Latest tech gadgets likely to have bugs

First in line for hottest new digital devices wind up becoming unpaid `beta testers'

December 23, 2006|By Dawn C. Chmielewski | Dawn C. Chmielewski,Los Angeles Times

Tyson J. Carter slept through a hailstorm as he camped outside a Target store to nab a PlayStation 3 last month.

But the deluge of woe began when he got Sony Corp.'s $600 video game console home.

The system crashed repeatedly when the 19-year-old tried to adjust the music settings. Others complain that some games from earlier generations of the console did not run properly. And the high-definition picture promised by the PS3 doesn't work on some older televisions.

"I'm not surprised," said Carter, a student of multimedia design who lives in Pittsburgh. "Most first-generation systems tend to have problems. Even though there should be no excuses for putting out a system with problems."

In tech, first is best -- but not necessarily better.

Manufacturers racing to win fickle but influential early adopters often deliver products not quite ready for market. The thinking is that kinks can be worked out while the product builds buzz. For their part, those who stand in line to get the latest gadgetry expect a degree of annoyance.

Sometimes, though, bugs are so persistent and pronounced that they become the buzz.

"You build the plane in the air," said Mark Rolston, a senior vice president at Frog Design Inc. in San Francisco, a consulting firm that specializes in business strategy and product design. The technology industry has "built an unfortunate habit of launching these products as they're constructing them."

Sony said only a tiny fraction of buyers had complained about PS3 glitches and it noted that the company offered a downloadable software patch to correct known problems.

Sony rival Nintendo Co. also has had issues with its Wii console.

One of the most popular videos on YouTube during Thanksgiving week depicted a defective Wii making an odd grinding noise as it repeatedly ejected a game disc without playing it. And the company offered to replace the wrist strap on the device's remote control amid reports of it flying out of gamers' hands and smashing into television sets.

Even industries that test products for years before unveiling them are susceptible to first-generation bugs -- in large part because of the technology that permeates daily life.

European luxury automaker BMW's techno-dabbling resulted in the iDrive. Introduced with the 7 Series in 2002, it attempted to do away with the clutter of in-dash buttons that controlled climate, entertainment and navigation and replace them with a single dial. Its seemingly simple interface required scrolling through multiple LCD screens to change a radio station.

"All of what we call the human-machine interface implications hadn't been worked out," said Eric Noble, president of CarLab, an automotive product planning and design firm in Orange, Calif. "What they, in fact, created was a system that was so complicated that consumers actually take their life in their hands to change the radio station."

Even Segway, the futuristic two-wheeled people mover introduced with great fanfare in 2001, was the subject of a federal government recall in September because of a software glitch that could cause riders to be thrown off. The recall affects all 23,500 sold in the United States.

Glitches are partly a byproduct of the technology industry's heritage. Software developers long relied on the tacit knowledge of early adopters, who recognize that a product is incomplete and that they are, in effect, unpaid "beta testers," or those whose job it is to identify bugs.

Consumer electronics giants such as Sony would test-market devices in Akihabara, Tokyo's electronics district, among the hacker elite, who willingly cope with glitches for the privilege of having a product that might never make it into the mainstream.

"This one executive referred to Akihabara as their Wailing Wall," said Paul Saffo, a Silicon Valley technology forecaster. "They'd throw products against it, and mostly they'd cry. There has always been a bond between the earliest adopters and the industry."

Add to these industry practices release dates for the PlayStation 3 or Microsoft's Xbox 360 that are dictated not by how long it would take engineers to refine these high-end graphics processing systems but by marketing considerations.

Manufacturers need to make a big splash during the holiday season to be successful. And retailers need assurance that they'll have something to sell that gets customers waiting all night outside the door before they'll allocate shelf space.

"You essentially have a countdown," Rolston, the consultant, said. "Whether you're ready or not, you've made commitments to the market."

Glitches have become a familiar feature in the software industry. Sometimes, the bugs are so numerous that they devour the product -- as was the case with Microsoft's Windows Me (the late 2000 operating system detractors referred to as the "Mistake Edition."

Dubbed one of the worst tech products of all time by PC World, it was the first operating system to support universal plug and play.

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