To make an electronics company, you need a lot of people: executives, managers, accountants, marketing, manufacturing, and on and on. But somewhere inside that cloud of administration, there are always a few anonymous geniuses, the heart of the company, the ones who keep the whole thing going: the people who actually come up with the ideas.
How do they do it? How do they come up with enough new features to keep us excited, year after year?
I don’t know how they usually do it, but I know how they should do it: by crowdsourcing. Thousands of times a day, all over the world, ordinary people remark, in restaurants or offices or living rooms, “You know what cellphones really need?” — and never suspect that they’ve just struck commercial gold.
In September, ’tis the season for tech companies to roll out their new iPods, new cameras, new everything, in hopes of kicking off lucrative holiday sales. And to celebrate the new products, and to give those tech-company idea makers a head start for next year, I’m pleased to present the results of the first Pogue Tech-Idea Crowdsourcing Exercise.
I asked my Twitter followers for their best tech-product enhancement ideas. They responded wittily, passionately — and immediately (this is Twitter, after all).
Now, a huge percentage of the wished-for features already exist. Dozens of people wished for cameras that could beam photos to the Web wirelessly (yours can, if you buy an EyeFi memory card). Many imagined cellphones that wouldn’t ring during certain hours, or that could send certain callers directly to voice mail (yours can, if you sign up for Google Voice).
A lot of people wished they could make a cellphone beep loudly when it’s lost somewhere in the house (the iPhone does that, if you’re a MobileMe subscriber).
Maybe a couple of the ideas below already exist somewhere, too; if so, apologies. (What do I look like — a tech expert?)
All right then: let the Twitterfest of fresh ideas begin!
The first thing everybody pines for is better service. But the second-place wish list is all over the map. Here are my favorites, complete with the Twitter names of their inventors.
“Self-charging cell batteries that charge through kinetic motion as you walk around.” (Narniaexpert) Hey, yeah! Wristwatches do it — why not cellphones?
“I’d love a cellphone that is 100 percent waterproof. I’ve lost several to the washing machine and toilet!” (passepartout)
“A display that shows if you’re calling someone with the same carrier, thereby making it a free call.” (ottoolah)
“When you need to step out of a meeting, a button that answers the call with a message that ‘this person will be with you shortly...’ ” (bonnyface)
“Being able to turn off the annoying ‘low battery’ warnings. I got it the first 10 times, but I’m not near the charger!” (micahherstand)
“Flip-out charging prongs, so you can charge it anywhere there’s an outlet. No need to carry cords/chargers.” (betaboy78)
“Automatic shock feature, like invisible dog fencing, for people who ignore NO CELLPHONE signs in public places!” (FastFoodMom)
“A special detector that helps you avoid run-ins with iPhone snobs.” (larrybehrens)
“Breathalyzer built into the mouthpiece. Prohibits drunk-dialing after you hit a specified limit.” (jesssteyers) To which AmericaTerror responded: “Then how would you call a cab?!”
And my favorite, from someone who’s clearly seen too many sci-fi movies: “Poor-quality, blue-tinted hologram conferencing.” (kbranch)
Predictably, what most people crave in home theater is simplification. Get rid of the cables. Make the remote easier. But some of their other ideas were juicy, too:
“A TV that displays network logos only when I’m channel-surfing. I can turn the logo off (or on) once I find a show to watch.” (hughesviews)
“Separate volume controls for dialogue and background noise/soundtrack.” (molliejoan1)
“Choose your transition between channel change. Cube effect, slide, mosaic, etc.” (kellycroy)
“Use your hand as the remote — the TV recognizes your gestures. No more searching for lost remotes!” (renzoroni)
“Like that Fly Clear airport program: If we get preapproval by giving fingerprints, iris scan, or our firstborn child, we can skip F.B.I. warning on movies.” (hughesviews)
“Spray-on sticky floor coating, for that authentic experience!” (ColinDabritz)
“GPS for the remote, and mute button for the kids.” (larrybehrens)
This was the year of camera specialization: high-speed models from Casio, low-light models from Sony and Fuji, dual-screen models from Samsung. But the following ideas would be cheap, practical and popular:
“A pop-out U.S.B. connector to download your photos, like the one on the Flip camcorder.” (vidiot_) (This is my favorite idea of all.)
“Retractable, self-storing tripod legs.” (spaceace83 and others)
“Voice recognition. I should be able to tell my camera what to do. Enough with endless menus!” (argosan) And, as Narniaexpert added: “Also, with voice recognition, you could prop up the camera, get in the photo, and when everyone says ‘Cheese,’ it’ll take the picture.”
“Sharing photos with friends as soon as the pic is taken.” (Gokul685) Actually, Fujifilm sold a couple of models that could exchange photos wirelessly, but of course, only with each other.
“Rate photos (thumbs up/down) while viewing on the camera. This would aid later sorting and pruning on the computer.” (barrybrown)
“A warning when your thumb is in the way of the lens!” (trainman74)
There were common threads on the twitterers’ suggestions for laptops. They included touch screens (coming this fall with Windows 7), detachable screens (already available on Windows convertible laptops) and self-adjusting time zones (already on Snow Leopard Mac laptops).
But the biggest irritations are chargers and charging.
“Built-in solar panels.” (rkarolius) To which 2rz responded: “Or at least standardize laptop chargers, so that hotels/conference rooms can stock them for travelers.”
“Wireless power! Enough with the batteries and cords and chargers!” (argosan)
“Small, attached, retractable power cord that I can extend/lock, then recoil automatically with a button.” (JonHenke)
“A carrying handle, like on the old iBook — but it holds battery to increase use time.” (D_Chan)
“Built-in high-def projectors: watch a movie in bed on your ceiling.” (eddiepro)
“Bidirectional U.S.B. ports: doesn’t matter which way you put the plug in, up or down.” (shamroc34)
“Easy-to-pop-out keyboard grid to enable users to dump out crumbs.” (EllenSchendel)
“Gesture detection, via camera: wave your hand in the air to turn a page, trash a file, etc.” (macdac) But Gracels wasn’t so sure: “Gesture detection? I could delete all my files in one heated conversation. Have pity on Italians!”
“Can’t we have a keyboard that splits and lifts for ergonomic comfort?” (juliegomoll) And a reply from jmproffitt: “Splits and lifts? Are we talking about a laptop keyboard or a new bra?”
“A button labeled, ‘Push here when all else fails!’ ” (rylanhamilton)
You might think that iPods and their ilk have too many features already, but the Twitter gang thinks there’s still room for improvement:
“Karaoke mode.” (zigziggityzoo) But a caution from Whirledworld: “Karaoke mode MUST be disabled on airplanes!”
“Synchronize music beat to my running/walking. Play music slightly faster if I need to run faster.” (barrybrown)
“Music players should be able to identify a song playing in the room, like what Shazam does on the iPhone.” (@SeB_or_Sam)
“Why doesn’t someone give us an audio TiVo? Record and replay live radio, and pause or fast-forward?” (hughesviews)
“Group listening mode. Through Bluetooth, you can share your music stream with your friends at close range.” (shannonmelton)
“Super-Genius mode: If you keep skipping the same type of song, the player learns you’re not in the mood.” (Joethewalrus)
And finally, this suggestion: “After an hour of continuous play, it tells you to put the earbuds away and go be social with an actual person.” (MisterRoo)
Good idea, MisterRoo. In fact, maybe they should build that feature into every electronic gadget.
David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: firstname.lastname@example.org.