Glitches a new-tech byproduct

Times Staff Writer

Tyson J. Carter slept through a hailstorm as he camped outside a Target store to nab a PlayStation 3 last month.

But the deluge of woe began when he got Sony Corp.'s $600 video game console home.

The system crashed repeatedly when the 19-year-old tried to adjust the music settings. Others complain that some games from earlier generations of the console did not run properly. And the high-definition picture promised by the PS3 doesn't work on some older televisions.

"I'm not surprised," said Carter, a student of multimedia design who lives in Pittsburgh. "Most first-generation systems tend to have problems. Even though there should be no excuses for putting out a system with problems."

In tech, first is best -- but not necessarily better.

Manufacturers racing to win fickle but influential early adopters often deliver products not quite ready for market. The thinking is that kinks can be worked out while the product builds buzz. For their part, those who stand in line to get the latest gadgetry expect a degree of annoyance.

Sometimes, though, bugs are so persistent and pronounced that they become the buzz.

"You build the plane in the air," said Mark Rolston, a senior vice president at Frog Design Inc. in San Francisco, a consulting firm that specializes in business strategy and product design. The technology industry has "built an unfortunate habit of launching these products as they're constructing them."

Sony said only a tiny fraction of buyers had complained about PS3 glitches and it noted that the company offered a downloadable software patch to correct known problems. Sony rival Nintendo Co. has also had issues with its Wii console.

One of the most popular videos on YouTube during Thanksgiving week depicted a defective Wii making an odd grinding noise as it repeatedly ejected a game disc without playing it. And the company on Friday offered to replace the wrist strap on the device's remote control amid reports of it flying out of gamers' hands and smashing television sets.

A Nintendo spokeswoman said the flying controllers were a symptom of "very exuberant game play," not a design flaw -- even though it's now providing thicker replacement straps.

Even industries that test products for years before unveiling them are susceptible to first-generation bugs -- in large part because of the technology that permeates daily life.

NASA's Spirit rover got lost on the Martian surface for a week and a half in January 2004 because of a memory shortage. The team had to delete 1,700 files to cure the malfunction.

The second generation of Toyota Motor Corp.'s hybrid electric-gasoline vehicle, the Prius, was recalled after the company received 33 reports that the gasoline engine had gone into a sudden, unexpected stall -- a problem traced to a software glitch that Toyota said it would correct on about 75,000 of its 2004 and early 2005 models.

European luxury automaker BMW's techno-dabbling resulted in the iDrive. Introduced with the 7 Series in 2002, it attempted to do away with all the cluttered in-dash buttons that controlled climate, entertainment and navigation and replace them with a single dial. Its seemingly simple interface required scrolling through multiple LCD screens to change a radio station.

"All of what we call the human-machine interface implications hadn't been worked out," said Eric Noble, president of CarLab, an automotive product planning and design firm in Orange. "What they in fact created was a system that was so complicated that consumers actually take their life in their hands to change the radio station."

Even Segway, the futuristic two-wheeled people mover introduced with great fanfare in 2001, was the subject of a federal government recall in September because of a software glitch that could cause riders to be thrown off the scooter. The recall affects all 23,500 sold in the United States.

Glitches are partly a byproduct of the technology industry's heritage. Software developers long relied on the tacit knowledge of early adopters, who recognize that a product's incomplete and that they are, in effect, unpaid "beta testers," or those whose job it is to identify bugs.

Consumer electronics giants such as Sony would test market devices in Akihabara, Tokyo's electronics district, among the hacker elite, who willingly cope with glitches for the privilege of having a product that may never make it into the mainstream.

"This one executive referred to Akihabara as their wailing wall," said Paul Saffo, a Silicon Valley technology forecaster. "They'd throw products against it and mostly they'd cry. There has always been a bond between the earliest adopters and the industry."

Add to these industry practices release dates for the PlayStation 3 or Microsoft's Xbox 360 that are dictated not by how long it would take engineers to refine these high-end graphics processing systems, but by marketing considerations. Manufacturers need to make a big splash at the holiday season to be successful. And retailers need assurance that they'll have something to sell that gets customers waiting all night outside the door before they'll allocate shelf space.

"You essentially have a countdown," Rolston said. "Whether you're ready or not, you've made commitments to the market."

Sony Computer Entertainment spokesman Dave Karraker said the company received 9,911 calls to its customer service line in the first 10 days of the PS3's release. One in 4 callers inquired where to buy the system. He said 24% were general use or configuration questions. Less than 1% were about faulty systems that needed to be returned, Karraker said, adding, "this is the lowest we've ever had."

Karraker said Sony was also investigating an issue with older digital TVs that lack the equipment to properly display games like "Resistance: Fall of Man" in its highest resolution, causing the PS3 to downgrade the image. "We're investigating how we can support these televisions without the proper scaling equipment," he said.

But when products are released so close to the wire, usability testing gets sacrificed. Sony doesn't have time to test its PS3 on every conceivable high-definition television display or play all of the thousands of older game titles to see what breaks. Nintendo couldn't possibly test its Wii with every wireless home networking device.

Glitches have become a familiar feature in the software industry. Sometimes, the bugs are so numerous that they devour the product -- as was the case with Microsoft's Windows Me (the late 2000 operating system detractors referred to as the "Mistake Edition."

Dubbed one of the worst tech products of all time by PC World, it was the first operating system to support universal plug and play.

But the novel feature came with annoying twists such as the system's inability to recognize older modems or sound cards. Users also reported problems installing it, getting it to run and getting it to shut down properly.

Reviewers from the tech news website CNet.com stumbled onto a bug in the new TiVo Series3 digital media recorder, in which it refused to record high-definition movies such as "Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith" when the device was paired with a JVC receiver. Apple Computer Inc.'s new MacBook and high-end MacBook Pro laptop suffer from a glitch that closes them at random.

Apple said it was an issue with a small percentage of first-generation laptops and that it had been addressed by a downloadable fix.

"As the products get more autonomous and intelligent, the likelihood of their subtle nuances working together out of the box goes down," said Richard Doherty, research director at Envisioneering Group. "It's not the Federal Trade Commission or consumer groups that know this, it's the guy at Best Buy who keeps the bottle of Extra Strength Excedrin at his side."

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dawn.chmielewski@latimes.com

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