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  • On the PC Industry’s Planned Obsolesence Conspiracy

    October 2nd, 2007

    It’s a well-known fact that no PC hardware or software maker will survive if you stop buying new versions of their products. While there will always be new customers, a company wants to extract as much cash as possible from the ones that have already purchased their stuff.

    Of course, this applies to all businesses building retail products of one sort or another. But there’s a distinct difference, and you can see it if you have an old TV set that’s still in service, such as the 15-year-old 27-inch Sony that remains in my son’s bedroom, even though Grayson is an adult and doesn’t spend the night there very often. The set still functions perfectly. Even though the analog TV signals will disappear from the airwaves in the U.S. in February of 2009, that set will continue to fuction, because it’s hooked up to a digital cable TV converter box.

    In passing, your analog TV will work too. If you don’t have cable or satellite, the government will give you two “grants” worth $40 towards the purchase of a digital set top box that will convert the TV signals so they can be received on those old TV sets. The frequency spectrum itself is in the process of being auctioned off, for which the government hopes to exact billions of dollars of income.

    Of course, your old car will run, too, although there may be issues with lead-free fuel that could, potentially at least, damage some engines.

    Now when it comes to a vintage personal computer, you can throw most considerations of compatibility out the window. Even something a mere ten years old won’t run any of today’s software, even if it could, for example, boot a recent version of Windows. Forget about Mac OS X, which abandons most Macs built more than five or six years ago, although a shareware program, XPostFacto, will induce some of those old boxes to work after a fashion.

    Indeed, as I write this, it is widely expected that Mac OS 10.5 Leopard will also dump a generation of older Macs, the G3, entirely, and might even have problems with some less-powerful G4 models.

    Windows Vista has difficulty running with all features intact on all but the most powerful PCs if they have been around more than a year or two.

    A similar situation applies to most modern software. Even a word processor, which is surely not terribly CPU-intensive, might have extraordinary system requirements even for basic functionality. Does it really require a supercomputer to process text?

    Take Word 2004, considered one of the best versions of Microsoft’s dominant word processor. Compare it to the legendary Word 5.1, which offered lots of sensible features (except for text zooming) and ran with great performance on some of the slowest Macs available in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Is there something about the basic word processing engine in the current version of Word, and the one under development now, that somehow overpowers all Macs less than five years old?

    Consider the level of computing power that, for example, took man to the moon, and don’t you wonder why it requires hundreds of times that capability to change text from regular to bold, or to move a paragraph from one location in a document to another?

    To be sure, it’s a well-known fact that software somehow grows in complexity and sheer bloat as CPU horsepower increases. You sometimes wonder of the various manufacturers aren’t in cahoots with each other to force you to buy brand new computers and upgrade to the applications that require them. Or is it the other way around?

    Years ago, I read an article in the late, lamented Byte magazine urging programmers to refine and streamline their computer code, to minimize this vicious cycle. This isn’t to say that customers don’t want more features, and faster performance. While formatting and manipulating words is no big deal, being able to render 3D objects in all sorts of sophisticated ways can tax the power of the speediest personal computers on the planet.

    Indeed, there is something to be said about making your computers do more of your work for you, and your wish lists certainly include adding more and more powerful features for your favorite applications.

    However, knowing your computer has a short lifetime and that there’s always something faster on the horizon has probably made programmers complacent. They realize that if today’s Macs and PCs won’t run their products with acceptable performance, tomorrow’s will. Sure, if you complain loud enough, they might just revise the product to speed it up here and there, so it seems snappier. But, under-the-hood, it probably hasn’t changed all that much.

    But wouldn’t it be nice if the software companies made a little more effort to streamline their code, so simple maintenance updates don’t take hours and hours to download on all but the fastest broadband connections? Wouldn’t it be nice if they paid more attention to the sources of performance bottlenecks, so these applications didn’t hog resources?

    Now I suppose there are folks who use Linux who will remind me that their chosen operating system does indeed work efficiently on slower hardware. I won’t dispute that contention, but I’m strictly looking at the mainstream desktop operating systems here.

