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Use It Better: The Worst Trends in Tech

Consumer technology doesn't always get better, faster and cheaper. Here are four bad moves that prove the future isn't always bright



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In my Scientific American column this month, I pointed out three tech trends that are worth celebrating: the end of the megapixel race in digital cameras, the adoption of micro USB as a universal cellphone charging cord across all brands, and the rise of design simplicity as a marketing point (see: iPod, Wii, Flip).

But life isn’t all sunshine and bunnies. For every positive trend, you’ll have no problem finding a negative one. Here, for example, are a few trends worth bumming out about:

Instant Product Death Syndrome. 2011, it seems, was the Year of the Hair-Trigger Electronics CEO. An astonishing number of high-profile, high-potential electronics were killed—taken off the market—for no reason that any outsider could see.

There was Cisco, which bought the Flip camcorder company in 2009—and then, this year, killed the Flip and fired 550 people. There was Microsoft, which spent two years and millions of dollars developing the Kin smartphone, and then killed it only 2 months after its introduction. Then there was HP, which released its Touchpad tablet to much fanfare in April—and then killed it only seven weeks later.

They all have their inside corporate reasons, no doubt. But come on; there’s no possible way you could determine a product’s long-term prospects after only two months. Plenty of products, including the Microsoft XBox, had weak sales at the beginning, and became hits only when their makers stayed the course and kept making improvements.

The death of competition. This has also been a bad year for competition. Google bought Motorola’s cellphone division, creators of great gadgets like the Razr, Droid and Atrix. AT&T is trying to buy T-Mobile. And that’s on top of the quitters described above.

Competition means lower prices and new ideas. It’ll be a sad world when nobody’s making decent smartphones but Google and Apple.

Data caps. Everything, if you hadn’t noticed, is moving online. Photos, TV, movies, software, backups, phone calls. It’s all about “the cloud.”

These trends could save us money and time, and they’re very exciting. But they’re colliding with a truly depressing trend: data caps. Every cellphone company, and even many home Internet providers, are imposing limits on the amount of data we use each month—at precisely the wrong time in technological history. How are we supposed to enjoy our cloud, if we’re allowed only selective access to it?

The departure of Steve Jobs. You can love Apple or hate Apple—plenty of people do—but one thing is unassailable: the company has led or reinvented an astonishing number of industries. The music business, the movie business, the computer business, the phone business. And at the helm through all of it was Steve Jobs, who recently resigned as CEO, probably because of his failing health.

Apple is teeming with geniuses; the Jobs-shaped product pipeline will probably remain full for years; and Jobs will remain chairman of the board. But Apple owes much of its jaw-dropping success to Steve Jobs’s personality: strong, autocratic, focused, visionary, persuasive, charismatic. The company, and the world, won’t be the same without him.

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