Bad Ideas

Cybertrucks and Folding Phones: 2019’s Worst Tech Ideas

A rundown of a no good, very bad year in tech ideas

Nobody’s perfect — not you, me, nor the massive tech industry. We’ve all had our fair share of bad ideas over the years.

In 2007, it was a bad idea to take on thousands of dollars of student loan debt to work in media, an industry that would implode just over a decade later. In 2003, it was a bad idea to build a website that let users rate the attractiveness of women. Terrible ideas abound. Looking toward 2020, we’re another year older, but it’s hard to say we are another year wiser.

Normally, this column, “Bad Ideas,” deals in hypotheticals. Would your fingers disintegrate if you typed forever? Could — and should — you eat your phone? But this year was crammed full of actual bad ideas — things that the tech industry did, but probably should not have done. A brief survey:

Google Stadia

Stadia’s promise to stream games directly to your internet-connected device aims to revolutionize the gaming industry — transforming it from one in which consumers own their video games and consoles to one in which the only things required to game are an internet connection, a monthly subscription fee, and practically any device with a screen. In theory, that could make access to video games easier. But it comes with a hefty trade-off: Stadia opens up consumers to exploitation from their ISPs, exploitation from Google, and, with its reliance on energy-hungry data centers, it could even contribute to climate change like other cloud services.

Stadia is either a Bad Idea for gamers, or a Bad Idea for Google. Only time will tell which one it is.

Stadia is far from global domination. For now, to play on Stadia you need to pay $130 for a Premiere Edition (which comes with a controller and a Chromecast Ultra), $9.99 for a monthly subscription to the Stadia Pro service, and full retail price for the handful of games available at launch. On top of that, Stadia’s streaming technology can’t match the performance of consoles already on the market: Reviewers reported subpar image quality and laggy gameplay, despite Google promising otherwise.

Stadia is either a Bad Idea for gamers, or a Bad Idea for Google. Only time will tell which one it is.

WeWork

Whether or not the real estate leasing company WeWork is actually a tech company, they’re certainly selling themselves as such. The company’s now-cursed S-1 filing states, “Technology is at the foundation of our global platform,” making the argument that it isn’t a real estate company, but a “space as a service” company.

If there’s one thing to learn from WeWork’s precipitous fall in 2019 — a failed IPO slashed the company’s valuation from $47 billion to just $8 billion, and resulted in the layoff of 2,400 employees — it’s that with enough hubris, you can take a reasonably Good Idea (subleasing office space at a profit) and turn it into a Bad Idea (trying to disrupt every possible industry out there).

It’s easy to blame former CEO Adam Neumann, who escaped the fiasco to the tune of $1.7 billion, for selling investors on a fantasy. But as it turns out, banks were tripping over themselves vying to underwrite the company’s IPO, while WeWork’s board — which included JPMorgan’s Jamie Dimon and SoftBank’s Masayoshi Son — provided almost no oversight as the company burned through billions in capital.

“The greed that enabled all this is astonishing,” writes the Outline’s Noah Kulwin. “WeWork’s investors and bankers, desperate for an IPO that would reward them richly, co-signed Neumann’s personal self-dealing and a transparently flimsy business model.”

“What happened since August wasn’t the consequence of the kind of investigative journalism that felled Theranos, or the long-foreshadowed public tumble of an Uber,” writes business reporter Matthew Zeitlin. “It was more akin to a Twitter cancellation. Widely known facts were re-aired in a new climate. What was once amusing or somewhat confusing was now, in a new light, merely horrifying.”

Rev

Last month, audio transcription service Rev tried to slip a 30% pay cut past tens of thousands of its transcribers — independent contractors known as “Revvers” — by burying changes to minimum pay rates in a post on the company forum. While the company played it off as an effort to pay out more for harder jobs, a number of Revvers noted that they’d now be making less than minimum wage with the new price changes.

In the days following, OneZero’s Sarah Emerson learned that Rev also exposed customer information, listing names of people and businesses attached to audio files that any worker on the platform could freely listen to. What’s more, Emerson later found that Rev exposed its workforce to violent, disturbing audio, failing to label material that contained descriptions of sexual abuse and violence, and incentivizing Revvers to transcribe disturbing content without their consent.

While uniquely awful in its own way, working conditions at Rev are par for the course for the burgeoning gig economy, where growth is achieved by squeezing an increasingly desperate workforce.

Ring

Ring, the doorbell camera company, advertises its home security technology as the best way to catch heartwarming moments: delivery drivers thanked for their hard work, kids leaving video messages for their military dad, and so on.

But in actuality, Ring is building a privatized surveillance network, wholly controlled by parent company Amazon. Putting a Ring on every door gives one of the largest companies in the world an eye into every neighborhood. Combined with a program to partner with 400 law enforcement agencies, Ring represents Orwellian levels of surveillance.

Of course, the government isn’t the only one interested in a vast network of internet-connected cameras. Ring cameras have become so easy to hack that internet pranksters are starting podcasts around hacking unsuspecting Ring users. But hey, at least you can watch “Little Girl Send a Message to Santa When a ‘Reindeer’ Shows up on Her Front Porch.”

Cybertruck

As about 1 million people remarked on the night it was announced, the Tesla Cybertruck looks stupid. This, of course, did not stop 250,000 people from collectively giving Elon Musk a $2.5 million interest-free loan in the form of $100 “pre-orders.” (Which, credit where it’s due, is a God-tier-level grift.)

