Brave new beta world

December 27, 2006

For countless high-tech vets and newbies who are eager to get their paws on Monday's haul of gadgets, this week kicks off the season of the glitch. In truth, it is a season that knows no demarcations on the calendar and has no natural cycle, although it experiences a burst of momentum - usually demonstrated by the pulling of hair and muttering of profanities - every late December. And it is the only time of year that adds a fourth query to mankind's enduring search for cosmic answers: What are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? And why doesn't this thing work like it's supposed to?

According to some reports, Americans are expected to spend more than $20 billion this quarter on such digital-age products as MP3 players, flat-screen TVs, filmless cameras, computers, cell phones, software and games. Consumers demand - and are willing to pay for - more megapixels, higher resolutions, faster downloads, broader bands and smarter drives. And they're getting it.

But the costs cannot be measured by dollars alone. Manufacturers eager to grab a bigger share of the market have helped create a new glossary that should serve both as a caveat and a mea culpa: blue screen of death, backward incompatibility, system crash, patches. All are geekish terms that point to the same problem - the product wasn't perfected before it was put on the store shelf. The high-tech industry is beta testing its wares on the public.

Microsoft Corp. continues to be the easiest target to criticize. Independent technicians already have raised serious doubts about the security of Vista, the new computer operating system scheduled to succeed Windows XP, which required PC owners to download two major service packs just to get their machines working as they should have in the first place.

But software giants aren't the only offenders. Reputable camera-makers acknowledge that some of their best-selling models have component defects or image-banding problems. Sony recently issued a global recall of faulty laptop batteries. Apple's enormously successful iPod - can 70 million buyers be wrong? - had its own battery issues and a cottage industry has sprung up just to repair the devices. Wii, Nintendo's much-anticipated game system, arrived with wrist straps that can break when used vigorously. The company is offering strap replacements. But shouldn't its own testing have identified this risk? We wonder how many new flat screens now have newer dings in them.

A current TV commercial features a celebrity announcing that she is smitten with a widescreen video image displayed in 1080i, a high-definition mode. "I totally don't know what that means, but I want it," she says somewhat dimwittedly. Unfortunately, that's just how too many in the consumer electronics field want you to think, too.

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