This article is part of the On Tech newsletter. Here is a collection of past columns.
I have wanted to pummel home printers into dust. I felt super stressed recently when I struggled to install a new internet modem. Perhaps you pray before trying to connect wireless headphones to your computer. And Siri, WHY ARE YOU SO DUMB sometimes?
It’s been 30 years since Walt Mossberg, a pioneering personal technology journalist, began his first column in The Wall Street Journal with this sentence: “Personal computers are just too hard to use, and it isn’t your fault.”
Today, many consumer electronics are more capable, less expensive and used by far more people than the PC was when Mossberg wrote those words in 1991. Some gadgets have gotten more user-friendly, too, but many of them make you want to curse and scream. And it isn’t your fault.
I know that I sound (again) like a grumpy old man. And balky headphones and printers are not the world’s most serious problems. Nevertheless, I will proceed with my grumpiness. Actually, I will leave it to Mossberg.
“If I restarted my column today, that first line from 1991 would still work, with a little modification,” he told me by email. “PCs, smartphones and tablets are relatively easy to operate — as long as you don’t change the default settings too much and do light tasks on them. Beyond that lies frustration.”
Mossberg then ran through examples of products that “remain baffling and/or maddeningly unreliable.”
Routers and modems have improved but “feel like they’re meant for the IT person,” he said. Printers have “a million issues.” Mossberg said that voice assistants were “hit or miss,” the webcams installed in computers were often of poor quality and systems to control internet-connected home devices were an “incompatible mess of puzzling and unreliable stuff.”
Why are so many technologies this maddening?
First, it is difficult to make products easy to use. And some of the backbones of our home tech, including the internet, are so rickety that it’s a miracle they work at all.
Tech companies are to blame, too. To sell us more stuff, they tend to pack in more features, which means more complexity.
Lauren Dragan, a writer for Wirecutter, The New York Times’s product recommendation site, said that some gadget companies also protect their turf and profits by making their products tricky to combine with those from other companies. Have you tried to use Apple’s AirPods headphones with an Android phone? Hahahaha. No, it doesn’t really work.
Lauren Goode, a technology writer at Wired, told me that as our favorite electronics have become more complex and we use them more, there are more chances for frustrations.
And Goode said that it has become more important for capable hardware to be combined with savvy software. That combination isn’t easy. The TV manufacturer might be great at displaying a beautiful picture, but terrible at making an app for logging in to Netflix.
TV sets, by the way, are at the top of Goode’s list of products that have “no business being that complicated.” And printers — yeesh. Goode recently went to get a tattoo and wound up fixing the parlor’s printer. She said that in her experience, iPads and the stripped-down laptops called Chromebooks are among the few gadgets that come close to being easy to set up and start using.
I’m grateful that technology has made it possible to stay connected, work, entertain ourselves and see the world in ways that we couldn’t before. But the more we use and rely on personal technology, the more we expect from it, and the more we notice how far from ideal it is.
I’m still waiting for the real life “Star Trek” computer that will make “tea, Earl Grey, hot” on my command. But I’d gladly settle for an internet router that doesn’t make me want to cry.
Tech you’re using for the holidays
We recently asked On Tech readers to tell us which technologies they were using to help manage the holidays. I wanted to highlight the responses from two of you today. Jason and Justin, you are WAY more organized than I am.
Jason H. in Oregon on using a shared digital calendar:
Simply a shared calendar for all family members (Apple and Google calendars). Flight info, family get-togethers, school breaks, etc. Anyone can add to it and we all see what is planned for the family without seeing each other’s personal appointments.
(If you want to follow Jason’s lead, here’s an article about how to set up a Google calendar that is shared with multiple people. And check out these tutorials for creating shared Apple calendars on an iPhone or Mac computer.)
Justin Jesena in Long Island City, Queens, on using Trello, a list-making app that resembles a collection of Post-it notes:
I’ve been using the Trello app to organize my holiday shopping list. I create a “card” for every person I need to buy presents for, and I add product links and ideas to their individual cards throughout the year, so by the time December rolls around, I already know what I’m getting everyone.
Remember when Grandma mentioned wanting a new tablet months ago? I also have a “purchased” card in the app, so I can see what I’ve already bought all in one place — useful when out and about and I’m trying to remember what I already bought online or need inspiration!
(There are tips here about how to get started with Trello.)
Before we go …
This is a bonkers online scam, for seemingly no payoff: My colleagues unraveled a bizarre and relentless hoax to try to trick several prominent female journalists and media personalities in India into thinking that they had landed jobs at Harvard University. The identity of the scammer or scammers remains unknown.
I cannot recommend this article strongly enough: In 2020, many people shared claims that the furniture seller Wayfair was a front for child sex trafficking. The claims were not true. The Washington Post explored what went wrong, and spoke to women who are still shattered by that viral lie. (A subscription may be required.)
Notable deaths of people who helped shape tech: Read about the lives of technologists including Clive Sinclair, the inventor of an early personal computer, and Daniel Kaminsky, who discovered a fundamental flaw in the fabric of the internet. They are included in the list of notable deaths in 2021 compiled by The New York Times’s obituary desk.
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