Is This Really Progress?

As we wade deeper into digital technology, it’s clear that we’re rocketing forward in one area, while we’re heading backward in another. On one hand, we’re seeing increasingly sophisticated systems, features and capabilities take shape. With some technologies, such as speech and image processing, the advances are profound. On the other hand, many systems and products don’t work right, or the quality is questionable.

Consider this: The music we download doesn’t come close to the audio quality of vinyl or higher-end CDs from decades ago. Movies streaming over Netflix or Amazon don’t compare to Blu-ray DVDs. Even cable TV doesn’t match a high-definition antenna with good reception because the compression affects the video quality.

I recently sampled AT&T’s DirectTVNow service. It seemed promising in terms of channels and pricing. Unfortunately, the picture quality was duller and less sharp than my Comcast reception. I cancelled the service at the end of the trial period.

Recently, I bought a new Fitbit Charge fitness tracker and a new Apple MacBook Pro. The former, while considerably more advanced than a previous device, also gets about half the battery life of the predecessor. The laptop, which sports some very cool innovations—including the new Touch Bar—delivers very disappointing battery life.

But this isn’t even the worst of the problems. 2016 could easily be called “The Year of the Beta.” Dozens upon dozens of products appeared that clearly weren’t ready for primetime.

A sampling includes the Samsung Galaxy Note 7, which included batteries that burst into flames; Tesla’s autopilot feature, which resulted in a fatal crash last May; Samsung washing machines that somehow managed to shake themselves apart; and a litany of other devices—from drones to medical devices—that don’t work the way they should.

For instance, Scanadu, which billed itself as the developer of a “tricorder” device straight out of Star Trek, crashed and burned because the company didn’t obtain FDA approval before releasing the product. As a result, the company has been forced to shut off the $269 devices to comply with federal regulations.

Even worse, Indiegogo investors that dropped about $1.5 million into Scanadu appear to have lost their money. Thus, the firm has a new unofficial hashtag: #Scamadu.

Let’s get one thing clear: We live in an era of unprecedented disruption. Technology is changing at a fast and furious pace, and businesses must keep up.

However, if you can’t get the basics right and produce a decent product, it’s going to cost you a lot more in the long run. Whether you’re building an IT system or a consumer device, it’s wise to focus on quality first and speed second.