Geek News

Progress is a funny thing.

Technology available to us today is quite incredible, but sometimes it’s just not enough. As new technology appears we go through a couple of phases. First we’re amazed. “Wow I can talk to someone the other side of the world while I’m strolling down the street! Cool this little box tells me exactly how to get to grandmas … it actually talks to me! Online maps are just fantastic … I can actually see photographs of the streets!”

Step two is when we start to get impatient.

Yes, cell phones are great, but how often do you hear people screaming at them because the signal keeps dropping? GPS devices are very cool, but critics often whine that they sometimes take us the wrong way. As for online maps they are truly fantastic, but – well I’ll get to that in a moment.

I’m as guilty as anyone of the impatience factor, but hearing people curse their cell phones when the signal drops is amusing. When I was a kid a lot of my friends didn’t have phones in their homes – let alone in their pockets – and now you can make calls from almost anywhere. Yet it’s not enough. We don’t just want this amazing ability – we want it to work every time we try it. Not just 90 percent of the time, not 95 percent. We want it all the time.

Technology impatience is clearest with new computers. Your new computer’s speed is like new-car smell. It’s something that says to your unconscious, “This is brand new, isn’t it nice?”

Your new computer is fast, everything seems to work more quickly than the old one, and it just flashes along at a rapid clip. However, six months later you’re tapping the table in impatience, waiting for the stupid thing to hurry up and get things done. This is a technology rule: No matter how much time a new technology saves you, if you are removed from a task and forced to wait for the machine to do its work, it’s never quick enough.

Right now I’m in two minds about online mapping. It’s a wonderful thing but with a few unnecessary irritations. For instance, try to find a restaurant on a map close to your current location. It should be a simple task, but until very recently the major mapping sites made a real mess of it.

Yahoo! (maps.yahoo.com) was best until a few months ago. Display your location on the map, type “restaurant” in the “Find a Business” box, and. Yahoo! shows a bunch of little orange flags close to your location – each indicating an eatery. Click on a flag, and a little box opens up showing information about the business. This used to work quite well until recently. Now – at least in the Firefox browser – the box that pops up has an irritating tendency to open under other objects and disappear when you try to move it.

Let’s assume you can get the box to open properly. Click the “More Info” link in the box, and what happens? Another browser tab opens at that point. It took Yahoo!’s programmers a year or more to figure that out. Until a few weeks ago clicking the link would close the box and load information about the restaurant in the same window as the map. Every time you want to view details and then return to the map the entire stupid thing had to reload. It was such a basic usability bug – you’d think it would be fixed quicker than the year (or two) it took.

Why did they fix it? Perhaps because MSN’s programmer’s got it right first. At live.maps.com this whole restaurant thing works very smooth. It has a much better categorization system. You can browse specifically, lets say Caribbean Restaurants, and the boxes stay open properly. Clicking the link opens another window and leaves the map in place ready for you to check another business.

In recent weeks much of my irritation related to finding businesses on maps has been relieved since the programming has improved.

I’ve been using driving direction tools a lot, and there’s much room for improvement. Google has problems printing routes on maps, and makes it hard to match direction instructions with the location on the map. I’m hoping Google programmer’s look at MSN’s maps, which use reference numbers so you can find each described turn on the map. MSN also has printing problems: Size the map on the screen, print it out, and the north and south parts of the route are truncated.

Online mapping is truly amazing. If they can just knock off the rough edges I can stop complaining and start enjoying.

Peter Kent is an e-commerce consultant in Denver. He’s currently working with e-book software company DNAML, www.DNAML.com, to introduce its products to U.S. publishers.