Why is it that we can put a man on the Moon, but we can’t figure out how to screen jet passengers without making everyone take their shoes off?
Well, the truth is, we can’t even put a man on the Moon—not anymore. It’s not a technical impossibility, but reconstituting the technologies that helped a dozen astronauts go moonwalking between 1969 and 1972 would cost hundreds of billions of dollars. The problem stopped being important to us even before the Apollo program was over, so we lost the capability.
There are many other technology problems that seem to have receded in importance, in the sense that we’ve given up hoping for progress or new ideas. Even though millions of people feel the pain from these annoyances daily, nobody is attending to the technologies that would be needed to bring about improvements. So it’s as if we’re characters in the 1985 Terry Gilliam sci-fi classic Brazil, struggling with a wheezy patchwork of old and new technologies, analog and digital, wired and wireless. The 20th century clings to us by a thousand sticky tendrils.
Today I have five particular problems in mind, most of them having to do with the way we share and manage information. Solving any one of these long-neglected challenges could bring a huge payoff for a suitably clever startup founder. Entrepreneurs, are you listening? (While you’re at it, I’d sure appreciate the option to keep my shoes on in the TSA line.)
1. Terrible Teleconferences
If your company or its customers are geographically distributed, you’ve undoubtedly spent many miserable hours dialed into teleconference lines. This technology’s shortcomings are legion: You have to call a 10-digit phone number and then remember and key in a special code. Even if you get the code right, it’s hit-or-miss whether you’ll actually get connected to the right room. The audio quality within the conferences is usually terrible. Participants come and go without warning. There are no user-friendly tools for managing or identifying who’s speaking, so participants have to develop workarounds like re-introducing themselves every time they talk.
In short, it’s a 1970s experience from beginning to end. Modern alternatives like Google Hangouts require too much extra equipment. What’s needed is a solution that provides Skype-quality audio and some kind of management interface, but still works with the existing phone system, especially smartphones.
2. Unsearchable Audio
As I noted a few weeks ago, we’re in the midst of an unprecedented boom in great audio programming. Most of today’s best shows are available in podcast form, even if they were originally produced for broadcast on the radio. But audio storytelling still feels like a niche art form for the NPR crowd. It never goes viral at the level of a Grumpy Cat or a Charlie Bit My Finger, partly because—as Stan Alcorn pointed out in this brilliant piece at Digg—the technology just doesn’t allow it. Despite years of work at companies like RAMP (fka EveryZing, fka Podzinger), audio is hard for search engines to index, so podcast content doesn’t show up very prominently on Google. On top of that, podcasts are too hard to publish, too hard to download, and too hard to pass along.
The solution would be something like a YouTube for audio. Berlin-based SoundCloud is going in that direction. Its audio player is as easy to embed in a blog post as a YouTube video. But SoundCloud is optimized mainly for music listeners, not fans of spoken-word audio. What I’d love to see is a simple app that lets listeners extract short snippets from audio shows and share them directly on Facebook or Twitter, without having to learn audio editing techniques or think about the underlying player technology.
3. Excruciating E-mail
Earlier this month I published a piece called The Future of Work, Plus or Minus E-mail. I took a deep look at e-mail’s shortcomings as a tool for knowledge workers, and investigated four newer ways of packaging up communication about work: Asana-style task lists, Box-style document sharing, Tempo-style smart calendars, and Yammer-style news feeds. In the end I concluded that e-mail isn’t going away. Even if these newer systems capture information inside organizations, it’s still the connective tissue between organizations. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep working to make e-mail better. I wrote about one startup, Handle, that’s working on the problem, principally by building a task-list manager into a classic e-mail client, with a heavy dose of keyboard shortcuts.
This is an area where we need all the innovation we can get. There’s lots of experimentation right now at the level of client interface design—I’m thinking of mobile apps like Mailbox or Paperfold. But I’d really love to see someone blow up the whole notion of the inbox and rethink what it means to send, receive, or store an e-mail message.
For example, a great e-mail management program would have enough smarts to keep important e-mails in my face where I can’t forget about them, rather than letting them get pushed down the list by newer, less important messages. Or maybe it would automatically convert some of my incoming messages into to-do list items. Or maybe it could even send automatic yet customized replies to unimportant messages. (In my journalistic work, I’ve found that I can reply to 80 percent of my e-mail using just six or seven templates, but I have to do the cut-and-paste work myself.)
I don’t know what the answer is. I just know e-mail is still very broken.
4. A/V Amateur Hour
At almost every public talk or panel discussion I’ve ever attended or been involved in, a microphone goes dead or causes ear-splitting feedback, or a presenter with PowerPoint slides has to fumble for five minutes to get his laptop connected to the projector. These glitches are so common that when they don’t happen, I personally congratulate the A/V technicians afterward and get their contact information so I know how to obtain their services in the future.
The needed invention here is probably some kind of software-driven system that forms temporary wireless links between all of the input devices in a room (microphones, laptops, clickers) and all of the output devices (loudspeakers and projectors) and plays traffic cop, automatically assigning the right-of-way to whomever needs to speak or present. That shouldn’t be too hard, right?
5. Time Zone Terrors
The world is divided into 24 time zones, but most calendar software today seems to be built around the assumption that we’ll spend all our time in just one of them. When you’re traveling, there’s no easy, automatic way to make sure that the meetings you set up while you were in one time zone show up in the appropriate time slot once you get to the next one.
If we all had just one device to store our schedules, this wouldn’t be such a hard problem to fix. You’d specify the time zone for each meeting on your agenda, and when you traveled across zones, the calendar software would adapt to local time and shift the meeting into the correct slot. The problem is that these days, most people’s calendars live in the cloud, and have to be updated across multiple devices. I still haven’t figured out how to get my Mac, my iPhone, and my iPad to show the same events at the same times when I travel. At least one of these devices always gets it wrong, which puts the mental burden of tracking the real time for each meeting back on me.
I’m not a software engineer, so I don’t have a concrete proposal for fixing the time zone problem. (Maybe we should follow China’s lead: the country is large enough to span three or four time zones, but in fact has only one, Beijing Standard Time.) All I know is that the first calendar maker to get this right will win my undying loyalty.
* * *
Einstein said, “The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them.” He was probably talking about lofty things like world peace, but I suspect it’s also true of more mundane problems like teleconferencing, podcasts, e-mail, A/V technology, and calendars. It’s time to rethink each of these technologies from the ground up, rather than limping along with our 20th century solutions. That’s what startups are supposed to do. So get busy, dammit!
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