Sometimes I really wonder about my career choice. In Seattle this week for Microsoft's annual Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) tradeshow—which is exactly as exciting as it sounds—I'm struck by the irony of technology. The makers of new technology constantly promise that it will change your life, only to ship an underwhelming product that, in fact, changes very little. And then, a year later, a bigger and better version of that product fixes some of the problems from the previous version. And the promises begin anew.
As a technology journalist, I get caught up in this cycle. I have to live on the burning edge simply so that I can write about this stuff. WinHEC is all about the promise of technology. But at this year's show, the failed promises of the past came crashing down around me and all the others who attended. And I'm beginning to wonder if there isn't some happy medium between my current lifestyle and that of a Luddite. The burning edge is starting to singe my perspective.
Déjà Vu All Over Again
Here's what happened. At last year's WinHEC 2004, Microsoft showed off its Longhorn OS and made promises about shipping it in late 2005. It showed off hardware advances, such as auxiliary displays for notebooks and Tablet PCs that would let you access email, calendar, digital music, and other services while the machine was closed and powered down. The company touted small-form-factor Tablet PCs that would straddle the increasingly blurred line between PDAs and ultra portable notebook computers.
Flash forward to this year's WinHEC 2005. Longhorn is in complete disarray and in danger of collapsing under its own weight: Since WinHEC 2004, Microsoft hasn't shipped a single public beta release of the product, which is now delayed until late 2006. Now, we get a new build of Longhorn, finally, but it's surprisingly similar to the version we got last year. In fact, it's almost less exciting, because it looks more like the existing Windows version—Windows XP—than the year-ago version did. You can literally see the backtracking.
Microsoft once again showed off auxiliary displays and small-form-factor Tablet PCs. Neither technology is any closer to shipping: They're expected to show up in late 2006—yep, about the same time frame as Longhorn—which means we might be lucky enough to see them again at WinHEC 2006 next spring. You know, if I actually show up for that one.
In my past life as a public speaker, I used to quip, "Technology has never failed me"—a line I'd deliver when some piece of technology was indeed failing me. It's funny only because all of us have experienced the TV recording that didn't record, the microwave oven that didn't cook, or the car that didn't start. Technology fails us all the time. My goal is to find technology that doesn't fail, or at least fails infrequently. Sometimes I feel like I'm just running in circles. It's not a good feeling.