It doesn’t matter that its shatterproof windows aren’t very shatterproof at all, or that, based on its design, the Cybertruck sucks at being an actual truck. Seemingly, the Cybertruck is a physical manifestation of Musk’s hubris: He’s built a fandom of nerds so vast and so wealthy, he believes he can sell them a $40,000 truck that looks like an extra from the video game Twisted Metal.

A silver lining to all of this is that the Cybertruck might be Musk’s undoing, writes OneZero’s Will Oremus. “Tesla may have missed the mark with its marketing, building a vehicle that is so self-consciously futuristic that it overshoots the target audience entirely.”

Samsung Galaxy Fold

Today, smartphone design is dictated by a single, inflexible component: the screen.

For years, Samsung has teased the possibility of curved and folding display technology — making it one of those groundbreaking technologies that was always just a few years away. That wait came to an end this April with the release of the Samsung Galaxy Fold.

“It was embarrassing,” Samsung CEO DJ Koh told the Independent.

The Galaxy marked a turning point in smartphone design. Phones no longer had to conform to rectangular glass slates, but could take any shape you might imagine — it was a moment on par with the introduction of the multi-touch display just a decade earlier. How nice would it be to just fold up our phones like we do with the rest of the detritus that fills our pockets and bags?

This promising future was literally shattered when Samsung sent out review devices to tech reporters. In a single day, no fewer than four different reviewers ended up breaking the screen on their Galaxy Fold. “It was embarrassing,” Samsung CEO DJ Koh told the Independent. “I pushed it through before it was ready.” Eventually, Samsung had to delay the official launch by five months.

Samsung made some minor changes to the Fold and rereleased it in September, but even this marginally improved version is still flawed. “The reality is that, as it exists in the Galaxy Fold, the flexible screen is going to be delicate, and you are going to need to treat it delicately,” writes the Verge’s Dieter Bohn. “Using it will impinge on your life in ways a more durable phone — or even carrying both a phone and a tablet — won’t.”

You can certainly pay $1,980 to experience the future of smartphone design, but as it stands now, it’s still fragile.

Libra

Over the last five years, Facebook has been hammered for how it interferes with elections, how it routinely mishandles user data, and how its platform extracts a real human cost on the people tasked with moderating its content. But this year, Facebook faced a new failure: the cryptocurrency initiative Libra.

Announced earlier this summer to widespread skepticism and condemnation, Libra is a cryptocurrency created by Facebook and backed by a number of partners in the global financial industry, aimed at helping the unbanked make purchases online. In some ways, Libra is an attempt to bring cryptocurrency into the mainstream by introducing it to Facebook’s 2 billion users. Libra is also Facebook’s attempt to get its 2 billion users to use Facebook to buy things.

“It is a pivot from a company whose advertising business is so embroiled in scandal and corruption that it has no choice but to try to diversify into payments and credit scoring to survive,” writes developer Stephen Diehl. “The clear long-term goal is to act as a data broker and mediate consumers access to credit based on their private social media data. This is such an utterly terrifying and dystopian story that should cause more alarm than it does.”

Just months after it was announced, however, the major payment firms that would ostensibly underwrite and facilitate Libra transactions all pulled out, making it very difficult for Facebook users to buy things on Facebook.

The way things look now, Libra is far from its stated goal of “Reinvent money. Transform the economy.” (Astrologically speaking, not a very Libra thing to do!) The cryptocurrency was revealed to be not only financially unsound, but, as Diehl points out, technically unsound, too: “The final conclusion one must take away after doing technical due diligence on this project is this simply… would not pass muster in any respected journal on distributed systems research or financial engineering.”

Honorable mention: MacBook Pro butterfly keyboard

The saga of the MacBook Pro’s flawed butterfly keyboard started in 2015, escalated in 2017, and finally came to a finale in 2019, when Apple announced that it would finally ditch its butterfly keyboard for the new MacBook Pro.

To recap: In an effort to craft the thinnest MacBook Pro yet, in 2015 Apple replaced the already low-profile scissor keys with the even more low-profile butterfly keys. The end result was a laptop that, while very thin, felt awful to type on — arguably a crucial element to one’s computing experience.

A year later, Apple released an updated version of its butterfly keyboard, adding more travel to the keys but also introducing a fatal flaw. In 2017, Casey Johnston found that this “improved” version of the butterfly keyboard could be rendered inoperable with a single piece of dust. What’s more, the butterfly design was so delicate that in order to fix it, Apple would need to replace the entire top case — a repair that could cost up to $700.

One year and three class-action lawsuits later, Apple launched a program to fix the butterfly keyboards for free, albeit just stopping short of admitting that the design was bad. Just this past month, Apple announced that its new Macbook Pro will feature a new “Magic Keyboard” that will go back to the scissor keys — an implicit admission that the butterfly keyboard was bad.

“Schiller should have apologized, because Apple has been gaslighting us about its terrible keyboard for years,” writes OneZero’s Owen Williams. “It’s absurd that Apple could get away with selling faulty computers for so long.”

I write about technology. Regular contributor to Medium’s OneZero. Seen in Vice, Businessweek, The Outline and others. he/him. steverousseau.org

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