When it comes to tech­nol­ogy, first isn’t al­ways best

Pa­tience is prefer­able to bugs, with Alexa’s evil laugh just the lat­est in a line of an­noy­ing flaws

PC Pro - - Viewpoints - work@nicoleko­bie.com

Tech loves early adopters. They shell out hun­dreds of pounds for any­thing new with­out pause, pay­ing to act as beta testers. Hav­ing some­thing be­fore any­one else nat­u­rally has ap­peal, but be­ing stingy and cyn­i­cal, I would rather wait for the price to fall and the tech­nol­ogy to prove it­self. Yet I was tempted by the new Ama­zon Echo Dot: not only did this tiny cir­cu­lar puck start cheap at just £50, it was fre­quently dis­counted to un­der £40 — and I was des­per­ate for a birth­day present to give my hus­band.

What a mis­take. There’s no ques­tion the tech­nol­ogy be­hind Alexa and its hard­ware home is re­mark­able, but it fre­quently fails at ba­sic tasks. Rarely does it un­der­stand my re­quests on the first try – and my Cana­dian ac­cent is hardly a chal­lenge – and it turns on at ran­dom, usu­ally when the TV’s on in the next room. Thank­fully, it doesn’t laugh ma­ni­a­cally, as some users have re­ported, but it’s still un­nerv­ing to hear a voice in an un­oc­cu­pied kitchen: “I’m sorry, I don’t un­der­stand the ques­tion.”

Most frus­trat­ing are its stupid de­ci­sions: I tried to play mu­sic by a singer called Dan Man­gan and Alexa en­abled a skill called the “Name Game”. I ar­gue with this ma­chine more than I do my hus­band, which just doesn’t feel right.

Echo de­fend­ers will protest that none of those prob­lems are deal break­ers; they’re

small bugs in an oth­er­wise im­pres­sive tech­nol­ogy. How­ever, they show that the sys­tem isn’t any­where near fin­ished – Alexa and Echo are at best beta prod­ucts, not fit for store shelves. In­deed, I’m just about ready to re­home the use­less lit­tle puck into our junk drawer.

That doesn’t bother Ama­zon – it al­ready has our money – but when my friends and fam­ily ask if they should in­vest in an Echo with Alexa, I tell them not to bother. There are plenty of ways to be frus­trated for free, af­ter all. The gi­ant tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies love early adopters be­cause they act as evan­ge­lists for the prod­uct, but if the gad­get is re­leased un­der­baked, they’re not go­ing to be help­ing sales.

Ama­zon may not need nor want my mar­ket­ing as­sis­tance, as it re­port­edly sold mil­lions of Alexa-haunted plas­tic over the all-im­por­tant Christ­mas hol­i­day sea­son, but if it doesn’t im­prove the “skills” on of­fer, make the voice-as­sis­tant less an­gerin­duc­ing, and iron out bugs such as crazed laugh­ter, many of those mil­lions of peo­ple gifted an Echo may not bother to pay to re­place it. Af­ter all, why would you splash out on up­grad­ing a ma­chine that bores, frus­trates or ter­ri­fies?

Ama­zon is hardly the only tech firm to launch too early, and at least Alexa does sort of work. Google Glass, by con­trast, was as­ton­ish­ingly ter­ri­ble. The first time I used it, I was sur­prised – I thought I must be us­ing it wrong. To be fair to Google, it stressed that Glass was merely the de­vel­oper ver­sion, an early beta – but an­nounc­ing it with sky­divers cer­tainly made the aug­mented re­al­ity head­set’s ar­rival feel like a con­sumer launch. The idea of AR glasses is sound – par­tic­u­larly for spe­cific in­dus­trial uses – but Google Glass was ahead of its time. That may sound like praise, but it isn’t: Google Glass quite pos­si­bly set back the en­tire aug­mented re­al­ity mar­ket by some way.

An­other idea that was pushed too soon were chat­bots – ev­ery sin­gle bot I tried a year ago did noth­ing other than kill my en­thu­si­asm for the idea. I’m sure there are plenty of use­ful bots, but they were served up be­fore they were done bak­ing, and now I’ve got a bad taste in my mouth.

Smart de­vel­op­ers and en­gi­neers need to learn to pace them­selves and wait for tech­nol­ogy to catch up with their ideas. Re­lease too early, and we’ll be put off — some­thing to keep in mind for ev­ery­one work­ing on fu­ture tech, be it driver­less cars, blockchain or vir­tual re­al­ity head­sets. By all means, let us have a go and beta test, but please iron out the bugs be­fore you ask us for our pay­ment cards. Don’t kill a good idea with im­pa­tience.

Ni­cole Ko­bie is PC Pro’s Fu­tures ed­i­tor. She heard her hus­band scream­ing at Alexa while writ­ing this col­umn, so that present was clearly a win­ner.

@njko­bie

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