Ten Things in Tech that Should be Easier

Mark Lowenstein / March 10th, 2017

In an era of self-driving cars, artificial intelligence, and drones that can deliver packages, why is it so hard to turn on the damn TV? Technology has simplified a lot of tasks that used to be fairly involved and complex. The devices, wireless connectivity, cloud services, and so on are, for the most part, amazing.

Even so, I’m willing to bet sometime in the past week, in your dealings with myriad devices, apps, or software, you have muttered the following phrase: “Why is this so hard?” or “Why hasn’t someone solved this problem?” I’ve been developing my own list and polled friends and business colleagues. If there’s one overarching theme, it’s around the ability to more easily and effectively find, store, organize, sync, and manage content.

1. Contact Importing and Syncing — This area remains a mess. First, there’s still no great way to get contacts from an analog (i.e. business card) to a digital form. There are OCR readers and apps that use the phone camera but they’re still not that effective. Then there’s the complexity of “importing” contacts. The default method is to use the .csv format but seemingly every time, there’s some glitch or a column that doesn’t import correctly or a weird trick one has to perform to make it work. Plus, every major program, whether it’s Outlook, Apple, or a database such as Constant Contact, has its own variation on how to do this.

Syncing is Part 2 of my Contacts riff. For anyone trying to keep contacts up to date across a typical contacts list such as Outlook, Google, LinkedIn or perhaps an email marketing tool such as Constant Contact or MailChimp, it is still really tough to make it all work seamlessly and update new info automatically. There’s a fear that checking “sync Google contacts with LinkedIn” box will result in random duplications or some sort of wacky deletion of that carefully cultivated contacts list.

2. A Simplified Log-In and Password Regime — OK, this whole password thing has gotten out of control. Now we have two-step verification, ‘security questions’ even more obscure (favorite type of tree when I was five?), and requirements for password combos that only a savant could be expected to remember. Everyone seems to have their own little secret system for tracking this stuff — itself probably not very secure. With all this hacking stuff, one doesn’t get the sense things are going to get any easier. A lot of money is going to be made by the innovator who develops some über-password capability or some other method that significantly improves upon today’s systems.

3. Electronic Storage of Your Medical History — The federal government has poured billions of dollars into ‘electronic medical records’ and, for the average consumer, there is very little to show for it. It is amazing that every time you visit a new doctor, you’re asked to fill out a faded form that looks like it came off a 1960s-era mimeograph, with the same medical history you completed at the last appointment. Why isn’t there some sort of standard medical history form, coordinated through one’s GP, that can be accessed and updated electronically by the patient and other practitioners, on a permission basis? This sort of capability exists in pockets, within certain ‘ecosystems’ (and in other countries) but is not commonplace in the incredibly inefficient U.S. medical care system.

4. Easier Way of Managing Home Entertainment — How come it is so easy to summon up just about any content ever created but it remains such a logistical challenge to operate a home TV and its various appendages? The average home set-up still remains a clutter of multiple remotes, confusing interfaces, and the challenge of managing multiple input devices. No two home entertainment systems are exactly alike. Here’s a test: If you have guests staying at your house, it should not require two pages of instructions on how to turn on the TV and find the ball game or something on Netflix.

5. Finding, Organizing, Storing, and Syncing Music and Photos, Especially on iTunes — This is still difficult and confusing for the average consumer and, for some reason, it’s become harder, rather than easier, in recent years. Press the wrong button and all of a sudden, thousands of songs show up on your phone, killing your storage. As for iTunes specifically, what was once a wonderful platform has become a bloated, confusing, and outdated mess.

Dealing with storage on an iPhone is a companion issue. It is still difficult for the average person to get a handle on iPhone storage. To begin with, at least half the device’s storage seems to be taken up by stuff that has nothing to do with apps or content. Second, it’s still a challenge to manage and understand what media is ‘local’ (thus taking up storage space) vs. stored in the cloud. Third, when you get the ‘storage full’ just as you’re trying to snap the baby’s first steps, then frantically try to delete 100 photos, does that not free up storage? I pick on the iPhone in particular because there is no way to expand storage on the device.

