Posted by: Jim | March 23, 2004

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State of the Computer Industry

True the the rigid theme of “The Meat of the Matter” … that being no theme at all … I am now going to change the topic to something near and dear to my heart: The state of the computer industry.

Truth be told, this is a snippet for a book in progress. Don’t tell anyone, but I’m a technical support consultant. So without any further adieu … here it is, somewhat abridged.

1: Technology Companies manipulate the pace of change in order to maximize profits.

Planned obsolescence by both hardware and software manufacturers keep corporations feeling like they are either “behind the times” or “in the chaos of change.” Anyone who either works in a corporation ro works with one knows that corporations almost never have stable, well-run IT systems that are not undergoing some form of upgrade or change. Working in such an environment is kind of like tuning up your car while you’re stuck in rush hour traffic.

2: Software manufacturers who design software that is optimized for the “next” operating system complement the pace of this technology advancement.

The above pace would not succeed if there were not business drivers that cause corporations to upgrade to the latest application or operating system. Work with me here, I’m actually going to make a point. The primary drivers are key business tools (software) that are developed to work better with the next generation of operating system. This is the only reason people aren’t using DOS anymore. Cha-ching!. Also, since DOS required 56k of memory, and Windows XP requires … like 56 gajillion k of memory, these OS upgrades won’t work on your old 8088 anymore. You have to upgrade your hardware. Cha-ching!.

3: (And now I’m finally getting to my point) Rather than driving the pace of their own changes, corporations have become driven by these market changes, which are out of their control.

In order to stay competitive, corporations are forced to use software that is compatible with other touch points in their industry. Now before you start listing a litany of reasons for why these touchpoints have actually improved business, remember one thing: I’m the blogger here, and I’m naked. Don’t argue with me.

OK, yes there are some ways in which computers have improved manufacturing, accounting, and, well, pretty much every industry. But remember that what I’m talking about here is the vast majority of computers that sit in so many de-humanizing cubicles where schlubs like you and I work. If you work in a lab or a plant, mileage may vary. Now STFU.

Installation of these newer versions of software often requires a newer operating system. Cha-ching!. New operating systems often require new hardware. Cha-ching!. New hardware accommodates the installation and use of new, bigger software packages. More cha-ching!.

4: The gains achieved in speed or efficiency have NOT offset the costs of these upgrades.

In recent years, improvements to the speed of computing have changed very little for the average computer user. The average computer user uses word processing, spreadsheets, and sometimes database programs. Like I said earlier, major strides have been made for specialized needs like scientific computations and graphic computations, but these comprise the teeny-weeny minority of users.

Most of us use e-mail, word processing, spreadsheets, and data entry. None of these things are faster or notably better than they were 10 years ago. When I go to open a freaking EXCEL SPREADSHEET on my computer (can you hear me yelling?) my FREAKING COMPUTER that has the latest and greatest in what Microsoft and Dell have to offer, groans and whines like it’s a fricking circa 1845 STEAM SHOVEL digging a FRICKING DITCH. A few minutes later … viola’! Excel.

Granted, my new version of excel can do pivot tables, and can probably handle a bit more data than my old computer, but the speed of this tool is pretty much the SAME as the speed of my old DOS machine. Why is this? Because Microsoft doesn’t make quality products. They make bloatware which, I think, chokes my machine on purpose so that I will want a faster machine that can coincidentally hold their next bigger and more bloated operating system. Sheesh. Do I sound like a conspiracy theorist?

People have problems with this point, but the key is to see a computer holistically, not as a series of components. In 1985, you could buy an 8088 computer using DOS and a dual-floppy arrangement. You could buy a word processor, and do most of your basic computing all for about $800 – $1000. If you are an entry-level computer buyer today you can hop onto the train for the same amount of money, except you’ll be buying a P3, color monitor, 80 gig hard drive. From a corporation’s standpoint–for the majority of users–they have had to do this SIX TIMES since 1985 (once every three years) just to maintain the same level of computing.

If you look at a computer in light of a particular component, the picture becomes deceptively better. For example, if I were to plop a P4 into my laptop right now. It would SCREAM in comparison to my current 500 mhz chip.

5: The speed of this change has put most computer users into a state of technological fibrillation.