    We can certainly blame Microsoft for its failings, deservingly so. But let’s not let Apple off the hook. Take a look at the latest iLife ’08, Apple’s newest consumer digital lifestyle suite. The much-maligned iMovie, which is, as you no doubt recall, a hobbyist application designed for casual movie editing, requires, “a Mac with an Intel processor, a Power Mac G5 (dual 2.0GHz or faster), or an iMac G5 (1.9GHz or faster.”

    Unbelievable. Do they expect everyone to go out and buy a new Mac simply to run iMovie?

    And so it goes, onward and upward, with no end in sight.



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    10 Responses to “On the PC Industry’s Planned Obsolesence Conspiracy”

    1. Dana Sutton says:

      Conspiracy is a big, and very loaded word. There’s a never-ending spiral where hardware gets faster and better…we need a new generation of software to capitalize on it…for a while we are happy, then we find we want to do new things with our computers that place greater demands on hardware…hardware gets faster and better…and so forth. Sure, one can think of some silly and trivial “upgrades” but most of the time the consumer is the winner. Sure, we get separated from a fair amount of money, but aren’t are lives better and richer? The past couple of decades have been a helluva ride, and I for one look back it it with nothing but gratitude.

    2. Tim Harness says:

      Pity, Word 5.1 ported to OSX would be very fast, and good enough for most users. Not to let Apple off the hook, most of 10.4s hardware requirements seem to be to run the eye-candy. Also, you shouldn’t expect the newest ubuntu live CD to run on any thrift store pentium.

    3. Conspiracy is a big, and very loaded word. There’s a never-ending spiral where hardware gets faster and better…we need a new generation of software to capitalize on it…for a while we are happy, then we find we want to do new things with our computers that place greater demands on hardware…hardware gets faster and better…and so forth. Sure, one can think of some silly and trivial “upgrades” but most of the time the consumer is the winner. Sure, we get separated from a fair amount of money, but aren’t are lives better and richer? The past couple of decades have been a helluva ride, and I for one look back it it with nothing but gratitude.

      Which product updates do you think have made your life “better and richer?”

      WIthout just making the manufacturer rich.

      I’m just curious.

      Peace,
      Gene

    4. Jeff says:

      There’s something to be said for the days when you had to get a program to run in 1MB or less of memory and get it to fit on a 1.4MB floppy disc.

      Cheap ram and enormous hard drives has contributed extensively to bloat.

    5. marc says:

      I was around when Mac OS X first came out, it was a slug, but after each version released it became better and better. I don’t think there is a conspiracy out there to get you to buy new hardware, but an eagerness to do more with your computer. As a programmer, I love all the new tools that become available to me via xCode, and I don’t think they are doing just to get you to buy a new computer, it is just a continuing progression of making a product better, some know how to do, others don’t. Some features are bloat, but some, like with iMovie, is just practicality, have you ever tried to edit video on a g3 or g4? Converting video that is 20 minutes into a new format takes 18 hours. I think this might have been taken into consideration and that set a level that was acceptable for working environment, and while creating their product all sorts of features that would have been impractical on a slower machine where included. Garageband hardly runs on a g4, so what? Do you know everything that is involved in making that program work? If life was really so much better before, just continue to use Word 5.1. You can also use Nisus Writer… Me, I love all the features, stable, and performance that Mac OS X and its applications have to offer… anything Microsoft.. well I’m not sure they know how to achieve anything but features… oh and it looks pretty… BTW have you noticed that Safari Beta is only 6.6 megs? Internet Explorer.. 26 Megs… Some are trying to keep it simple.

    6. Louis Wheeler says:

      Gene, You are exaggerating. It would only be a conspiracy if the manufacturers were “forcing” you to buy. Enticing you with faster speeds and more functions is not force. If you must have the “newest and the greatest” toy then that is your character defect. You can choose not to play the game. I have a five year old G4 iMac flat-screen that works just fine on DSL. I skipped Mac OSX 10.3 Panther entirely.

