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Everything is too complicated

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What are you assuming people already know?

It’s the very beginning of CES 2018, and the first trickles of gadget news are starting to come out. The flood begins tomorrow as the show floor opens and keynotes and press conferences begin in earnest. It’s easy to see the broad themes of the show and the tech industry at large already forming: smart assistants everywhere, sensors and radios in every device you can think of, and an eternal hope that something, anything, will be the reason people will finally upgrade their TVs.

All of that is exciting — I love gadgets and am one of the few crazy people that think CES is incredibly fun! — but I want to take a half-step back before it all begins and point out something obvious: most people have no idea how any of these things work, and are already hopelessly confused by the tech they have.

Think of the tech industry as being built on an ever-increasing number of assumptions: that you know what a computer is, that saying “enter your Wi-Fi password” means something to you, that you understand what an app is, that you have the desire to manage your Bluetooth device list, that you’ll figure out what USB-C dongles you need, and on and on.

What I’ve noticed recently is that the tech industry is starting to make these assumptions faster than anyone can reasonably be expected to keep up. I made a list over the holidays of completely reasonable misconceptions about tech I heard from friends and family of all ages and interests in tech. These were questions I knew the answers to, but that always seemed to quickly spiral into an explanation of what I imagine Verge readers think of as foundational knowledge. Here’s some of that list. Some of them are actual questions in quote marks, others are just the notes I made after conversations:

  • Not knowing the difference between iMessage and SMS, or what iMessage is except “blue bubbles”
  • Not knowing why having an Android user in a group text makes it worse than an iMessage group with iPhone users
  • “What’s the difference between Bluetooth and Wi-Fi?”
  • “Does Alexa always listen to you like Facebook?”
  • Thinking Hulu and Roku were the same thing
  • Thinking Roku itself provides certain movies and shows, not the apps and services available on the Roku platform
  • “Why do I have to charge the new iPhone headphones?” (They thought Apple’s Lightning EarPods needed to be charged because of the connector. This is my favorite.)
  • “Can you get a desktop that runs Chrome?”
  • “Why does Apple TV search find iTunes and Hulu but not Netflix?”
  • What iCloud is, or what the difference is between your AppleID, your iCloud ID, and iCloud password:
  • “I’ve heard the iPhone X doesn’t have to update the software as much?”
  • Not knowing why mail on the iPhone asks if you want to send small, medium, large, or full-size images when you email photos
  • Why you need so many different passwords and how to manage them
  • “What is the App Store on the Apple TV for?”
  • “Why does it say live in the corner when I take a photo?”
  • “Is the Echo Show a picture frame?”
  • “Why can’t Siri play Spotify?”

This list was sort of funny when I first started making it, but over the past few days I’ve started to realize it’s a pretty damning indictment of the tech industry. Why doesn’t all this stuff work together better? Why should anyone know why search works in some apps and not others? Why do so many people need to remember so many passwords? Why have all these smart assistants actually made things more complicated?

CES is great for seeing a little glimpse of the future, but real lives in the present are messy and complicated. Assuming that anyone cares about downloading one more app or creating one more secure password is a huge and potentially dangerous mistake. It’s fun to look at new products and check out far-fetched concept touchscreen refrigerators, but I think the most important questions we can ask right now are actually the simplest: how does it work? How do you set it up? What happens when people don’t understand something? Do I need to create a new username and password? Is all of that secure? Does it work well with other things I’ve already bought? What assumptions are you making?

These are all the same questions our friend Walt Mossberg started asking in 1991 when he first started reviewing personal technology, and kept asking through the end of his run with us last year. They’re even more important now. Everyone carries a computer around in their pocket and everyone’s lives are more dependent on technology than ever. Actually asking if things work should be a foundational question, not an afterthought.