Entries Tagged ‘Obsolescence’

Is hardware customization obsolete?

Wednesday, September 21st, 2011 by Max Baron

It used to be that you could install plug-in boards and peripherals for your computer such as can still be done today at the box level in component stereo and video systems. In today’s computers, that option however seems to be rapidly disappearing. During the next few years, with desktops falling out of grace, these aftermarket components will see reduced sales as the easy to customize desktops are replaced by fully integrated systems that are difficult to change or upgrade internally or externally.

The trend may impact on design houses connected directly or indirectly to desktop systems whether by hardware or software products. Computer customization by owner options have been decreasing all along but due to the slow process one may not have fully realized the implications. During the recent months however, it has become impossible to avoid noticing the events that are reflecting on the technology and business of desktop computers: Hewlett Packard announced its intention to sell its PC business; Fry’s Electronics, a major computer and electronics store in our area has cut a few daily advertisements in the local newspaper plus most stores are reducing the number of desktops displayed to make space for increasing offerings of smart phones, tablets and notebooks. And, more indicative than anything else, we see tablets and smart phones used by people who have never before used desktops or laptops.

The plunging prices of computers have already taken a bite out of aftermarket internal components like add-on boards and memory as desktop manufacturers began to integrate more functions in the motherboard to maintain company revenues. Customization received a further setback with the quickly rising adoption of mobile devices that are nearly impossible to upgrade. You can’t add internal memory, change graphics boards, or add a multimedia board or peripherals. Mobile devices are too small in size. They require all internal components to be tightly packed plus for proprietary reasons some manufacturers will not allow the addition of external flash memory and USB devices. Also, any customization even if it were allowed might increase battery consumption and reduce the time between charges.

Computer software has followed hardware. System software that’s dependent on aftermarket components will share their fate. Applications software is suffering from limitations placed by battery lifecycles on internal memory, processor performance and the reduced number of processor cycles imposed by low energy consumption.

But, we may be looking at a more significant cause for the trend than the adoption of mobile devices: the separation of professional applications from entertainment and communication. MS Excel spreadsheets, complex MS Word documents, database management, MS PowerPoint, simulators, calculators etc., can continue to be delivered on powerful desktops whose volume sales are defined by corporate use — sales that will pale in comparison with the combined volume sales expected for consumer-targeted mobile computing appliances. These appliances are already providing news, information, email, access to internet communities, opinions, video and audio, games, internet-enabled purchases of goods, etc., all delivered on simple and easy to use systems.

The general purpose computer is experiencing defeat: consumers that want just the entertainment and communication no longer need to buy bulky complex desktops or laptops or for fear of complexity, avoid buying them. They can buy an appliance that does exactly what they want.

Most of today’s mobile computing devices can be upgraded only by software that can provide additional functions, faster processing or more secure communications—but as perceived at present these computing appliances will otherwise remain unchanged. Like several consumer digital cameras that one may own and use for different purposes, one may have to buy different mobile devices from several manufacturers and/or keep up with new generations coming from the same manufacturer. But mobile device prices are forbidding such luxury and the opportunity of aftermarket customization needs to be explored.

Assuming that the world will again be separated into closed systems and open systems, the latter to gain more traction, it is interesting to envision how these systems might be customized to fit individual preferences. If old computers could be customized via boards plugged into system buses and external peripherals connected to high speed I/O, in mobile devices we might see the emergence of new and old functions packaged for example in thin 1 in² – 2 in² modules that could be introduced / swapped via a removable panel. Different modules could offer features such as higher security, additional codecs, ROM-ed applications, better graphics, higher quality still and video photography, USB and Ethernet support and wireless battery charging.

Do you see open mobile systems triumphing once more over their closed versions and if so, what would be the most important functions to support and how would they be best packaged?

Will the Internet become obsolete?

Wednesday, July 13th, 2011 by Robert Cravotta

I saw an interesting question posed in a video the other day: “How much money would someone have to pay you to give up the internet for the rest of your life?” A professor in the video points out the huge gap between the value of using the Internet and the cost to use it. An implied assumption in the question is that the Internet will remain relevant throughout your entire lifetime, but the more I thought about the question, the more I began to wonder if that assumption is reasonable.

While there are many new technologies, devices, and services available today that did not exist a few decades ago, there is no guarantee that any of them will exist a few decades hence. I recently discovered a company that makes custom tables, and their comment on not integrating technology into their table designs illustrates an important point.