6. Transferring Financial Info at Tax Time — For those who do a pretty good job of tracking their finances electronically through software such as Quicken or Mint, it’s still a bear to produce a good, aggregated report of income and spending, by category, then migrate that info into a popular tax program such as TurboTax. Quicken is a bit better. Mint, it’s cloud-based cousin, is awful at this.

7. Podcast Management — Podcasts have exploded over the past couple of years. Podcast apps are great for finding and downloading content but I’ve yet to find an app that makes it easy to organize content and develop an ordered playlist. Simple requests: for longer podcasts, especially those with ‘segments’, some sort of time stamp; ability to organize a ‘playlist’ or ‘queue’ so, if you’re in the car or out for a run, you can listen to one segment or podcast after another; and more easily manage how a podcast is downloaded to a device and deleted once played.

8. Saving Content to be Read Later — How many times during the day do you see some sort of content you’d like to queue up and read later? There are tools on individual browsers, great apps like Pocket, and content aggregators like Feedly. But they aren’t ubiquitous across all content and they work differently depending on device, browser, etc. I’d love an overall, “Save for Later” button, across content sources and platforms, that works the same on any screen/device, with the option of reading on any device, online or offline. Social media, namely Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, are increasingly becoming content destinations/sources and need to be incorporated into this.

9. Organizing Email — Even with the growth of other messaging platforms, from texting to Facebook, email remains the dominant communication platform, especially for work. Lots of folks have taken a whack at developing tools for more effective email management but it doesn’t seem like anyone has cracked the code yet. This includes more effective filtering of spam/junk/suspicious emails.

10. Bluetooth — File this under the ‘could be better’ category. Bluetooth is now a big part of our lives but it can be still be challenging to pair a device or to make sure devices stay paired. Bluetooth ultimately works but often requires multiple attempts, toggles, and so on. And pairing it with a car system, especially with a non-familiar vehicle such as a rental or Zipcar, is always more complicated than it should be.

Do you share this same list? Are there some apps or features that get at some of these issues perhaps I wasn’t aware of? I’d welcome your thoughts and feedback. Perhaps this can be a semi-regular column.

Mark Lowenstein

Mark Lowenstein is Managing Director of Mobile Ecosystem, an advisory services firm focused on mobile and digital media. He founded and led the Yankee Group's global wireless practices and was also VP, Market Strategy at Verizon Wireless. You can follow him on Twitter at @marklowenstein and sign up for his free Lens on Wireless newsletter here.
  • Glaurung-Quena

    “Easier Way of Managing Home Entertainment”

    Our solution to this problem is a bit extreme but, as people who stopped watching live TV a long time ago, it seems to work well for us. All content without exception gets downloaded or ripped to hard disk. All DRM is removed and then everyrhing gets loaded on itunes on a headless PC hooked up to a monitor sitting in what used to be our TV/VCR cabinet. Then we play it using Itunes’s remote app. I manage the itunes library from my desk using splashtop. The same PC also houses our music collection.

    I think we still have a DVD player somewhere. The last cable decoder box (purchased outright, never rented) got sold off some time ago. I can no longer remember when we last owned a stereo system, 8 years ago or more.

  • klahanas

    11. It should be easier to sideload Apps on my iPads.
    12. It should be easier to insert an SD card. Last time I tried I had to cut a slit… 😉

    • jfutral

      Tech should make either need unnecessary and pointless. if you want to put gasoline in an electric car, you shouldn’t have purchased an electric car.

      Joe

      • klahanas

        It’s not a tech issue, it’s a policy issue. There’s no technical problem here.

        It’s a gasoline car that requires a proprietary nozzle. An artificial limitation forcing a continued relationship with the seller, not by choice, by necessity.

        You may be noticing a “Right to Repair” law coming from Nebraska. I don’t fully agree with it, but if artificial impediments are preventing access to my property, they should be removed on my say so.

        Anyway, sideloading and sd have no impact on you if you don’t want it. Don’t like the programming? Change the channel. Shouldn’t have to buy a new TV to change the channel.

        • Kizedek

          “Shouldn’t have to buy a new TV to change the channel.”

          Yeah, you shouldn’t. But your analogies are always a little simplistic and disingenuous in your eagerness to diss Apple.

