Technology: 4 things that have improved and 3 that still creep

I will dare and say something controversial: Here in half bit we like technology, and we have a slight bias towards technological solutions, I admit. Even so, technology is not something perfect and finished.

Remember this disgrace? (Credit: Ed g2s / Wikimedia Commons)

In other texts we show technology from the past that no longer exists or has been buried by geological layers of friendly interfaces. We’ve also talked about technologies that just disappeared, like data on K-7 tapes and digital cameras. Today we are going to see technology that still exists but is much better, and things that are still in the stone age.

Technologies that have improved incredibly

1 – Bluetooth

Everything is better with Bluetooth, Bluetooth is the backbone of wireless communication protocols, but it wasn’t always that way. Introduced (oops!) in 1998, the protocol was a serial communication medium aimed at headphones. There was very little intelligence involved, you needed the host equipment to know who it was communicating with, before starting the pairing.

Pairing Bluetooth gear was a pain in the ass. It was like setting up a COM: serial port. In fact, that was literally it. Microsoft ignoring the protocol in its infancy didn’t help either.

Bluetooth kit for use with normal headphones. Power was via that P2 cable and yes, it was immediately lost as soon as you took it out of the box. (Credit: Personal Archive)

Connecting unorthodox equipment was basically impossible. I became a little legend in the PDA world, when I got the first Bluetooth connection between a cell phone and a Palm, in Brazil.

Today it is possible to use Bluetooth equipment on more than one device without having to pair it, mice and keyboards work without any problem and headphones connect right away. After more than 20 years, Bluetooth finally works. Sometimes.

2 – Digital cameras

I know, digital cameras were killed by cell phones, for the most part, but the professional ones are firm and strong, and in the meantime, popular cameras have reached full maturity. It wasn’t always like that.

Digital camera technology started to become popular in the 1990s, and in 1994 Apple released its first camera, the QuickTake 100, for the 2022 equivalent of $1500.

What did you get in terms of technology, with that money? Not a lot. VGA resolution, 640×480, and 1MB of flash memory, capable of storing up to 8 (EIGHT!) images. Communication was via serial, and only worked with Macs, but that was already an advantage, most cameras used SCSI connection, and believe me, you don’t want to mess with SCSI.

Casio QV-10. It was terrifying, even for the time. (Credit: Internet Reproduction)

In 1996, Casio revolutionized the market with the QV-10, a digital camera that sold horrors despite being horrible. With a resolution of 320×240 pixels, it stored 96 photos, but you would hardly take that many. Powered by four small batteries, autonomy was less than an hour. And it came with a bug that if the battery died while you were recording an image in Flash (it took 4s for each photo) the equipment would brick and only when authorized to resurrect.

Image taken with a QV-10, original size (Credit: Internet Reproduction)

These cameras all had in common the need for proprietary software, which was always awful, slow, and unreliable. There was a desire to lock the user into a closed ecosystem. When memory cards came out, the strategy was repeated, with Sony pushing the Memory Stick, and Olympus pushing their weird format. When the SD-CARD and Compact Flash won the Format War, everything got easier. Goodbye proprietary software and formats. Today accessing photos from digital cameras is as simple as sticking a card.

3 – Voice Recognition

every fan of Star Trek or 2001 – A Space Odyssey he always dreamed of talking to his computer, or at least talking to him, but apart from efforts in research centers, almost nothing reached the end consumer, and it seemed like a very complicated problem.

One of the first times that this technology reached the end consumer was with IBM Via Voice, introduced in 1993 and officially launched in 1997.

In the same year, Dragon Naturally Speaking was released, software also used to transcribe dictated text. Both were horrible. You needed a perfectly silent environment, a quality headset microphone, and you needed software training. I read an entire chapter of 3001, by Arthur Clarke, so that Via Voice would understand me. Sometimes.

You can configure Alexa to answer by “Computer”. It’s very Star Trek! (Credit: Paramount Pictures)

The accuracy was around 90%, and it was impossible to mix two languages, which, to dictate technology texts, made the software useless.

Via Voice had its last stable version released in 2005, Dragon in 2015, but its parent company Nuance still exists and sells voice recognition solutions. Not that I need to. Today we have dictation text recognition on Windows, iOS and Android, and it works incredibly well. I have even used my cell phone to capture speeches in Ukrainian, convert to text and translate, impressive the resilience of President Zelensky, when he said that “Ukraine will resist Russia even if it requires all the granola clutches of the alimony people and their courage” .

When voice recognition technology was in its infancy, Motorola released a Windows CE phone that had a revolutionary feature: It was possible to “dial” with voice, without training. They were able to compress the sound wave models of numbers (I used Saint Fourier) and create a generic model that worked very well, but it was still easier to type in the number than to say it out loud.

