This year has been a good year for technology. We saw manufacturers and developers push the envelope to create products that embrace the new technologies. Apple showed that it's not afraid to embrace the future of computing with the MacBook's uni-port USB-C connector, and Microsoft demonstrated that it is going all-in with its mobile-first, cloud-first strategy to transform Windows from a software to a service, delivering free upgrades and updates to users.
But in embracing the future, new ways of thinking don't always stick. For every successful launch, there are just as many, if not more, failed attempts. That's what progress is about: taking risks to innovate. However, some risks don't make sense, and they feel rushed. Uncalculated risks could lead to compromised user experiences and market confusion.
Here are the top computing technology flops of the year:
1. Microsoft's deployment strategy
One thing Microsoft needed this year is transparency when rolling out new products or making changes to existing products. A convoluted strategy for OneDrive and Windows made it difficult for users to understand Microsoft's motives, and missteps in these areas led to diminished credibility.
After promising that all Office 365 users, even consumers, would be upgraded to an unlimited cloud drive for storage, Microsoft backtracked and even tried to lower the capacity for free OneDrive members, leading to user outcry.
Initially, Microsoft took a page out of the playbook used by US cellphone carriers, stating that unlimited isn't really unlimited. Microsoft said that heavy storage users were taxing the cloud by using too much storage, but the company later apologized for blaming its users. That apology, however, did not mean that unlimited was coming back.
After some uncertainty if Microsoft's recent change would affect business customers, the OneDrive for Business team issued a similar apology, stating that unlimited cloud storage will be coming to select Office 365 Business, Enterprise or Education accounts, but not all.
Microsoft also encountered some heat with its Windows 10 strategy. After Windows 10 was available for download, users were concerned that Windows 10 collected too much data in the background, encroaching on user privacy. Microsoft was also criticized for forcing existing Windows users to upgrade to version 10 of the operating system in a heavy-handed strategy.
But ironically, these moves make it seem like Microsoft didn't make users want to upgrade. The company released a statement that Windows 10 updates delivered through Windows Update would not contain release notes. While this won't be a problem on older versions of Windows, as users can choose to download and install updates, Windows 10 updates are automatically pushed to consumers, whether they want it or not.
Microsoft could have avoided early criticism and gained an even more loyal user base if it had been honest about its strategy, motives and intentions. Letting users choose when to upgrade to Windows 10 without any hidden motives, providing detailed release notes on what updates are expected to deliver and letting users opt in to data collection would have gone a long way in restoring user's trust in technology in an age of data breaches, government snooping and privacy concerns.
- Read about our experiences with Windows 10
2. Welcome to the world of guinea pigs
This year, big software houses like Apple and Microsoft are welcoming you to a whole new world. Sadly, it's not a virtual world, and everything you experience, do and feel are real. This is the world of beta software.
To paraphrase Shakespeare, all the software world is a stage, and you are a player in this stage. Your role: the guinea pig.
To refine software, both Apple and Microsoft have opened up their latest operating systems to public beta testers. Microsoft's Windows Insider Preview program opens up new builds of Windows 10 for public testing, while Apple's Public Software Program allows users to try unreleased versions of OS X 10.11 El Capitan. Users in the programs are asked to report their experiences, bugs and glitches, and in exchange, they get to try out the newest features ahead of commercial availability.
However, as we find out, these programs are meant to expedite software releases over quality control. Even with the latest updates exiting beta and certified for a broader public release, these software still contain nagging glitches and bugs.
We've discovered that early non-beta updates to OS X El Capitan failed to fix glitches with Wi-Fi, Mail and other connectivity. Similarly, Windows 10's latest release caused problems for Microsoft Word. On its premium convertible notebooks and tablets, Microsoft promises it's still working on fixes to address lingering problems that plague the Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book.
These issues may be excusable if they existed with third-party hardware or software, but since the problems created by OS X's software plagues Apple's own Mail app and Windows 10's update affects Microsoft's software and hardware, there really shouldn't be any excuse on why these bugs weren't caught earlier. Apple should be testing its Mail app in conjunction with its operating system, since both ship together. And Microsoft needs to do a better job of testing hibernation on its Surface products to fulfill battery life claims by the launch of a product and not through the promise of a future software update.
In the beta software world, unfortunately, it's often hard to define when beta ends and when final product begins. Perhaps, though, this is the risk of advancing to a software as a service model where software is continuously improved. At least Microsoft and Apple show that they are listening to user feedback and incorporating these insights into future updates.
- Read our OS X El Capitan review
3. The connected home fails to connect to reality
Apple's HomeKit was supposed to make the connected home and the dream of an automated office a reality, but the reality is that the world of the Internet of Things (IoT) remain fragmented.
