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This product is terrible. Can you deliver it in 20 years’ time when it becomes popular?

How to always be on the wrong side of tech fashion

Something for the Weekend, Sir? "It will never catch on." The next thing you know, you’re staring at a badly drawn zob scrawled over Shakespeare's shimoneta*.

The technology in question is collaborative whiteboard software. The fool claiming that such a thing would fail to ignite the interest of the common person is me. The zob is, of course, a zob.

Online whiteboards came to my attention at the end of the 1990s. A friend told me he had shared a tiny browser-based whiteboard with another friend in real time and they’d been able to write words, add graphic stamps and draw pictures for each other. Draw pictures? I hadn’t imagined my friend as being accomplished in fine art. What did you draw, I asked. A cock and balls, he replied.

It will never catch on, I thought to myself. You can do all those things on toilet walls; no need for a collaborative online platform. And yet…

And yet, more than 20 years later, history turns full circle. Across the breakfast table, Mme D is cackling at something she has just seen online. "University lecturer is stunned when hackers doodle genitals across her Shakespeare presentation as she conducts Q and A session with students," she quotes at me. No need to read the story, it’s all there in the headline.

Once again I have been proven wrong. In direct contrast to my prediction, collaborative whiteboards have turned out to be the cutting edge tool of choice for the production of digitised drawings of male genitalia.

This happens to me a lot: I experience some overhyped tech innovation, determine that it’s not much cop, and make a fool of myself by saying so. And I will be right. Unfortunately I will also be alone: everyone else who comes into contact with the terrible tech will be singing its praises. And they will be shown to have backed the right horse, given enough time. My one saving grace is that by the time this happens, so much time will have passed that nobody remembers what I said anyway.

Over the years, I have trashed the likes of digital cameras, photo inkjet printers and ebook readers. What can I say? They were all pointless.

Digital cameras in the early days captured such poor quality images at such low resolutions, I simply couldn’t understand what my colleagues were getting so excited about. "It’s so real!" they’d cry. "It’ll take over the whole photographic industry one day!" And there’d be me staring at a photo that looked like someone had coloured in a sheet of junior school graph paper with felt pen.

Photo inkjets? The output was so duff that you could grab a Sharpie and play join-the-dots. Ebook readers? Heavier than a brick, batteries that needed replacing every half an hour, and a screen clarity comparable to that of an Etch-a-Sketch refilled with crystal meth. They’d never catch on, surely.

Bloody fashion.

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Safe to say, if I express an opinion that a product or service isn’t very good, pour your life savings into them as you will make a fortune 20 years later. Vice versa too: tech design that I think is great – such as flip-phones, CD audio, front-loading removable storage, infra-red remote controls, proper speakers built into a TV set – rapidly becomes massively unpopular and is inevitably destined for landfill.

These last few days of 2020 could be just the right moment for me to turn over a new leaf. From now on, I am determined to see the potential rather than the reality.

My role model will be the 19th century socialite Josephine Cochran. Pissed off with her household staff for chipping the precious china when washing up after every dinner party, she decided to invent the dishwasher. The thing is, dishwashers had already been invented; it’s just that all the models produced at the time were crap. So she invented one that wasn’t.

With this in mind, allow me to announce that cryptocurrencies are excellent, er, things. They might be useless as a currency – who spends £20 in Bitcoin knowing that it will be worth £30 to the recipient by the time the blockchain transaction has completed a week later? – and it’s not particularly crypto let alone secure, but hey, those are just details.

And who cares that the Crypto Fear and Greed Index grew by 119.51% over the last year, reaching an all-time high in uncertainty and volatility? From now on, I love it. Thousands of Dark Web users can’t be wrong.

I am also a late-comer to the 3D printing party, but let me in, I brought a bottle! I shake my head in disbelief when I think of how I used to feel all that time ago – last week – that 3D printing was only useful for manufacturing custom parts for prosthetics and churning out Star Wars character statuettes that look like runny candles. Today I recognise it as a killer technology for the soft-entry burglarising industry.

That’s according to Mark Hall at H&S software specialists All the modern burglar needs today is a photo of you holding your door keys outside your house; he can then zoom into the key, scan and extrude it into a 3D model and print it out the same afternoon while you’re on the school run. "It's the modern equivalent of the thief taking an impression of your front door key in clay," says Hall. "Only instead of the tobacco tin and the rudimentary knowledge of metal casting, it's all about long camera lenses and rendering software."

Just think: no more broken glass and no more front door kicked in! And since the burglar will be in a better mood after his non-violent entry into your property, no more turds on the double bed!

I can see a future in this corner of the market. What corner is that, you ask? The corner occupied by burglars, Dark Web money launderers and adolescent hackers with a propensity for badly scribbling willies on live university lecture slides.

I have in mind a Kickstarter campaign for selling personalised baseball caps with an embroidered QR code on the front containing customers’ own unique credit card details. Or a disruptive video conferencing system that absolutely refuses to let anyone go on mute, and fills embarrassed silences with random prerecorded audio clips of police sirens, dogs barking or the neighbours having sex on the other side of the party wall. Or a special 3D printer, miniaturised for smuggling into university lecture theatres and optimised for churning out melted-wax style reproductions of hand-drawn genitals.

All marvellous ideas, I’m sure you agree. They are not at all shit and you can fully expect them to be wildly in fashion 20 years from now.

What’s that? "They’ll never catch on"? Just you wait.

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Alistair Dabbs
Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. If anybody wishes to invest in his disruptive schemes, he accepts Bitcoin only. In the event of failure to deliver the product, refunds will be paid in used champagne corks. More at Autosave is for Wimps and @alidabbs.

* Shimoneta = (Japanese) bawdy humour

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