Magid: Devices, services too dependent on smartphones

Magid: Devices, services too dependent on smartphones

Two of the many things about modern technology that I find annoying are devices that require you to use a remote control for basic operations and devices and services that unnecessarily require you to use a smartphone app.

Larry Magid 

Many modern TVs have no obvious way to do basic tasks such as adjusting the volume or changing channels unless you have the remote control. Even if they have a power switch, it’s sometimes hidden from view and poorly marked, making it very difficult to find and use.

Having to use a remote control is fine if it’s in your hand and working, but if you can’t find it or the battery is dead, you’re out of luck. This is almost always the case with cable boxes and streaming devices. I recently lost the remote control on one of my Roku boxes and had to wait until I ordered a replacement remote before I could use it. Even then, it took me awhile to figure out how to pair the new remote with the device.  It seems to me that any of these devices could at least have a couple of buttons on them that let you display a menu on the TV screen to change channels or – at least – pair a new remote control.

Smartphone not optional

Over the past few years, I’ve encountered many devices and services that require you to use a smartphone. Many so-called smart home devices, including smart speakers like Amazon Echo and Google Home, require a smartphone for setup and to change settings. Although it’s possible to drive a Tesla without a smartphone, it’s very inconvenient.  You do get a card key that will unlock the door and let you drive the car, and it’s great that you don’t even need to use that card if you have your phone with you. But I wish it were at least possible to unlock the front trunk or the charging port from outside the car without having to use your phone.  A few months ago, I was sitting at a Starbucks in Menlo Park when a young woman with a toddler desperately asked me if I had an iPhone charger. Instead of giving this nanny a key card, her boss installed the Tesla app on her phone, but her phone battery died so she couldn’t unlock or start the car. Luckily there was someone at the coffee shop with an iPhone charger.

Another issue I’ve encountered is having my phone ring while I’m using my phone to configure or unlock something. I can either ignore the call or stop what I’m doing, but can’t do both.

Last week my wife and I watched a movie at the Icon theater in Mountain View, and while use of a phone is optional, patrons are required to at least use a touch-screen terminal for any purchases. My wife found this out when she tried to order popcorn from the counter and was so annoyed that she decided to skip the salty snack.  I went ahead and ordered it myself, but then immediately went into the bathroom to wash my hands, not knowing whether someone with a cold or flu had used the same screen before I did. The least they could do is have a nearby Purell dispenser.

Lyft and Uber also depend on the use of a smartphone, which is a real problem for people who need to get around and either don’t have a smartphone or aren’t comfortable using it. It’s also a major problem for anyone whose battery dies before they need to order a car. I think of that when I’m out and about. One evening when my battery was getting low, I turned off my phone hours before I needed to get a ride out of fear that the battery would be dead by the time I needed it.   On a couple of occasions, I’ve used my smartphone to hail a ride for a friend or relative who didn’t have a working phone.

Uber to the rescue

Uber is finally starting to do something to at least mitigate this problem.  The company is piloting a dial-up service in Florida and Arizona (two states with a lot of older residents) where you can call 1-833-USE-UBER from any cell phone, including an old fashioned one. I was able to call that number from a landline, but the operator confirmed that you need a cell phone to book a ride, because they need to be able to send you text messages.

Still, it’s a big step in the right direction. There are a lot of people, especially seniors and children, who have cell phones that aren’t smartphones. I hope they do expand it nationwide and that Lyft adds the service as well.  While it’s true that most Uber and Lyft users will likely never have to call in, there are plenty of people who would take advantage of the ability to get a ride without having to depend on a smartphone. I would like to see them go even further and let you book a ride from any type of phone. As nervous as I am about suggesting more government regulation, I would consider that a reasonable condition to impose on these services for the right to operate in some jurisdictions.

I love the fact that we can use our phones to do things we could never do before, and I agree they can be more convenient than remote controls, physical keys or even buttons. But I still want the option to do things “the old fashion way,” when more modern technology is unavailable, inconvenient or out of commission. At the very least, services and devices that require a smartphone should also have a web interface – which can sometimes be a lot easier to use, especially if you’re already sitting at a PC or Mac.

Larry Magid is a tech journalist and internet safety activist.

Published at Fri, 14 Feb 2020 12:30:54 +0000