The Terribly Fragmented State of Technology Standards
You have probably realized this by now. “Interoperability” — the ability of disparate systems to exchange information between one another — in the technology industry is being eclipsed over by the shadow of walled gardens and ranging inconsistencies. Whether it’s hardware or software, standards across different vendors have not seen a worse time than today.
It’s been a rather eventful past few years for technology. Not only did a lot of products and software categories underwent a dramatic overhaul, but various new ones have also spawned to dominate the landscape and present the next chapter of our digital lives. Almost each one of these has brought their own set of incongruities as the scarcity of a common approach continues to haunt the industry. Various companies have even come up in recent times which solely aim to fix these irregularities. Andy Rubin’s Essential, for instance, wants to unify smart home products and eliminate the incompatibility between different platforms by Google, Apple, and Amazon.
Behind the aegis of promises such as a true wireless future, one port for everything, better and richer technologies, companies have made inexplicable compromises without proper measures and consideration of the rest of the user experience. In an attempt to outpace others and expand their portfolios rapidly to match the industry’s pace, these conglomerates have consciously or unconsciously contrived an irrevocable estate of walled gardens.
The Type-C Drama
USB Type-C is undoubtedly the most suitable epitome of this conundrum. A better part of the hardware market has indeed accepted this standard for their premier products. However, it’s yet to reach the lower end segment and categories apart from phones or laptops. And as you would guess, until it reaches the entry-level price bracket, its chances of becoming mainstream are years away from reality.
Google, for instance, has added a USB Type-C port on its new Pixelbook and Pixel phones. But there’s still a MicroUSB port on the Google Home Mini. Now, I’m sure there’s a good possibility Type-C ports bring higher costs and supply chain issues, but for how long? It’s been quite awhile since Type-C has entered the market.
In the previous scenario, the product with a MicroUSB port had a drastic price difference. But what about companies which have implemented their own standards like Apple? The company’s latest line of MacBooks features Type-C ports. However, the iPhone still rocks a Lightning I/O. Apple apparently encountered a few production hurdles with Type-C, but in that case, I feel they also should have held off adding these new ports on the MacBook as well. If you are someone who has invested in Apple’s new products, you would know how dreadfully inconvenient this situation can be. And in case Apple decides to bring Type-C to the next iPhone, all your current cables will go kaput. So, yeah, not a thoughtfully planned out execution.
In addition to these obstructions, USB Type-C is itself sort of a mess. The concept was supposed to be as simple as one-port-for-everything. But in the past year or so, a myriad of extensions have come up to make things even worse. Despite aesthetic similarities, not USB-C cables and ports behave the same. Some are video-only, some may or may not support power delivery, then there’s Apple’s version of Thunderbolt (what the hell, Apple?!), you get the idea. Long story short — we are miles away from the original dream Type-C was pledged with.
To Wire Up or Not is the Question
That was just about Type-C. Let’s now discuss the slow demise of the headphone jack. Yes, the 3.5mm headphone port has now been axed from every other flagship phone. Good. But why? Better audio performance? Perhaps. But LG V30 still has one, and it produces substantially more superior audio than others. And yet, looks as premium and appealing as the rest. Maybe manufacturers do this for achieving thinner designs? Probably not. Take the iPhone 7, or you can say the phone responsible for this aggressive trend, for instance. It literally has the same dimensions as the iPhone 6S which had the headphone jack.
Yes, the removal of headphone jack will push us closer to the wireless future. But is that really the only reason companies are bringing it to their flagships? Or is it because they just want people to invest in yet another product — wireless earphones. We will never know. However, the only thing I’m saying here is that they should have at least come up with better reasons to justify the shift. In addition to that, this transition suffers from the same impediments Type-C does — absence in the lower end market.
Huawei recently unveiled its gorgeous new set of Mate 10 phones. But only the Mate 10 Pro lacked a standard 3.5mm port; others didn’t. Such incoherency only makes situations worse. OEMs need to understand axing this beautiful little port is not just about pride and catching up to what the folks in Cupertino are up to. While we’re on this topic, I should get this out there as well — I believe until Bluetooth reaches the plug-and-plug convenience of headphone jacks, they shouldn’t be discarded. But I suppose it’s late to say that, right?
Then there are the displays. The bezel-less trend has led to aspect ratios for which content is not optimized yet. This irregularity, however, will evaporate rapidly as OEMs continue to add 18:9 phones to their lineup. Almost every other flagship already has it, and a few budget ones feature it as well. We are expecting a range of notable upgrades in the next few months such as the highly rumored Redmi Note 5.
Hardware is just one part of this state. The software is where companies have been attempting to establish a more idiosyncratic environment of their services in the past year or so.
Whiskey on one, Orange Juice on Another
Take emojis, for example. Everyone has their own set of these little characters now. Even WhatsApp had to come up with a custom pack because OEMs are unable to settle on one. Furthermore, Apple announced something called “Animoji” with the iPhone X. Yes, I know it makes use of the phone’s sensors to achieve that kind of modeling, but all I am saying is at least allow users to share a GIF of it. Is that too much to ask for? You can obviously argue that there was never a standard for emojis. But before, it was different, for instance, on iOS and Android. Now, you won’t even find the same set of emojis on a Samsung phone and a Google Pixel.
Speaking of GIF, everyone seems to have their own standard for that as well. Okay, not everyone. I am just talking about features like Apple’s Live Photos and Google’s Motion Shots. Both of them yield little moving photos of your moments. The former of these is only compatible with Apple products unless you install a third-party app. And the latter? It’s actually an extended “.jpeg” format. Fortunately, though, Motion Shots can be exported in a few other widely accepted standards with the Google Photos app.
Apple has been, however, always known for isolating their features in walled gardens. Their new file system has already managed to create havoc as users struggle with running their non-updated apps and share files with others.
Compatibility across disparate smart home platforms is another concern that needs immediate action. Unless the product manufacturer enables support for multiple voice assistants, you are mostly restricted to just one portion of the market. You can, of course, talk to these devices individually but where’s the fun in that? Options will always be available; it’s largely about companies finding a fine line between user experience and promoting their own services.
I’m not expecting companies to, however, improve situations when it comes to the software. Almost every leading OEM is now trying to cut off as many as dependencies as possible on other manufacturers and service providers. Hardware, on the other hand, will eventually come together. We can safely say headphone jacks and standard 16:9 displays will soon become obsolete. As far as USB Type-C is concerned, it will take at least a few more quarters before its availability extends beyond the premium market.