It Just Doesn't Work: Why New Tech Products Are Increasingly Unsatisfying

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Illustration by Alexander Ho for TIME; Motorola

When Steve Jobs is delighted with a new Apple product — which, as you may be aware, he usually is — he flatters it with three simple words: "It just works." Anyone who tried Apple's Mobile Me service in the months immediately following its release knows that reality doesn't always live up to Jobs' promise of magical simplicity. But at least the company tries to make things just work. Lately, though, I've been wondering whether some of its competitors are doing the same.

I've been reviewing technology products for 20 years now. I've seen it all, from products that were amazing from the get-go (the first PalmPilot comes to mind) to ones that were downright hazardous (a mouse that caught on fire). But there's never been a time when so much of the new stuff I look at is so very far from being ready for mass consumption. Sometimes it's a tad quirky; sometimes I can't get it to work at all. And when I call the manufacturers for help, they're often well aware of the problems I encountered.

What's going on here? There are three main culprits:

The beta culture. Once upon a time, products that were labeled as beta were indeed undergoing beta testing. They were works in progress, and nobody dreamed of sharing them with the general public. The Internet changed that by making it easy to distribute prereleases to millions of people. And then Google rendered the beta moniker largely meaningless by applying it indefinitely to massively popular services like Gmail. (The company has since largely backed away from beta gimmickry; among other reasons, it discovered that big corporate customers aren't so excited by products that claim to be unfinished.)

A world in which anything can be a beta is a world in which no product must be complete. That might be O.K. if you're talking about free software, but the philosophy is rubbing off on hardware that people pay hundreds of dollars for. Even if companies don't call hardware beta, they clearly think of it that way.

One notable example was Motorola's Xoom tablet, which arrived back in February with rain checks for three of its notable features: 4G support, Flash and support for its MicroSD slot. Today, some owners have the update that enables MicroSD, others don't, and everyone's still waiting for the overdue 4G upgrade. Sounds like a beta product to me.

Oddly enough, the products that Google labels as betas are usually more refined than ones that some companies claim are complete. But when I tried the Samsung Series 5, a "Chromebook" that runs Google's Chrome OS, it kept locking up and requiring reboots. Beta!

Easy updates. Today, much of the functionality in many hardware products is accomplished through firmware — embedded software that can be updated over the Internet after a product ships. The fact that companies can fix bugs by pushing out upgrades turns out to be a powerful temptation to ship incomplete products. (It's a little like having a college professor who lets you change your answers on an exam after you turned it in.)

I was reminded of this when I read a leaked e-mail that HP honcho Jon Rubinstein sent to his staff after the company's TouchPad tablet was released to uniformly lukewarm reviews. He acknowledged that some of the gripes were legit. And then he said that most of them would be quickly fixed in updates to the TouchPad's software and application store. He wouldn't have been nearly so blithe if it hadn't been possible for HP to go on working on the TouchPad after people were buying it in its buggy initial state.

The rush to beat the other guys. Back in February, I reviewed Ford's new 2012 Focus hatchback. At the time, the car hadn't hit dealers yet — and its release was so far off that Ford couldn't tell me when it would be available. The intense competition of the gadget world makes that sort of leisurely pace unthinkable. Product development, manufacturing, distribution and marketing happen at such a blistering pace that there's no margin for error.

RIM, for instance, shipped its BlackBerry PlayBook tablet in April, then immediately began flooding the airwaves with ads that touted it as the first "professional grade" tablet and boasted of its support for Adobe Flash. Which would have been dandy ... except that the tablet was thoroughly glitchy and sported a version of Flash that barely worked. The PlayBook's marketing campaign was ready; the PlayBook wasn't.

Like the PlayBook, nearly all the tablets that have followed Apple's iPad onto the market feel like they were designed with a sense of urgency that trumped all else. It's no coincidence that none of them have been big hits. If a serious iPad rival does come along, it won't be one that was shipped prematurely.

All of which brings me back to Apple. Heaven knows, it often ships products that don't include all the features an average consumer might want. But even when its products don't "just work" in a way that feels practically mystical, they do work. What does it say about the state of the tech industry that this comes as a refreshing surprise?

McCracken blogs about personal technology at Technologizer, which he founded in 2008 after nearly two decades as a tech journalist; on Twitter, he's @harrymccracken. His column, also called Technologizer, appears every Thursday on