Today we have virtual assistants everywhere, IVRs that make us hellish in call centers, making it impossible to talk to a human, Siri, Google, Alexa (not you, Cortana) controlling coffee lamps and calendars. Of course, our computers are not as sentient as those of Star Trek, but maybe smarter. I set my Alexa to English, asked to calculate the last digit of Pi, like in the classic scene in Star Trek. She started to calculate, interrupted and replied “aha, nice try, but I already know that Pi is a transcendental number, with no solution”.

4 – Maps and GPS

I’m not going back to the time of the Rex Guide, which everyone had in the glove compartment of the car, let’s just go back to the GPS technology of Garmin handheld devices, which later turned into autonomous guides with digital maps. For the class with less money or looking for more flexibility, there was the possibility of toys like this:

Cute, huh? I refuse to throw it away. (Credit: Personal Archive)

Yes, it’s a GPS receiver, portable, connected via Bluetooth (I said that everything is better with Bluetooth). When properly connected, it does one thing, and well: It sends a stream of geolocation data, telling you where it (thinks) it is. Your cell phone, pc or ICBM is the one that has to turn around, and then the bug would take it.

Some Nokia and Windows Mobile software worked with external GPS, but maps were basic and often non-existent. There was no cloud service with updates, and for us here in the jungle, nothing arrived.

Today we have Waze, Apple Maps, Nokia still (I think) and Google Maps, all with a bunch of features, offline maps (set it up, saves a lot of bandwidth) and routing. We follow the traffic situation in real time, see where our Uber is and find all the bars in the vicinity.

From something relegated to nerds banging their heads with their Nokias and tiny screens, today the technology of mobile maps has extinguished something that happened to me with remarkable frequency: Getting lost visiting another city.

Technologies that have not improved anything

1 – Printers

You can’t talk about bad technology without them. Since the time when dot-matrix printers rolled up paper and ripped the rim (those detachable edges with holes, half bit is also Culture) to modern lasers that tangle paper and require thoracic surgery to remove the obstacle, printers are hell on their own.

I have never, EVER had an inkjet printer that didn’t complain when pulling paper. From the Canon BJ 600 to the Epson I’m using today, they’re all paper fresh. And I’m not even going to get into the field of DRM cartridges and other manufacturers’ marmots.

On the software side, same thing. In the past, you stuck your printer in the parallel port, a basic driver received the data, sent it to hell, the end. Today you have to download a package of hundreds of megabytes, create an online account, cloud services, send your files to Narnia and, hopefully, wait for them to land on your printer.

HP’s installation and configuration service is HORRIBLE, and Epson is not far behind. One uses a web interface that requires some 8 years of experience in Systems Analysis and electronic engineering. The other has a set of drivers worthy of Windows 95. OK, 98.

In prints via WIFI, in 1/3 of the cases, the jobs go to Narnia. Only luckily they arrive at the printer. There the paper holds.

2 – Software Update

In the past this was no problem; all software was pirated, and an update was when a friend brought a newer copy. When we migrated to legality, it became evident that Windows had no update system, even a rudimentary one. It made sense when the internet didn’t exist, but it held up when the world went online. Windows Update emerged as a technology to update system components, but what about user software?

The Microsoft Store promised to be a tool for bundling Windows software, but it just didn’t work out. Windows “Apps” were completely different from native software, development limitations were draconian, and no one adhered.

Patch my PC. Get some but not all updates. (Credit: Internet Reproduction)

The result is that in 2022 you have to rely on apps like Patch My PC to identify and update outdated software. With the aggravating factor that not all installed software is recognized.

Meanwhile, on Linux, updating all installed software boils down to:

sudo pt-get update <enter>
sudo pt-get upgrade <enter>

or you shove it into a CRON, and forget about it.

3 – WIFI routers

WIFI is yet another technology that I (the old man is the mother!) have been following since birth. AH, the first router we never forget, I had a very cheap D-Link. The interface was precarious, but it worked. Over time, more advanced routers and standards emerged, with features like firewalls, DMZs, the excellent MAC ADDRESS protection that no one uses but should, and understandably the services got more complex and complicated.

Projects like the excellent DD-WRT have brought new life to old, unsupported and vulnerable hardware, but like all Open Source applications, the interface is murky. Not that other routers are much better.

This interface is horrendous! (Credit: D-Link)

We ended up in a dilemma: Either the router has a simple and pleasant graphical interface, but which hides most of the useful features, or it has a hideous interface, with thousands of options, that allows complete configuration but completely terrifies the lay user.

Routers lack the refinement that cell phones went through, but who cares about that? That’s left for the nephew to configure everything for R$50.00 plus Uber…

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