Kodak’s failed return to photography
The saddest product failure of 2017 was the return of a classic icon: Kodak. The company, which came out of bankruptcy in 2013 after selling half a billion dollars in patents, attempted a comeback with a camera phone designed for photo fans who wanted more than what you’d find in a typical smartphone camera. The Kodak Ektra featured a dedicated 21 megapixel, optically stabilized, high-speed sensor that dwarfed the typical 12-megapixel sensors in current cells, and it looked pretty too, with a cool retro design that recalled the company’s old film cameras. Even its name echoed of one of the company’s old glories–the famous Ektachrome high-speed color film that defined the feel of legendary magazines like National Geographic.
I wanted one. I’m glad I never got it. According to critics, the Ektra’s physical build was poor, the camera sensor and software was laggy, and it produced lousy photos and video. What’s more, its Android operating system was outdated and the entire package simply wasn’t worth the $500 price tag. As CNET put it, “Kodak should have never made this phone.”
Smart locks and dumb automatic updates
This one is a doozy: smart locks that won’t let people into their houses. In yet another demonstration of how the internet of things can go really wrong–and how automatic over-the-air software updates can render products useless–a “small subset” of Lockstate 6i smart locks were rendered useless after an over-the-air update.
The company, which incidentally is recommended by Airbnb, publicly announced that it “immediately contacted each and every customer that was affected and we are working to get all affected locks back online.” Just one problem: the locks required a hard reset, so users had to send their locks back to the company and wait for the fixed unit.
The Big One: Juicero
Finally, we’ve come to Juicero–a product so inane, so useless, so misguided, so absurd, and so poorly designed that it wouldn’t even make the cut into the Sharper Image catalog.
The $400 machine exerts four tons of pressure to squeeze bags of chopped fruits and veggies into a glass of juice. It’s connected to the internet, so it can order you more bags when you need them. Considering you can do exactly the same thing by squeezing the Juicero bags with your own hands, it probably ranks number one on the global list of stupid products, right above goldfish walkers. Critics destroyed the product this year–and rightly so. The company officially shut down in September. Nothing summarizes this year of design fails better than this internet-of-things piece of junk–making it a perfect way to round out this list.