Jefferson Graham runs down the winners and losers of CES 2018.
LAS VEGAS—The least popular gadget in the news last week—and the latest shopper-beware lesson from the tech industry—may have been a single device in a corner of a Kodak exhibit at the CES convention here.
That rectangular gadget was a high-powered computer made to “mine” Bitcoin by performing the increasingly intense calculations that generate more of the digital currency.
By itself, Bitcoin has already earned a bit of a toxic reputation for such traits as its extreme instability, the growing number of scams targeting the Bitcoin-curious, and its status as the currency of ransomware. But wait, there’s more.
The former photography giant had put this machine on display to attract renters, not buyers. A Kodak licensee called Spotlite USA would have you pay $3,400 for two years’ use of one of these contraptions, housed at a facility near Kodak’s Rochester, N.Y. offices. In return, Spotlite would keep half of all the Bitcoins it generated over that time.
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In a conversation on the show floor Thursday, Spotlite CEO Halston Mikail put that as a good deal that’s already attracting customers.
“Your $3,400 becomes $9,000,” he said, adding that Spotlite benefits from low electricity costs of just 4 cents per kilowatt from a local coal-fired plant.
(Your own home may have much cleaner power, but you wouldn’t want to keep a Bitcoin miner there anyway. Beyond its voracious appetite for electricity, its cooling fans make a racket that Mikail compared to having a hair dryer on high.)
The dubious math behind Spotlite’s pitch drew an extra level of scorn.
The basic problem, as BuzzFeed’s Ryan Mac explained in a post headlined “This Is Why Experts Are Calling Kodak’s New Bitcoin Scheme A Scam,” is that it gets progressively more difficult to mine more bitcoin. So unless Bitcoin’s value increases far above its current level—the classic expectation behind a doomed market bubble—a renter of Kodak’s miner can’t possibly make the promised returns.
In that aspect, this Bitcoin play looks uniquely bad among gadget debuts for not just surfing on an overhyped trend but for banking on consumer innumeracy.
But in too many other ways, it fits quite well with a longstanding tradition of tech excess disconnected from real-world utility. Think of 4K screens on phones and 8K displays in TVs that pack in more resolution than human retinas can perceive at normal viewing distances. Or contemplate Apple and Google removing headphone jacks on smartphones because making a mobile device infinitesimally smaller outranks keeping a perfectly functional, universally supported connector.
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In all these cases, the problem isn’t just tech companies selling something most people don’t need, but also the diversion of effort and expertise that could have gone into something that people actually need. For example, extremely fast computation is a lot more useful in a self-driving car that can make the roads more efficient and safer.
But as long as the gadget business stays this wide-open and this potentially lucrative, you’re going to keep seeing dubious propositions like Spotlite’s bitcoin-mining deal. When you see them, just remember to ask one simple question: What’s the actual problem you’re trying to solve here?
Rob Pegoraro is a tech writer based out of Washington, D.C. To submit a tech question, e-mail Rob at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/robpegoraro.
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