      But, Leopard has enough improvements to make me want to change. And the new 24 inch iMac is 10 to 12 times faster at $300 less than I paid for my old 800 MHz iMac. No one is making me buy anything. But, there are times when you have to let go of the past.

      I hate to break it to you, but even the Cadillac cars in the 1960 were lousy compared to today’s ordinary cars at prices that are much lower when adjusted for inflation. The technology improves; it makes sense to hold off buying but not forever.

    7. Gene, You are exaggerating. It would only be a conspiracy if the manufacturers were “forcing” you to buy. Enticing you with faster speeds and more functions is not force. If you must have the “newest and the greatest” toy then that is your character defect. You can choose not to play the game. I have a five year old G4 iMac flat-screen that works just fine on DSL. I skipped Mac OSX 10.3 Panther entirely.

      But, Leopard has enough improvements to make me want to change. And the new 24 inch iMac is 10 to 12 times faster at $300 less than I paid for my old 800 MHz iMac. No one is making me buy anything. But, there are times when you have to let go of the past.

      I hate to break it to you, but even the Cadillac cars in the 1960 were lousy compared to today’s ordinary cars at prices that are much lower when adjusted for inflation. The technology improves; it makes sense to hold off buying but not forever.

      It’s a two-way street. Yes, today’s computers and software are not just faster, but do a lot more. But companies also can’t stay in business without producing new products, and they need to find ways to get you to upgrade. If a new application doesn’t run properly on your old computer, and its new features tempt you, what are you to do?

      By the way, published reports state that Leopard will require an 867MHz G4 or better. If true, it means that lots and lots of 800MHz Macs won’t make cut. Will Leopard’s arrival spur new Mac purchases? Some people will have no choice if they wish to take advantage of the new features — assuming third parties haven’t filled some of the gaps.

      Peace,
      Gene

    8. Kaleberg says:

      I don’t understand. What software has stopped working on old computers? You can use a 20 year old computer to convert text from plain to bold just fine. (I’m ignoring the case of broken old computers here. They are much less useful).

      If you are upset that there are not that many developers writing new software for old machines, you may have a point, but most owners of old machines already own the software they need, and can buy vintage software on eBay and elsewhere. New machine owners are much more likely customers for new software. It’s hard to blame developers for aiming at that market.

      Of course, you can’t do real time video editing on a 20 year old computer, and no one makes an inexpensive converter box to let you do so. You would have to upgrade the processor, the memory, the internal bus, the display and probably a host of other things. You’d do much better to sideline your old machine than trying to upgrade it.

      Sure, it would be nice to sort of pick and choose which components of your system to freeze. Why can’t I run Adobe CS3 on my old Powerbook 1400cs? That’s sort of like asking why the ancient Romans couldn’t build integrated circuits.

    9. Andrew says:

      The ancient Romans had wine, everything else is just gravy.

    10. Roberto says:

      I agree, Gene. How many new “features” do we need in a word processor, anyway? Is anyone complaining that calculators have not changed at all in decades? Have they stopped buying because “innovation” has stopped on calculators?

      There’s a reason why physical calculators have stayed the same: they’ve reached the apex of their functionality. Anything else from that point onwards would just be marketing, not innovation.

      When a product has reached the apex of its functionality manufacturers should just let it be and work on something else to generate revenue. Take OS X, as an example. The Finder is still broken, it’s slow as heck when compared to Mac OS 9 running on 8-year old hardware (with a paltry 256MB RAM, Mac OS flies!). But does Apple care? Nope. Instead, they keep piling on eye-candy to distract us from the real issues plaguing the platform.

      Whatever gains I get when switching from Mac OS to OS X have not come from improvements to the Finder (I like the side-scrolling table view in OS X but other than that by and large the new GUI has been a few steps backwards). They’ve been from the Unix underpinnings.

      Like Microsoft Office, the Mac OS interface had reached the apex of its functionality a long time ago. If Apple wanted to sell more products maybe they should start innovating again and deliver new product designs for a change. The ones they’re offering me are essentially the same things they’ve been offering for over 5 years.

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