Why not give users what they want?

Common-sense features are often missing in glitzy products

Flashy new technology always gets attention. But after the chatter fades, users are often left with frustration over products' failure to do basic, common-sense functions.

I was reminded of this widespread phenomenon last week when Toshiba's Digital Products Division announced what they call "Sleep-and-Charge USB Ports." Basically, Toshiba will sell laptops that charge your USB gadgets while the laptops are in "sleep" or "hibernate" mode.

Wow! What a spectacularly unspectacular, but welcome, feature! Toshiba actually noticed that travelers often need to charge mobile phones and other devices all night, but don't want to leave their laptops running. Why didn't USB charging work like this from the get-go? And why are so many high-visibility products missing seemingly simple and basic features?

Massive companies like Intel and Microsoft have been investing millions to develop fantastic ultraportable devices, called Ultra Mobile PCs. Dozens of companies have poured their engineering and manufacturing prowess into building mini-PCs that can run Windows Vista, and do all kinds of amazing things.

However, while these sophisticated devices were failing miserably in the market, along comes Asustek, a company most people hadn't ever heard of, with a cheap little US$300-$500 mini laptop with a minimal but functional install of Linux. The Asus Eee PC is dominating the market. Why? Because it just works. And it's cheap. That's all they had to do. That's all users ever wanted. Nothing fancy.

So many offerings in technology simply don't pass the common sense test. Here's my semi-random list of bleeding-edge products and services that are missing some obvious features or functions.

Gmail. Google's April Fool's joke this year was a fake feature called Gmail Custom Time, which would let you send e-mail to the past. Just set the time, say, to a year ago, and the e-mail would go back in time to the user-configured arrival time. The joke wasn't funny, though, because it highlights Gmail's inability to choose the time of delivery for e-mails into the future, a standard and easy-to-implement feature found on desktop rivals like Outlook. Choosing a future date to send e-mails lets you forward e-mail to yourself to be dealt with later, or set up nag e-mails for colleagues at the time you ask them to do something. You can set it and forget it. Gmail really should have this.

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Mike Elgan

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