Like Android@Home before that and Google's latest endeavors with Brillo and Nest, HomeKit has done very little to take IoT mainstream. There are no shortage of IoT products, such as door sensors, alarms, water detectors, smart locks, connected thermostats and more, that can add intelligence to your home or office. But the problem is that these products do not always talk to each other, oftentimes requiring separate hubs, add-ons and multiple apps to manage.
The dream of the connected office or home is that you can use a single app on a phone to manage everything. Furthermore, triggering one event could set off a series of automated events to make things easier. Imagine pulling your car into your small business office. Your phone's wireless connection will trigger your office's IoT hub, which validates your identity to unlock your front office door, shut off your building's alarm system, adjust the thermostat to a comfortable temperature, activate the lights, and turn on your office's music system to play ambient music.
In today's IoT world, you may need more than one app to accomplish all these things, and because many of today's IoT peripherals don't talk with each other, triggering automated sequences become limited.
The basis for the Internet of Things makes sense, like adding connectivity to your lock or security cameras, but in order for IoT to take off, a clear standard must emerge. Manufacturers must define clear use cases to give users a strong value proposition. The problem is, you'll never know what will work until you try everything, and that's what manufacturers have been doing: finding something that sticks.
- Read about the challenges of IoT
4. Smartwatches with limited intelligence
Another big connected device this year is the smartwatch. With the launch of Apple Watch bearing Apple's brand cachet, many had dubbed 2015 to be the year of the smartwatch. It's anything but, despite the success of Apple Watch compared to early competitors.
Many computing users are unsure of a need for a smartwatch beyond getting a readout of the time and receiving notifications on their wrists, and having to learn new gestures and interactions has proven to be a complicated hurdle for the wrist-worn computer to overcome.
Additionally, the use of a smartwatch also introduced now etiquette challenges. While it may be convenient to glance at your wrist to check notifications and decide which alert is important enough to pull out your phone, constantly doing this in the presence of others could be seen as rude. Are you actually late to a more important engagement? Why else would you be constantly checking your watch.
We've also watched some watch disasters this year. LG's Watch Urbane 2nd Edition was supposed to be the darling of the Android Wear community, being the first 4G LTE connected Android Wear smartwatch. The device, however, was unceremoniously pulled from store shelves shortly after it was release, and a return date remains unknown.
While the smartwatch is a cool piece of technology in Dick Tracy comic books, it still is a novelty in reality without a clear use case aside from pushing notifications, tracking steps and telling time, all things that you can do with a smartphone.
5. The need for drive space
Apple and Samsung may be a Galaxy apart, but this year's Samsung flagship phones borrowed Apple's philosophy on removable storage. Samsung not only eschewed removable storage on its consumer Galaxy S6 series, but also on the more prosumer-targeted Galaxy Note 5.
It's unfortunate Samsung chose this path despite the criticism that rival HTC had experienced just two years prior with the launch of the HTC One. HTC quickly reversed course and added a microSD card slot to its unibody metal HTC One M8 design.
Still, Samsung's decision seems more excusable than Apple's storage choices for the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus this year. While the Galaxy S6 and Note 5 series both start with 32GB of non-removable storage, Apple's iPhone 6S and 6S Plus start with just a paltry 16GB of non-removable storage.
Given higher resolution screens that require high quality graphics and animations in apps and games, pixel-dense camera sensors, 4K video capture and larger screens that allow you to be even more productive on a phone than before, users are consuming more storage than ever. While you can offload your photos and videos to the cloud to conserve local storage space, you can't do the same with apps. As software developers add more features and support higher resolution displays, app sizes are steadily increasing.
On one hand, eliminating removable storage support helped us to get to sleeker devices, like the HTC One M7 and the Samsung Galaxy S6, but Sony and HTC also show that form could exist alongside function with devices like the HTC One M8 and the Sony Xperia Z5 Premium.
Read our review of the Samsung Galaxy Note 5
6. The resurrection of the netbook
In its infancy, netbooks were small, underpowered computers that provided ample storage with compact, but still spacious hard drives. With the rise of tablets, we thought cheap notebooks running Microsoft's Windows operating system would be sent into the sunset, but Microsoft and its partners were hoping for a netbook renaissance to challenge Chromebook's rise in the educational market.
Modern netbooks come with more powerful Intel Atom processors, but swap slow spinning drives for faster solid state drives. This sounds like a dream, but storage capacity dropped from a 160GB hard disk drive on some older netbooks to a paltry 32GB solid state drive on today's netbooks.
Some of these netbooks also gained a few tricks in the evolution. Devices like the Asus Transformer Book T100HA gained a convertible form factor that allows them to be used like a tablet with a touchscreen.
Still, with Windows 10 and your manufacturer's favorite bloatware pre-loaded on these systems, your storage capacity is just north of 50% of the stated 32GB. This means that even though you have the power of Windows on your device, you'll likely be confined to cloud services, similar to Chromebooks.
With Chrome OS's better management of limited hardware resources, you'll likely find Chromebooks to be more capable on budget hardware.
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