Too Many Gadgets?

Can we possibly have too many gadgets? Over the past dozen years, as a product reviewer, I’ve seen so many new products that offer the promise of helping us to be safer, healthier, richer. Yet frequently, they required a lot more work than was expected to set up, maintain, and deal with unexpected issues. The result was often disappointment and waiting for a better gadget.

Nowhere is this more true than in the area of home technology specifically, the Internet of Things. Products have become more complex with the addition of WiFi, Bluetooth, and user interfaces. They often depend on working with an app, the phone’s operating system, and the cloud, any one of which can lead to time-consuming problems we never thought about before buying.

The Nest thermostat was a brilliant product when it was introduced. it utilized our home WiFi network, our home environment, and information retrieved from the cloud to control our home’s temperature and to save money.

I was one of the first to get one and my enthusiastic reviews for the product likely sold many more. Yet as time passed, there were some issues, including non-compatibility with my heating system, failed downloads, and intermittent drops from the WiFi network. Nest addressed each one over time, but it took my attention and time.

I recently reviewed a Canary home security camera that’s designed to monitor unusual activity in my home and send an alert to my phone when it detects motion. But it invariably sends false alarms, apparently triggered by reflections of light reflecting off of a wall.

This past week, I installed a really clever product — the Ring Video Doorbell that’s intended to alert me to a visitor at the front door and allow me to greet the person from wherever I am, at home or away. But I found the device makes my door bell ring on its own. I’m now working with the company to figure out the cause.

At times I think it might be just me with these unexpected issues, especially since I tend to be an early adopter. Clearly the ads and product descriptions never talk about the time and attention it takes. But the more I read the online reviews and discussion boards, the more I find I have plenty of company. These experiences are common and there’s often a large community helping other users to solve the problems.

And from the perspective of a product developer, it’s not surprising we should experience these difficulties. Everything is becoming more complex and the odds of problems are much higher.

It’s really hard for product companies to anticipate all of the various circumstances that their products will encounter once they start shipping. In spite of lots of testing, only after the product gets into the hands of thousands of users, each with their own unique situation, do they really have a good understanding of what the real problems are.

That’s why return rates for new products are often in the double digits. Not because of defects, but because of their complexity contributing to buyer’s remorse.

What’s ironic is many of these new devices are replacing tried and true products that have existed for years, doing their job perfectly well. A $125 connected smoke detector replaces a standalone one costing $20, a $100 smart band replaces a $15 pedometer, a $100 connected scale replaces a $25 one, or a remote door lock controlled by the cloud replaces one with a key.

But, in spite of these problems, there’s an attraction to many of us, a need to be first in line to try and buy that new gadget to do something that might only be an incremental improvement.

I should talk. I’m drawn to new gadgets like a moth to a light bulb. After reading Walt Mossberg’s review, it took a lot of willpower for me not to get excited about the new iPhone, described as being the best phone ever. I almost upgraded my 6 Plus to a 6S Plus, even though it was less than a year old and working perfectly well. Fortunately, my Apple store didn’t have one when I felt the urge.

With the Internet of Things exploding, the complexity is just going to increase. The number of gadgets in our home connected to the cloud is going to increase exponentially. Even if they all work as designed, we’re going to need to figure out a way to manage them, to know when to react, and to know what to do.

I suspect that will mean another level of technology to solve this. Perhaps a gadget with an app that sits between us and our other gadgets to monitor, fix, and report the important information to us. Yes, something else that needs to be maintained!

Published by

Phil Baker

Phil Baker is a product development expert, author, and journalist covering consumer technology. He is the co-author with Neil Young of the forthcoming book, “To Feel the Music,” and the author of “From Concept to Consumer.” He’s a former columnist for the San Diego Transcript, and founder of Techsperts, Inc. You can follow him at

16 thoughts on “Too Many Gadgets?”

  1. Reading the article it feels like the title should be “Are our gadgets overhyped pieces of beta-quality junk”, not “do we have too many of them”.
    And that’s before security issues.

    1. We are all beta testers in today’s world, with the pressure to get new products out before the competition. Too many companies just assume they will do updates in the field over wireless, because they can, and ship products earlier than when that was not possible. This is pretty much an industry given.

  2. Amen! Between the supposed Smart TV that is frustratingly idiotic to use, the media box that can’t play all media codecs, TV channels that constantly need re -tuning,the powerline adapters that aren’t powered all the time…I feel like I spend more time trying to make stuff work rather than make use of them.

  3. The examples you give sound to me like technology companies inventing
    problems that don’t actually exist, so that they can produce a computer based technology product to “solve” the non-existent problem.

