Monday, 8 August 2011

Technology turnover - how often do you really have to upgrade?

I like tech gadgets, I really do. The idea that in my hand I can hold a device (my Nokia N95) that is several orders of magnitude more powerful and can store more data than the entire computing setup I grew up with (TRS-80 + 5.25" Floppy drive) is pretty mind boggling when you sit down and think about it. When I was younger, Dad had one of the first mobile phones I'd ever seen in person - and it was only "mobile" in the sense that it was hard wired to a car..... "DAAAAD - your car's ringing!" (Mrrmm... 'horn alert')

Looking at the progression from there to now, however, I do wonder whether perhaps we too rapidly deprecate equipment before its useful life is expended.

Let's look at two specific examples...
Traditional desktop computer technology

Dell, on their desktop and notebook computers generally offer warranty options in the order of 12-36 months. I think three years might be the number of years you can depreciate the value of computer equipment over, for the purposes of taxation and generally when speaking about computer equipment, I've seen a trend to considering 36 months as the "desired maximum" lifespan of desktop systems.

This said, I provide on-demand IT support and consulting work for a travel agency. They are are a small business, and got their start in a niche market when another business moved out of their specific sector. Purchasing assets including furniture and computers when they launched from the previous business, the computers were old even then, but still functional. Don't get me wrong, they were complete clunkers and a royal pain to deal with by the end, but that said, up until the end they DID perform what they needed to do.
  • Run spreadsheet and wordprocessing applications - CHECK
  • Run internet email and browsing applications - CHECK
  • Run proprietary ticket booking and printing applications - CHECK
Now, it may not have been convenient for me to keep the machines running as long as I did. However, it allowed the business to start up without too much capital expenditure and to build cashflow to a point where they could gradually start replacing the IT assets.

Since the business started in the late 90s, each piece of hardware has been through at least one refresh, some two.. meaning on average the life of the hardware within the business has been at least 44 months. Some, at least 66 months. What's even more heartening, is that some of these computers, after their duty with the business and appropriate erasure (thank you DBAN) were able to be used by people without computers to get online at home.

My point here is, even though the first computers had no hope in hell of running anything beefier than Windows 2000 Pro (they all tended to run 98SE), they looked old, they weren't "sexy"... they did the job, and did it for the most part reliably.

Throw in a Linux distribution such as Debian or Ubuntu, and one can get access to current office applications, email and web access significantly extendeding the life of the equipment. All from technology that'd otherwise probably hit landfill or costly ewaste processes.

Mobile (Cellular/Cell) Phones

When reading Gizmodo, Engadget, David Pogue from the NYT and other people that come through in the RSS feeds I subscribe to, it seems there's always some new handheld gizmo or gadget that everyone needs right away. Manufacturers like Apple releasing incremental upgrades... 2G.. 3G.. 3G with a faster processor.. 3G with a front camera and multitasking.. A tablet version.. A tablet version with a camera.. A faster processor.. Slightly more storage..

The question remains, however, if you had the 3G model do you NEED the 3G model with multitasking and a front camera? ... or is it just a "nice to have"?

There's a yes and no answer here - no.. unless you need to do video conferencing, why would you upgrade if it still lets you play games, watch videos, play music and *gasp* make phonecalls (whatever will they think of making a phone do next)?

The caveat, the yes answer is that when a new platform comes out, there isn't necessarily a strong push to maintain support for the existing systems. Think Symbian and its many incarnations being incompatible between one another... think more apps on the Apple App Store requiring the latest and greatest version of iOS4.

I do believe that a lot of older hardware can still do incredible things, but often there's no incentive for the manufacturers or software vendors (sometimes the same people) to keep them doing incredible things... rather to sell the next version. I saw 15FPS video streaming on a Tandy CoCo 3 in a youtube video the other day. I found an app on the internet (GnuBox) that allowed me to trick my older Nokia N70 into accessing the internet via bluetooth, effectively giving it wireless internet access in my house without using 3G so I could stream internet radio whilst I was in the shower (Hey, you didn't think I'd have a normal radio did you?).

Now whilst I'm not advocating we should all be playing bootleg copies of Star Wars on a CoCo 3 or that hacking a device to run over bluetooth is friendly enough for everyone. That said, with the phone example, it had the power to do it, the hardware vendor (Nokia) just decided it wasn't necessary and most likely the carriers preferred people using 3G.

Putting this all together

I personally have over the course of several years (up until this year) relied on second hand equipment either purchased or freecycled from friends who no longer needed it.

My furniture - all from family, friends and one bit of trash pile rescue.. except for a dining table and chairs I bought second hand. My car, second hand from my brother, who bought it from my mother. My previous car, second hand from my great uncle. My car previously, second hand from a family friend. My house, already built. My computers (up until this one most recent) have generally been built out of bits and progressively upgraded with components friends have decided they no longer needed. Even with my present computer, the display I've had for several years (a component I did spend money on, but have kept) and the keyboard and mouse reused from systems long since decomissioned.

I'm all for newer technology where it provides genuine benefit and real efficiencies, but in a world of finite resources, is encouraging people to turf equipment that does the job because we want to sell them new hardware by removing support for the old hardware sustainable?

Recycling is admirable, especially given just how rare some of the minerals involved in the manufacture of high technology are. This said, recycling is not 100% efficient in terms of the return of materials or the energy expended in recycling the materials.

I think as the world population continues to grow and traditional resources continue to shrink, renewable resources like information will become increasingly commoditised. In the end, people need to be paid for doing stuff. It's how our world works.

If companies can be convinced to continue supporting their older products (think operating systems on computers, firmware on appliances etc.) perhaps this will shift the focus back to software, away from hardware? Incentivising people to move from purchasing products to purchasing services is a challenge the news media is currently dealing with, and when they sort it out, I'm sure a lot of other industries will benefit!

It'll be interesting to see if and how they solve the problem, and then how other industries pick up on this and translate it for their own sectors... and how free and open source software can co-exist with keeping old hardware going, where the hardware manufacturers have to make money.

Your thoughts?

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