How disposable is your technology?

Given the rate of change, tech gear is about as durable as last year's fashions

Commenting on last week's "When to put technology to pasture," Den2010 relayed something we all know is true: all high-tech equipment and software is essentially disposable.

In a world where we routinely look for ways not to throw out empty water bottles and coffee cups, we consider computers to be as disposable as clothing.

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"Given the rate at which operating systems and applications are being changed, it's foolish to think otherwise," Den2010 says. "It may seem arbitrary, but that's the way it is. The main driver of this change is the need to continue to generate revenue, and incidentally, to keep people interested in cool stuff they can do with their gizmos and gadgets. Most of us consumers bought into this years ago; we wouldn't know what to do if there weren't new, cool stuff coming out every year."

Much as we might like to deny it, Den2010 makes a good point. Even as we complain about the planned obsolescence of equipment we've spent a fortune on, we covet the next cool thing -- an Android phone, a superthin laptop with the new i7 processor, 3-D HDTVs, Google TV. We live in amazing times, and older technology often falls victim to our own desire to swim in these times.

But purchasing new gear because we want it is quite different from being forced -- by security concerns, a corporate decision to go to a new operating system, or a failure of compatibility -- to upgrade something we are still happy with or can't afford to replace. Chucking a perfectly good printer is a bit like having someone throw out our coffee -- cup and all -- while we are still drinking it, and then telling us it's time to buy a new cup.

There are, of course, strategies for taking control of the constant need to churn gear. Gripe Line reader Phil avoids being dragged into the lust for the new by using open source tools and his own ingenuity.

"I use Linux on most of my machines," he says, "and, whenever possible, I run it on hardware that provides a documented interface. That way, should the distribution maintainers ever stop supporting my hardware, I can maintain it, however reluctantly, myself. I'm a programmer, so not a typical consumer, but even if I were not, I could always pay somebody to support me."

But there often comes a time when resistance is futile.

"I work as a Field Support Engineer," says Phil. "I provide support to our Field Service Engineers as well as customers. Much of our installed base runs an ancient, 1990s-vintage OS on passive-backplane ISA industrial computers. The OS vendor keeps selling us licenses, so we can continue to distribute our machines. But it's getting hard to find vendors of ISA-based equipment. Rather than create a modular design whose components can easily be replaced, though, we designed a monolithic system with massive hardware dependencies. So I sometimes have to tell customers that because a $200 board uses an obsolete IC, they have to spend $1.5 million on custom engineering and new hardware, or replace their $25 million machine with an entirely new one."

Ouch. That puts the obsolete printers -- and half-consumed cups of coffee -- into perspective, doesn't it?

"Sadly," says Phil, "I believe that this attitude is endemic in our culture today. Rather than do a little upfront engineering, companies decide instead to rob their customers later."

As long as we don't perceive this constant need to upgrade as robbery and see it instead as an inevitability or a matter of our own desire, this system works fine. But the minute sentiment changes and a company comes along that presents consumers with a choice -- systems engineered to outlast change, an operating system that will never require an upgrade -- things could go terribly wrong for the creators of the new.

As Phil says, "Companies that foolishly squander their customers' goodwill will get trampled in the stampede to leave when somebody comes along who is willing to treat them right."

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This story, "How disposable is your technology?," was originally published at Read more of Christina Tynan-Wood's Gripe Line blog at

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