    Non-connected adjustable thermostats already exist. You read the
    instructions, set the timer, adjust the temperature settings for night, day, evening, and override, and then if you happen to be home unexpectedly during the day, or awake unexpectedly at night, you just push the override button.

    Doorbells already exist. Video camera systems to show you who is at the
    door already exist. Home alarm systems already exist. The fact that these
    things are not intelligent and require a degree of human attention is a feature, not a bug. Treating the way they require your attention, input, and time as a bug is merely a fancy way of creating needless products with which to fleece tech enthusiasts possessed of more money than sense.

    The tech industry has a long history of vastly overselling its ability to render aspects of life maintenance-free, convenient, and oversightless through the application of computer tech. The smart home, turnkey networking, intelligent agents, the internet of things — all lies, all hype, for well over 20 years now. The only thing that’s surprising to me is that you slap on a new paint job and a new name, and you can still find people who can be gulled by this crap.

    1. Bugs are the ultimate planned obsolescence.
      I’m starting to wonder if, for example’s France’s law against “vices cachés” (hidden defects) can/will be brought to bear at some point: buy something, use it for a good long while, then ask for a refund arguing it doesn’t perform as advertised. Not worthwhile monetarily, but might send a message and help make progress.
      Not sure about in the US, but in France contracts (including EULAs) cannot overrule/disable laws), so no forced arbitration and no waving rights.

        1. Thanks. I no longer live in Paris myself, and my friends & family over there are all OK.
          Feels close to home though, all of those were places I’ve been often. I saw my first concert in The Bataclan IIRC, Melissa Etheridge on her first album+world tour.
          Oh well, fluctuat nec mergitur, we’ve had horrors quite a few times, when I was there a Jewish café got kalashnikoved… an entirely nonddescript, nonspecial place.
          Lots more people, as innocent, die daily in more remote places, of the same/similar idiocies.

  4. Device makers are just not thinking their products through.

    Case in point. I bought an immersion circulator that has bluetooth connectivity. Bluetooth supposedly frees you to operate the device from elsewhere in the house. Here’s the thing though:

    1. You still need to prep the food that you’re cooking with the immersion circulator so there’s no avoiding being right next to the device. And since it’s right next to you, it’s more convenient to program and turn on the device directly rather than whipping out your smart phone, pulling up the app, and operating the device from the app.

    2. Immersion cooking, which is low temperature cooking, is not a time-critical process; the margin for error is really, really wide. So it won’t make any difference if you turn it off at the 3 hour mark using your smart phone, or at the 3:00:30 mark, factoring the time to walk to the kitchen. Hell, you probably can turn it off at 3:30 with no untoward effect. Or better yet, instead of remotely turning it off, use the device’s built in timer.

    3. People who will buy an immersion circulator are most likely serious cooks who will never turn off or adjust the heat on anything they’re cooking without first visually inspecting it.

    1. There’s a bit in Terry Pratchett’s Jingo about some leaky sand-filled camel hump lamp (I think) being useless, ugly and smelly, but a nice conversation piece, and working well since they’re currently talking about it.
      Useless BT is probably in the same vein: someone buys new stuff, wants to brag about it, that’s one smart-sounding feature to talk about. And it’s probably less awful than a sand-filled camel hump lamp ^^

  5. I have said before, I am reaching peak “charging”.

    Gadgets aren’t the problem, keeping them charged is.

    I was just about to go for a run and MP3 play battery is dead. 🙁

    Only gets worse if we starting having Phones/Laptops/Tablets/watches that all need to be charged every day.

    I really wonder how the gadget reporters keep up. They must have all their own gadgets along with a bunch in for review/testing. I suppose some of the workday must be scheduled just for plugging things in to charge.

    1. One of my baseline presents this christmas is an 8-port USB charger with 2 tablet ports. My parents, my sister and my brother all have un holy mess of chargers spread out everywhere, sister already lost 1 tablet to bump-and-fall while charging and cracked the replacement tablet’s screen, brother cracked an iPhone’s screen. They have 5, 6 and 8 devices resp., including tablets, phones, GPS, and MP3s. Plus visitors. Now to find good-quality cables ^^

      I’m hoping a nice charger will make them setup up a safe uncluttered spot for charging stuff, too.

      Next step would be wireless charging. That really makes a difference because you don’t have to consciously charge your gizmos: you just set them down on a stand, and they start charging. Beats having to either put gizmos on a out-of-the way charger (is my gift rotten ? :-p) or having a mess of cables on one’s desk and near one’s bed (my own setup, allows me to keep using while charging).

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