Sunday, April 7, 2019

The "computer" industry

I've literally grown up through the "computer revolution" and I am quite dismayed at the direction it is heading.  I can remember waaay back before the average consumer could even think about having a computer in their home, yes, back to when having a transistor radio was on the cutting edge.  In those days computers were the exclusive purview of government and universities and took up rooms, or buildings, worth of space. Along came the late 60's to early 70's and calculators.  The miniaturization revolution had begun.

My first look at a computer came in the form of a rather expensive, for the time, calculator.  My calculator was an old Texas Instruments jobbie and I can remember tinkering around with calculations in an attempt to get it to do something other than simple addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, essentially looking for boundary conditions that made the brain in it freak out.  Fun and geeky times.  Calculators became more powerful and started rocking those cool, new liquid crystal displays, memory and more functions just as the first hobby computers came out.

Fondly, I remember the first real computer I ever laid eye on.  This computer was some variety of HeathKit with a 2 digit display that could do some hexadecimal math.  It only had a very basic set of keys and just the 2 hex digits for display.  In modern terms it was barely a computer, but to me it was cutting edge and I used it at every opportunity I could.  The programs were small and you had to understand the architecture pretty well to get it to do much.  To me this was just awesome and it is where I discovered my affinity for such things.  Not long after my school came into the possession of an early Apple computer with an actual CRT display. My God, the power.  Still programming in Hex and accessing the hardware directly this was a heady time.  More systems were hitting the market and schools were picking them up, computer clubs were forming, and we students were really diving in and "hacking".

In those days the term "Hacking" did not mean anything evil.  Hacking was the term for taking things apart and probing their innards to discover how they worked and what cool things you could accomplish with them.  In short, we LEARNED a lot about computer architecture, programming and even pushed the boundaries of what these devices were meant by their manufacturers to do.  We were proud to wear the label of Hacker and we had a passion for learning and discovery.  These days the term Hacker has been co-opted in a negative light and most people equate it with criminal and that makes me rather sad.  However, I am digressing, but I thought it worthwhile to understand where I come from to make my point about the current direction of the computer industry at large.

Ok then.  so I come from the early days of computing where everything about our systems and devices were open and discoverable, yet today it seems to me that the overall direction is now the opposite.  Computers, and software are now subject to patent lawsuits, "ecosystems" are now a thing with many manufacturers, and the general push is towards disposable devices.

Take Apple for instance.  Here you have a company that puts on a happy, public face of cool hipsters, user friendliness, and ease of use, yet they will tell you if your phone won't start you need a new one.  They literally cannot fix much or even replace a battery and actively prevent customers from seeking out sources who can fix their gear.  Just check out Louis Rossmann's YouTube channel for info on that subject.  Apple isn't by any stretch the only company making disposable devices as the majority of smart phone manufacturers now glue everything in their phones making simple tasks like battery replacement impossible for customers.  I fear that computers are heading in that direction.

Look at laptops which is a classification where I include notebooks, ultrabooks and the like.  Contrast a laptop with a desktop, and I don't mean and "appliance" like the Intel NUC.  I call the appliances, because to me they are just that and have much the same issues as laptops which I shall spew on about presently.  Laptops are what I now term "disposable computers".  I call them disposable for the following reasons:

1) You have very limited upgrade and repair options.
2) As software becomes more resource heavy, the laptop only has a few years of useful life for most.

Let's talk upgrades now.  In a typical laptop you might be able to replace the main storage unit, or hard disk and upgrade the memory.  That is about it.  In a more traditional desktop, you can still replace all the guts from memory to CPU to graphics processor and over time keep the machine current.  if you want to keep a laptop or appliance current, well you have to get a new one.  Could laptops be made to be upgradeable?  Certainly.  That is an engineering issue, but it seems to me that corporate greed and consumer laziness spawned a business model that keeps us buying replacements and generating ever increasing mountains of toxic e-waste.  As evidence, just go to your local electronics store that sells computers and look at the ratio of upgradable desktops to laptops they sell.  You may be hard pressed to find a desktop in some stores these days.  This is one trend that upsets me.

Another trend that really makes me want to pull out what hair I have left is that of licensing and proprietary systems and software.  Back in the early days pretty much all information about those computers were made available.  Circuit and logic diagrams, processor and chip functions, manufacturer generated technical specs and documents actually came with many systems.  These days mainstream manufacturers tell you little to nothing and they sue each other over stupid things like rounded corners on phones.  So if you want to "hack", in the original sense", you can be subject to prosecution if you publish your discoveries for spilling trade secrets.  This extends to hardware and software, so you are expected to operate on the lack of information, or outright B.S. a manufacturer deigns to give you and be happy with that even if all you want to do is fix what you already paid for.  Very sad times indeed which leaves me feeling rather down about banking my future on the tech industry in general.

That pretty much sums up my feelings regarding the computer industry and has played a fairly major part in my decision to retire from I.T.  I am not someone who will take crap handed to me when I know full well that the barriers to achieving a successful outcome are purely artificial.  Please note that there is some light, not much, but some.  The Open Source movement is now not only concerned with software and is moving into hardware albeit slowly and with much resistance.  I do hope it makes major inroads into the public consciousness and that we see a return to those wonderful times when computing was open, information was exchanged freely, and when we were excited and proud to be called Hackers.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please feel free to express your opinions, but keep things PG and respectful of others.