“We are determined to give you a table that will withstand the test of time. For example, if you wanted a music player in your table in the 1970s, you wanted an 8-track tape deck, 1980s a cassette tape deck, 1990s a CD player, 2000s an iPod docking station, 2010s a streaming device, and 2020s small spike that you impale into the listener’s tympanic bone, which is now the only way to listen to music, rendering the installation of any of the previous technology a useless scar upon your beautiful table. (No, we don’t actually know if that last one is where music is heading, but if it does, you heard it here first.) The same goes for laptop electrical cords. We can install attachments to deal with power cords, but at the rate battery technology is changing, like your cellular phone or mp3 player, you may just have a docking station you set it on at night, rendering the need for cords obsolete.”

I have seen a number of electronic technologies disappear from my own home and work office over the past few years. When I first setup a home office, I needed a fax machine and dedicated phone line for it. Both are gone today. I watched as my VHS tape collection became worthless, and as a result, my DVD collection is a bit more modest – thank goodness because now I hardly ever watch DVDs anymore because I can stream almost anything I want to watch on a demand basis. While we still have the expensive and beautiful cameras my wife and I bought, we never use them because some of the devices with integrated digital cameras are good enough quality, much easier to use, and much cheaper to use. My children would rather text their friends than actually talk to each other.

So, will the Internet become obsolete in a few decades time as something with more or better functions and is cheaper and easier to use replaces it? I am not sure because the Internet seems to embody a different concept than all of those other technologies that have become obsolete. The Internet is not tied to a specific technology, form factor, access method, or function other than connecting computing devices together.

In a sense, the Internet may be the ultimate embedded system because nearly everyone that uses it does not care about how it is implemented. Abstracting the function of connecting two sites from the underlying technology implemented may allow the Internet to avoid becoming obsolete and replaced. Or does it? Some smartphones differentiate themselves by how they access the Internet – 3G or 4G. Those smartphone will definitely become obsolete in a few years because the underlying technology of the Internet will definitely keep changing.

Will the Internet be replaced by something else? If so, what is you guess as to what will replace the Internet? If not, how will it evolve to encompass the new functions that currently do not exist? As more people and devices attach to the Internet, will it make sense to have separate infrastructures to support data for human and machine consumption?

How do you handle obsolescence?

Wednesday, March 9th, 2011 by Robert Cravotta

Producers and users are both involved when a product, component, or technology is slated for obsolescence, but both parties do not always agree that the obsolescence is appropriate. Take for example Microsoft’s efforts to kill Internet Explorer 6 (IE6). The company recently launched a website called ie6countdown.com with the intent to track and encourage people to migrate away from the ten year old web browser. As of February 2011, 12% of worldwide users are still using IE6 as their browser – this represents a sizable group of people that present a support challenge for Microsoft and web content developers. According to Roger Capriotti at Microsoft, their goal is to get the worldwide share down to below 1% because they believe that 1% will allow more sites and IT pros worldwide to make IE6 a low-priority browser.

One thing I was not able to discover on the tracking website is the type of machine these IE6 users are running the browser on. I suspect that the underlying hardware may play a larger role in the continued use of the browser that will be three generations behind the latest browser (IE9) as of March 14th.

For embedded developers, the obsolescence of components can wreak havoc. While the end user may not even be aware of the embedded systems in their end devices, changing the implementation of an embedded system is no trivial task. That is why on many aerospace programs I worked on we specified that the microprocessor that we selected must be available to support a twenty or thirty year support window. Now that did not mean the processor supplier had to keep manufacturing those processors for all of those years, but it did mean that there was a plan to pre-produce and store those processors against some usage plan for that period of time.

Part of the reason for continuing to use the older processors was that it was too risky and expensive to upgrade the system to the latest generation processors. Even though a processor may be fully backwards compatible, the interfaces and timing differences of system events could shift just enough to cause intermittent failures in the end system. To upgrade a processor would entail a complete recertification, and for some systems, that is an unjustifiable expense to only maintain the functionality of a system.

Maintaining older generations of components beyond their production life cycle can also apply to software modules. Changing the operating system in an embedded system may also require a recertification, so it is safer and more cost effective to freeze the operating system at a specific configuration and version.

How do you handle obsolescence – both as a producer and as a user? As a producer, this question is most interesting when your user base wishes to continue using your product beyond your planned production cycle. As a user, this question is interesting as a way to explore different strategies to maintain a frozen design or migrate the design without incurring product killing costs.