          In this case, the device is more complex than TV alone — more like TV & Set-Top Box combined. Apple has decided that its Box (with decoding card) gets its content though a cable, and is subject to the agreements they can achieve with content providers, including App developers. There is gatekeeping there that can make the day-to-day experience much better and safer.

          Instead, you want a Box that, in addition to the cable jack, has: removable decoding card, DVD slot, SD Card slot, USB cable, Analog antenna input, cassette tape deck, floppy disc drive, traditional phone cable jack…

          Go for it! But its not that you need a new device to “change the channel”, so please stop going there. It’s that you need something other than Apple if you want to physically connect to every type and example of service and possibility under the sun, and manage them yourself, assuming you buy or maintain subscriptions to multiple types of services that would make it worth your while.

          • klahanas

            While it’s true that I have an axe to grind, why don’t you see it as protecting the users (for example me) interests over just dissing Apple?

            It’s more than just dissing.

            Oh…I don’t root for my cable company either.

          • Kizedek

            There are things happening in regards to users’ interests that I am very happy to see: third party screens not invalidating warranty, that type of thing.

            But, I think jfutral’s comment was accurate and apt:
            “Tech should make either need unnecessary and pointless. if you want to put gasoline in an electric car, you shouldn’t have purchased an electric car.”

            Granted, the discussion is about content (media and apps), but I saw your response as a kind of recasting of his car analogy into a different type of analogy — nozzles are pretty standard and necessary, so it would perhaps have to be a scenario in which Apple somehow capriciously twists basic standards that make the device “go” in the first instance (say, WIFI and SIM –the experience of which are arguably better on Apple devices).

            In other words, its not “artificial” that an electric car can’t use gasoline. But it would be “artificial” if, as you suggest, a hybrid car couldn’t actually fill up at a “normal” filling station. You want a hybrid, and Apple doesn’t make one.

          • obarthelemy

            Except there are unavoidable technical reasons for electric cars being unable to run on gasoline. Apple’s reasons for proprietarzing most everything are rarely technical, sometimes UI/UX, but, above all, would not need to exclude other standards/formats/capabilities. That pure lock-in and rent extraction.
            Apple’s “magic” features usually run on top of standard protocols. Why do they always disable that background layer ?

  • jfutral

    I’m annoyed when Apple requires my Mac OS and iOS to be version comparable for simple things like Apple Works document sharing, calendar updates, etc. that has made me stop using Apple solutions for many things other than devices. There are legitimate reasons to not update my desktop OS, but I could be free to update my mobile OS, but Apple makes the two incompatible if I do that.

    Joe

    • obarthelemy

      Consider yourself lucky it still works with 2 current versions ;-p
      I realized MS had fatally dropped the ball when my then-current HTC HD2 Windows phone couldn’t sync with my then-current Windows desktop. Called support: “That’s as intended”. Oh, goodbye then.

      plus insert standard “Android is modular / Apple is monolithic” blurb ;-p

  • obarthelemy

    Personally, I can’t count the times I go back to good ol’ USB sticks or cables to transfer stuff over, and I manage my media via raw filesystem and network shares. My few attempts at using something smarter seemed to require hours of work for a very rigid outcome and lots of incompatibilities.

    Also, your problems seem fairly advanced. For working with a lot of tech ignoramuses, I’d say, first, clearly show what can be done to what: show scroll bars, group action buttons/icons/menu items in the same darn spot, label all of that with text… Most people don’t use their apps daily (even their core apps); having to figure it what cutesy icons mean, to double-check around the screen to make sure you didn’t miss one… is a recurring pain. Frankly, I think MS had it mostly right with Windows, and IBM with CUA: menus, and if icons, all in the same spot w/ optional labels. We’ve been on a downward spiral ever since. Form over function, and nerds showing lack of empathy for non-nerds.

    Finally, as a phablet user, I’d like the option to move all the stuff that’s on top of my screen to the bottom or side (notifications, quick toggles, hamburger menu…) I saw an app for that, can’t locate it now…

  • PhilipGBaker

    I recently discovered SaneBox, a nifty product for solving the cluttered inbox problem. It’s easy to use, works with most email services and is very effective. I recently reviewed it for PJ Media. Best approach I’ve found in years. It’s all done with folders.

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