The only technology I can think of in which complication is deemed a good thing is fine watches. The great watchmakers of Geneva and the Jura even have a name for it — grandes complications.
Outside watches, geeky complexity and arcane features are loathed — especially by busy, intelligent people with better things to do than read weighty instruction books.
This is one of the reasons why Apple’s computer operating systems have always appealed more than Microsoft Windows to what one might broadly call the intelligentsia: clever people just can’t be bothered with — or, alternatively, are too lazy and distracted to deal with — the complication of Windows.
It’s an issue that Microsoft has addressed pretty well with its Windows 7, although I suspect Apple isn’t particularly scared by the simpler and more elegant new Windows.
Complication has come to satellite navigation by stealth. Early satnavs were simple. The latest, especially from the mass market brand leader — arguably the Microsoft of satnav — TomTom, are intimidatingly complex, although I have to add to that, “if you want them to be”. It is easy to ignore the plethora of extra (and often rather silly) functions TomTom builds in — and the company has recently launched an entry level product, its excellent Start range, which deliberately leaves out everything except the core navigation.
I have been playing with one of TomTom’s latest and most upmarket models, the £350 GO 940 LIVE, with a special interest in testing the feature that I find most people ignore — traffic detection. TomTom was keen for me, when I explained that I never use its traffic function, to try its latest widget, Traffic HD (as in High Definition).
I have historical reason for being a traffic sceptic. I discovered a while ago that the source of the information satnav traffic systems used in the UK was the Department of Transport. That explained the years of jams and roadworks which would turn out either to be nonexistent or very much existent but unreported.
Since I last turned the traffic function off, however, a sophisticated industry has grown up in the UK and most developed countries to provide intelligent, accurate traffic information and, as in TomTom’s case, suggest suitable diversions taking local traffic into account. Paid-for traffic information — Traffic HD costs £7.99 a month — has also become one of many ways satnav makers keep revenue flowing in from customers long after they’ve bought the original device.
Traffic HD’s science is impressive. Devices such as the GO 940 LIVE have a built-in SIM card that continually sends a stream of (anonymous) information about your progress on the road, and receives up- to-the-second traffic reports from sources much more sophisticated than some bored civil servant sitting in front of a traffic camera screen. One of the major sources is the background chatter from other TomTom users’ devices.
The TomTom system logs and processes all the information it receives, and currently claims to have more than 800 billion ‘road speed profiles’ in its databanks, which it converts into fastest routes at a particular time, most sensible diversions and so on.
Does it work? Well, having used it for a while, yes, albeit some way short of perfectly. And I have to say, even as a sceptic, that I am not seriously seeking perfection since I don’t believe it’s achievable. Traffic is as whimsical and fickle as climate, and getting it entirely right, even with the help of military scale computing power, must be as hard as getting weather forecasts accurate.
So, while the Traffic HD system failed to help in respect of a 15-minute jam in my area, I was sympathetic when I saw the jam was caused by a broken-down bus. It is, surely, asking the impossible for even a complex system to know about a fleeting, unpredictable obstruction. The system was almost spookily accurate much of the rest of the time, getting the obstructions and delay times spot-on. The suggested diversions were also judicious.
Traffic information has clearly come on. The trick to getting the most out of it, is to remain dubious, to remember your native awareness and applied knowledge are better in significant respects than any technology — and then to see what the satnav has to say about things.
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