Monday, October 14, 1996

Week of 10/14/1996

New and Obsolete…
The speed of upgrades are going faster than consumers can buy them!
- by David Matthews 2

Way back in 1990, my parents decided to buy their first personal computer. This was at the time uncharted waters for all of us. My experience with computers was limited to pre-Windows IBM computers and the very first generation of Macintosh. I knew just enough to know how to turn on and off a computer, and how a mouse works. So we went to Sam’s Warehouse and purchased our first computer.

We had gotten an IBM-compatible KLH tower system, with dual disk drives (one 5-inch and one 3-inch), a mouse, 4MB of RAM, a 16-color VGA monitor, a 386 processor with 10mhz of processor speed that was boosted to 40mhz with a button called "turbo" (which obviously we didn’t turn off), 125MB of hard drive space, and a 2400 baud fax/data modem.

At the time it was considered "state of the art." That distinction lasted only two weeks.

A lot has changed since then. We had upgraded that computer and gave it to my sister and her husband, but not before buying another "state of the art" system with a 100mhz Pentium processor, a floppy drive, a 2X CD-ROM drive, 14,400 baud fax/data modem, 8MB of RAM, a 256-colot Super VGA monitor with stereo speakers, 1MB Video RAM, and 1GB (or 1000MB) of hard drive space. Months later I got my own computer that was almost "state of the art" except that now that meant also having a 4X CD-ROM drive, 1.2GB of hard drive space, 16MB of RAM, a combination 14,400 baud fax/data/voice modem and sound card, and a microphone. The "almost" was because the 14,400 baud modem was no longer "state of the art," and because many multimedia programs now needed even more Video RAM to be seen clearly. It’s now a year later and everything on my system is no longer "state of the art."

Have you noticed that system upgrades are coming out faster than the rate consumers can purchase them? It seems like the minute you purchase a computer component it is already outdated.

Take modems, for instance. My sister’s KLH system still has its old 2400 baud modem in it, which was outdated weeks after we first bought the computer by the 4800 baud modem. The came the 9600 modem, and then the 14,400 baud modem, and then the 28,800 baud modem. 33,600 baud modems didn’t even hit the stores when ISDN and T1 Internet modems were making their debut. And people are now talking about cable-modems and satellite dish modems to provide an even faster transfer of information.

Same with CD-ROM drives. My parents got a 2X (or double speed), which was state of the art for only a few months. Then came 4X, then 6X, then 8X. And now a year after I purchased my 4X CD-ROM drive the 10X drives are available.

A year ago the rage was the Windows 95 operating system. But it was barely even on the shelves when software publications were talking about plans for Windows 96 and Windows 97. Fortunately, Bill Gates hasn’t rushed to make Windows 95 obsolete… yet.

Then there’s the cost of continuously upgrading those systems. I purchased my system with a 1.2GB hard drive thinking it would be THE maximum I would need. I was wrong. I ended up buying an additional 2.1 GB hard drive six months later to help contain all the new programs I wanted to put in there. My computer came equipped with 1MB of Video RAM, but even now that isn’t enough. Certain multimedia programs require even MORE than 1MB of video memory. So now I’m looking at video accelerators, which means spending more money.

The latest "rush to upgrade" has involved Microsoft and Netscape and their respective Internet browsers. For a few years now Netscape was considered the "king" of the browsers. Over three-fourths of all web pages on the Internet were designed for the Netscape browser. And for a year Netscape was conducting "alpha" and "beta" tests of it’s new 2.0 browser. Microsoft, the underdog (imagine that!) in Internet browsers, had released it’s version 2.0 not only as part of it’s new Windows 95 system, but also sold it independently- with lackluster results (obviously, since they were already giving it away with Windows 95). Then suddenly, Microsoft releases it’s 3.0 version on the Internet.. not only that but they released it FREE! Netscape, after having only recently releasing it’s 2.0 version, then released it’s own 3.0 version. Now both companies are fighting over which is the better version, as well as who would come out with their NEXT generation of browsers in the fall, while they have barely begun to sell their respective 2.0 versions.

I have never been the one to complain about the drive for excellence in business. However, this "rush" to upgrade has always been one of the key problems with computers and the software industry, partly because the speed of these upgrades are going at a pace faster than retailers can sell the previous models.

If anything, the Internet has aggravated the rush to upgrade. The battle of the browsers between Netscape and Microsoft is only part of the problem. Many web designers have also been creating complex and elaborate sites on the assumption that EVERYONE would be using the fastest modems available and the most advanced browsers available, even if it’s only in it’s "beta-test" version.

But when you’re using a 14.4 modem it takes a long time to get that single page loaded when it’s cluttered with images and Java and plug-ins and frames. So now I’m also looking at faster modems just so I can access those sites.

With all this rush to make the computer world "state of the art," designers and software companies have forgotten one important element in business- the consumer! After all, these are the people who will be buying their products. And when a product, be it hardware or software, costs more than a couple of dollars, it can turn into a serious investment for them. Unlike big corporations, the average consumer cannot afford to buy "the latest" at the drop of a hat.

There used to be a trend called "keeping up with the Jones’," which referred to keeping up with the latest and most up-to-date products available. This applied to cars, houses, television sets, fashion… but obviously it does not continue into the age of the personal computer. In the end, computer companies need to remember that while it is ideal to always be looking for ways to improve a system, they don’t outpace the speed of their consumers.

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