Built-in Obsolescence

I had a few days off and took my wife’s bike to the shop to get it fixed as she was complaining about the gears slipping and I thought it may need a new gear sprocket. When I got it there the bike shop owner showed me all the other issues with it. It’s only half as old as my bike but poorly maintained so suffering! – Anyway he said it was about £100 with labour costs to fix all the parts and so it was marginal whether it was worth repairing. I decided in the end to get her a new bike but I’ve since taken the old bike home and fixed it up using parts from other bikes.

The point of this is to say that when I was growing up we had bikes that lasted for decades. The thought of upgrading was never there. Bikes were all the same and parts interchangeable and cheap. Now it appears that bikes have gone the way of other technology. New bikes have more gears than previous versions and the parts are so expensive (compared to a new bike, as bike prices reduce) that it becomes easier and cheaper in many cases to upgrade than to buy parts if there’s a problem. It’s also though because culturally we are changing technology quickly. The rate at which people burn through mobile technology would be staggering to previous generations. It’s true too of PC’s and laptops. As good recent example of this is that the OU is likely to need to invest around 1 million to replace all it’s PC’s to have a new generation that work with Windows 7.

Think about that though for a moment. There’s no doubt that new PC’s are better than old but this is being decided by the Operating System where presumably people have said that it will be more costly to maintain older PC’s than to replace them all to run with the new OS. It’s also about a constant need to move forward, refresh, and not be behind. There are benefits to moving to a new OS but one of the big drivers for this is that older OS’s wont get supported after a certain date. This is the built-in obsolescence.

It suits supplier businesses to build a ‘time to live’ into their products which is just long enough for people to get attached to them but not so long that they can’t be moved onto the ‘next big thing’.

Whilst I’m on the subject of time to live I want to say that there are many fantastic technologies that have driven human progress including the space shuttle, Concorde and Harrier jets to name three.

These technologies were built to respond to a specific set of circumstances and they preformed their purposes fantastically well. Economically it may make sense to get rid of these but they leave a gap in their wake that won’t be filled easily. They also represent the best of human inventiveness. I hope that doesn’t get lost as humans build things on the nano scale and go for smaller, cheaper, faster technology consumables.

But do technologies have a shorter time to live now? – How does this model square with the ‘make do and mend’ recession culture, and also the green ICT (or lack of) of replacing iPhone versions every 6 months to get the latest apps? – I’m concerned that a cultural shift needs to happen both with manufacturing and consumerism to change habits and make people think more about the ‘burn through’ effect and to find models that are more environmentally and ethically sustainable.

Web 2.0 thinking..

I’ve had a couple of days away from computers in Ireland with my family and apart from giving me a chance to catch up with stuff it’s given me a chance to look ‘from the outside’ in a bit to computing.

Firstly although I didn’t go on the computer my sisters both did to show me things and they use the computer differently to me. They tend to remember particular words associated with their stuff and then they go to Youtube or Flickr and type those words in then scroll down until they find their one. This works OK for them and it’s a good enough approach I guess as long as the words are uncommon. (in the case of my sisters they’re to do with circus performing (Belfast Festival of Fools being one example of their search terms!) and so it’s a good method.

Now that I’m back though and my kids are again inundating me with questions I’ve had a bit of a Web2.0 idea/revelation. When people ask me for stuff I can either search my memory for the answer, go online or look up the Encyclopaedia. Sometimes however these don’t come up with the satisfactory answer. So how does this link with my sisters approach? – Well my idea (and I grant I’ve heard similar before from others, although not exactly the same) is to create a series of ‘data miners’. What are these? – They are little bots that I send off to do the searching for me (nothing new I hear you ask that’s just like doing an aggregated search?) no! – These bots do the equivalent of Google and Yahoo and bring back stuff. They also know about me and my preferences, they’re working on MY behalf. The other thing they do is KEEP ON SEARCHING. So that if when they return result I don’t find what I’m looking for then they keep on working on this for as long as I consider it important. They then ALERT me to things they find that matches my criteria. As time progresses I can add refinements to help them, this increases the likihood of success. These bots don’t live on Google or Yahoo but they live whereever I need them to live, could by my favourite website or on my computer. I can create as many miners as I want and I can kill them off at any time.

I’m going to create these and make my fortune. But first I’m going to look at the Festival of Fools photos and videos and have a good laugh. I’m not going to go to Twitter as it’s down yet again. Sorry guys but you must keep this site up, people are getting grumpy!


Arthur C Clark and Bletchley Park…

There is no connection between Arthur C Clark and Bletchley Park other than they’re both in my thoughts at the moment. I’m reading one of Clarks books at the moment (Times Eye) and I still find him to be one of the best SF authors around. He understood the science, in a similar way to Asimov, which really helped him to predict or at least imagine how things might progress. Clark predicted communications satllites, space shuttle, super-computers etc. and inspired others. In 1940 he predicted that we’d reach the moon by the year 2000 an idea dismissed by others at the time. He said he never patented his idea for satellites because he never thought it would happen in his lifetime. I think these things happended directly as a result of him and his like. He inspired people to go out and make these things happen.

Bletchley Park is an inspirational place to visit. It’s a nerd heaven with the first computational device ever invented and a slate statue of Alan Turing (the father of computing) who worked there during the war. Ian Fleming (creator of James Bond)also worked there and during our short escorted tour we met the guy who has spent the past twelve years restoring the computer (Colossus) back to working order.  He did it using drawings and photos as all the original scematics were distroyed. All the valves are taken from ex-telecom exchanges and some of them date back to the second world war themselves. His anecdotes were my favourite part of the tour. he decribed the inventiveness that the code breakers used to decypher the messages passed by the Germans and the crazy ideas they came up with to try to capture a cypher machine. Ian Fleming had an idea of flying a German plane back to Germany pretending to be returning from a raid, crash it in a strategic place and then once there remove a device and return to England. It was decided that that idea was too risky but may others like it were tried. The way they cracked the codes is fantastic too. I went there with the delegates from the Microsoft Silverlight event, these people are some of todays IT industry experts but when we visited Bletchley Park my colleagues and I shared a sense that the real inventiveness took place all those years ago and we are just a pale shadow of that. Bletchley Park is the proof that necessity breeds invention.