Most of us in today’s workforce have received computer training of some kind. We’ve most likely been trained on their primary specialized tool(s), and some other “standard” training, such as basic training in their operating system. Once trained initially, we felt empowered and had impetus to continue learning the finer points of our tool. I remember thinking “Wahoo! I am a master of Excel 4.0 on Windows for Workgroups 3.11! I … AM … A … GOD!” Then, a few months to a year later, our tool was very likely upgraded or changed altogether, and our training was rendered obsolete. (I remember thinking “What the … ???”)

After a few cycles of this, most of us end users of technology “give up” trying to master our tool, because it’s obvious that the goal of mastering the use of our computer has become a moving target. And if we didn’t, we didn’t get trained anymore anyway. You know why? Because organizations figured out that training was just plain silly, and for the most part stopped spending money on it.

Now, we focus our job development on other aspects of our job–the ones that don’t change. If problems with the computer arrive … fuck ’em. We can always call the help desk.

6: The speed of this change has also placed a higher and higher premium on technical support personnel who are trained in the latest operating system and software.

The problem here, of course, is that the glut of technical support analysts who are flooding the market have expertise, but they don’t have understanding. It matters little, however, as these technicians find themselves employed very easily. As the disconnection between our workforce and their primary tool grows, the need for technical support analysts will stay high, and so will costs. Even Saturday Night Live saw this problem and had a skit for awhile that made fun of tech support geeks. Ha ha SNL. Very funny. Ha. Ha.

Conclusion #1: Corporations are no longer free to choose the primary tools of their workforce.

If any single corporation (with perhaps a few high-profile market leaders with a huge market share) were to put their foot down and say “we are not going to upgrade any software for the next five years” would likely find themselves trailing the pack after that 5 years was over. Over the course of those five years, most corporations that play ball with Mr. Gates and his la familiawill have dished out from $25,000 per user in hardware, software, and tech support costs. HUGE ASS Cha-CHING!.

Five years ago, in 1999, Windows ’98 or Windows NT 4.0 were the primary, cutting edge operating systems. Any organization still using Windows ’98 today is either about to go bankrupt, or is a non-profit or a school. Furthermore, Microsoft just deigned to change their mind about even supporting Windows NT after last February, and it likely won’t outlast the year. When Microsoft doesn’t support your operating system anymore, you are at the mercy of whatever exploit a two-bit hacker might create. And you can’t fix it yourself because you don’t have the source code. There isn’t a word for how unfair that is. I’ll probably think of it later in a fit of “Treppenwitz”. (Heh … cool. I used that word in a sentence.)

Conclusion #2: Our workforce is unable to efficiently use the primary tools of their job.

That point is painfully obvious. Have I missed anything? Oh yeah, the solution.

If I had a crystal ball and a magic wand, I would say that the future will look like this:

1. Local machines will take a step back toward dumb terminals, but still have a local processor like a P3.
2. Web interface to all applications run from servers. Please God, not I.E.
3. Wireless networks. Hopefully they don’t cause cancer or genital warts.
4. Grid computing that run batches at night a’ la “SETI @ Home”. No more mainframes.
5. Open source Operating Systems. (I’ll give you a hint. It starts with L and ends with “inux”.)

However, this is with a magic wand. With no magic wand but still a crystal ball, I would say the future looks like a grim reminder of the present. There was a glimmer of hope when the feds were trying to break up Microsoft, but then 9/11 happened. Then Microsoft gave the government a back door into everyone’s operating system with Windows XP. Then the feds dropped all charges. Cha-ching!.

And now the grand summation, which is somewhat of an afterthought. All this flurry is indeed the result of all the above, but it’s also the result of two things: Moore’s Law and Spinoza’s Law. Moore’s Law states that the number of transistors per square inch on integrated circuits will doubled every year. He’s been right so far. This creates a vacuum–a vacuum for space and computational power. Spinoza’s law states that nature abhors a vacuum. So … mix in a little corporate greed and you get the complete madness we have today.

However, most experts agree that Moore’s Law is not an eternal law. (Like say, you shouldn’t sleep with your wife’s sister.) Once we peak on our ability to squeeze transistors onto a square inch of circuits, software developers might be hard pressed to add a 90-megabyte super-keen-o ring-a-ling spiffy feature into their software. When that happens, Microsoft might actually have to work at the art of writing code, rather than simply the business.

But until then … Cha-ching!.

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