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On the PC Industry’s Planned Obsolesence Conspiracy

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.