A Parable About How Technology Fails Us

A Parable About How Technology Fails Us

I think the photo speaks for itself, but here’s the back story. I just bought this nifty micro-stereo unit that I can plug my iPod into. It’s a JBL Onstage Micro iPod Speaker System, and is pretty much ideal for our requirements–it’s portable (it takes four AAA batteries), tiny and offers reasonable sound quality for its size.

As you can see, it came with no less than eight adapters. Each one is for a different type of iPod. Remarkably, the adapters only cover the so-called fourth and fifth-generation iPod. How many more would they have to ship to accommodate every version, going back six whole years?

Sadly, this problem is all too familiar. Whether it’s browser compatibility or HD DVD format wars, we waste a shameful amount of time bickering over standards. In the long run, will anybody really care who wins the Atom vs. RSS battle? Will it really matter?


  1. Hi

    I don’t think that you can compare the adapters with the browser capability. Because the adapters are just there because the design changes. The real standard is the Dock Connector, and that didn’t change in any iPod. The adapters are just there because the design of the product changes. And for me that is a good thing, the 5G iPod is much nicer than the 1G 😉

    That is just my opinion on this subject 😉

  2. Puss in Boots: Fair enough, it’s not a perfect metaphor for browser compatibility, but I think it’s not bad. After all, browser testing is kind of like slotting the iPod in each adaptor: “Does it work?”, “does it work?” and so forth.

    I just checked Wikipedia, and it indicates the Dock Connector wasn’t introduced until the third generation.

  3. I’m don’t think that this is an example of a battle over standards…I mean, this device is made to work with iPods, all of which are made by Apple. They have 100% control of the standards of their own product. Rather, I think it’s an indication of something just as horrible and almost entirely preventable: proprietary changes that are done to generate income rather than provide additional features.

    While I’m sure that some physical changes are necessary between models, very often companies will introduce changes solely for the purpose of forcing the consumer to buy things they already have that worked with the old model, but that they’ve ensured don’t work with the new one.

    For example, with Canon, there are a range of different cable releases that will only work with specific cameras. Trade up to the next level of camera (going from an XTi to 30D, say) and you need a new cable. It doesn’t have additional features, I mean the functionality of a cable release is pretty straightforward; however, Canon is going to force you to buy a new one, just so they can make an extra few bucks.

  4. It’s funny, reading the comments I immediately thought of my Canon Digital camera, and was happy that someone else brought it up. Pretty much everything is proprietary with my Canon 20D — the remote shutter release, the battery, the battery extenders. And all of it is ridiculously overpriced.

    I also recently wrote an entire RSS reader, and a big chunk of that time was supporting multiple formats (RSS 1.0, RSS 0.8, ATOM etc). The sad thing is that they don’t really bring anything extra to the table — almost all the information is identical between them. As for HDDVD/BlueRay – I finally gave up waiting and went out and bought a HDDVD player last week.

  5. I guess my point–incoherent as it was–was that the impact on the consumer is the same, whether it be proprietary tech or standards battles.

  6. This picture makes me so sad for our environment. What a shameful waste to design a product with such little consideration for it’s environmental impact.

  7. When trains were invented, each railway had its own gauge and trust me, in cost terms, it makes buying different converters for your iPod seem like chump change compared to changing the width of a trains wheels. Stupidity like this is inherent in a new industry and Apple has a particularly illustrious history of screwing its market opportunities by market gouging of this nature. The rate of change in this market will ensure their come uppance will come much faster than previous downfalls.

  8. Thanks for a great photo, Darren.

    (I take it the eighth adapter was necessary to fit your iPod in the cradle?)

    Personally I think what this illustrates is the Apple’s emphasis on physical design in their product strategy. They’ve (very wisely) kept the electrical standard of the connector over the various versions (thus enabling the whole hardware after market). But every time they could make a new iPod device smaller, they’ve done so because “iPods are small, sexy things”.

    At least the little physical adapters represent a clever, inexpensive way of handling the size differences. Much better than if they required hardware manufacturers to produce different models of their gadgets for each iPod model (and the consumers to upgrade their after market hardware when they bought a new iPod). That would be much worse for the environment, for the consumer, and for Apple! With this little plastic workaround Apple has now locked you (Darren) in further to the Apple iPod family.

    As per Juan and Duane’s comments, Canon is shooting itself in the foot when it makes it more expensive for people to upgrade within the Canon camera family by making the cables slightly different. I guess they couldn’t resist this little bit of extra money from their customers. But if I understand the situation correctly, they’ve made darn sure that the real expensive after market stuff (lenses) locks in the users nicely, right?

    @Joe: Even in the railway gauge story, physical adapters/converters were applied as operators struggled with incompatible hardware. I’ve seen pictures of railway carriages with three wheels per axle. 🙂

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