“Here lies Edmund Blackadder. And he’s bloody annoyed.”
Tonight I went to see my daughter dance in a show. Also there with me was my ex-wife’s mother, and the chap she married a couple of months ago. So I suppose that would make him my future-step-ex-father-in-law. For simplicity we’ll call him Rowland. Anyway, I wanted to video a particular bit of the show (a bit with Niamh in, obviously) but couldn’t since I was a row or two back, so Rowland did it on his phone. During the interval I said: I’d like that video, and I know Sam* would too because that particular bit wasn’t in last night’s show, which she saw. And Rowland said: OK, how do I get it to you?
Now, this is a modern flagship smartphone he’s holding in his hand, not some ancient Sagem thing with buttons. So I said: just email it to me. How do I do that? he says, and hands me the phone. It turns out that he’s got this phone in order that he can get the football results on it, and to send text messages. Never set up an email account: didn’t even know you could read email on phones. He’s a smart guy; just doesn’t care about the technology, and who can blame him? Still, OK, I’ve got a video on this phone, and I want to get it to me, somehow. We’ve got good internet coverage. So, how do I do it? Guess away!
email it to my own email address: can’t do that, because he hasn’t set up his email account, and I can’t ask him to do so because we’re sitting in the audience of a show and he doesn’t know how anyway.
text it to my phone: nope, video’s too big (40MB or so)
upload it to my Ubuntu One account: before we start here, this is his phone, so I was understandably wary of signing into any of my accounts on it, but since he doesn’t have any of his own accounts set up, perhaps I have no choice. So, reluctantly, I sign into Ubuntu One as myself and try uploading… and the browser crashes. Try it again, crashes again. Hm, thinks I, sounds like we’ve got a bug there. Sign out of U1. What else can I try?
Use some temporary file upload service: ok. How does one find one of these which isn’t just for warez and porn and hooky videos? (You may have noticed that I am living xkcd.com/949/ at this point.) Bit of Googling, and I found one which looked sensible (note: the key trigger word, at least at this point in time, is “html5″; it may get you a bunch of hot air and bullshit from industry analysts, but if a site mentions it then it’s probably relatively modern, at least.) Try uploading (I can’t remember which one I found), and… browser crashes. So it’s not an Ubuntu One problem (phew!), it’s just with file uploading from this browser. Bloody fantastic. What else can I do?
bluetooth it to my phone: tried that, and my phone rejected it but I don’t know why. Can you send 40MB files over Bluetooth? Maybe this is a fault in my phone. Don’t know. Didn’t work. Next attempt.
sign in to my email account and send it to myself: OK. There are three email clients on this phone (three email clients for fuck’s fucking sake!?‽). One of them is a gmail app. I am scared of signing into my gmail account in an official gmail app in case the phone Learns My Account and I can’t remove it easily. Second email app says “Your trial has expired. Please renew your subscription” (honestly? Trialware on a phone? What kind of shitty world do we live in where this is a good idea??). Third email app, I create a new email account which is my gmail account (with fear and trepidation), and try sending an email to myself with the video attached. “Email sending…”, it says, followed by… nothing. No indication that it had worked or had not, except that I had no email (and that there was no way that 40MB had uploaded that fast). Tried it twice; same thing. Delete my email account from crappy email client. Next.
sign into my gmail account in official gmail app: fearful plan, this. Fortunately, it failed early enough that I didn’t have to try; attempting it gives “file too big to attach”. Thanks a fucking bundle, gmail. Oh no wait, no thanks at all. Try something else.
Now somewhat desperate. There is a “flickr” app here. Maybe I can upload the video to my flickr account? Flickr does videos now, I think. Sign in to flickr app with ancient Yahoo ID, video starts uploading! yay! FIFTEEN MINUTES later it gets to 100%, and… then just sits there at 100% without completing. And then it goes back to zero and starts again. It gets to 65% done a second time and then the show ended. Since my only two options were to go home or to throw Rowland’s phone into a volcano and then go home, I gave him back his phone and went home.
We have failed as an industry.
Now, there are those of you reading this and thinking: that wouldn’t have happened if he’d have had this phone or this app or this software or this service. Stop thinking that. This is a guy not interested in technology who bought a flagship internet device and has been appallingly let down by that. How will he be helped by you sneering and using his failure as an excuse to score political points? We’re in this to help users, remember: not just the ones who think as we do, but the ones who rely on us to build things for them because they don’t know what they’re doing. If your response is honestly “well, he should have spent more on a phone to get something better”, then I’m exceedingly disillusioned by you. “The internet brings freedom, but only to rich people”? Really? Is this what the Open Web, the technological revolution is all about? If your answer is “he needs different software”… really? Are we ever going to get past the point where saying “I have a problem” just gets you a hundred responses about how it’s your fault for having picked the wrong computer? We have failed as an industry. If the best we can do is fight amongst ourselves and scratch like cats in a bag then it’s hardly surprising we fail so badly. Then again, perhaps we’re not in this to help people; we’re in this to make money and helping is a sort of epiphenomenon. Some of us may be thinking: a company who builds a product this frustrating will surely be eliminated by the marketplace. Leaving aside for a moment how the tech crowd, normally as liberal a group of people as you might want to meet, become rabid free-market boosters when a product we like becomes popular (football teams have had a chant about this pernicious behaviour for decades now. It goes: you only sing when you’re winning), think about all the people who get inadvertently screwed by this laissez-faire capitalism. Every company who gets “eliminated by the market” still sold a shedload of devices to a shedload of people, and all we have for them is to say “soz, dude, you made the wrong choice, you’ve been eliminated by the market, you are the weakest link, goodbye”? Can’t we do better?
There’s nothing we can do, though! comes the cry. What can we, innocent technical people, do to influence the movements and decisions and marketing and choices and products of some of the largest companies on earth? I don’t know. But take that feeling of helplessness you have right there, and now imagine how helpless you’d feel if you didn’t even understand the technology. That’s how helpless our users are when we get it wrong, or when someone else gets it wrong and instead of helping we tell screwed people that it’s their own fault for buying the blue phone instead of the one we recommended.
Niamh danced superbly, by the way.