Obsolescence. It is almost a given in the high paced PC industry. The word always gives a bitter sweet feeling in the gut. On one hand, there is a certain frustration that your current PC is getting out of date. But this is coupled with the excitement of knowing that you will soon be in the market for a new one. I think we’ve all been through it.
Now that I have had my Gateway NX100X for 18 months, what parts of the computer will ultimately become obsolete? Let’s take a look.
External DVD/CD reader/writer – I definitely took a gamble on this one. Gateway wanted to design a super light, low profile laptop (like a Mac Air one year before its time), so they dropped the internal optical reader/writer. I was certainly nervous since this is my first PC going without, but I made the jump.
Did I make the right call? Yes. I certainly endured a few frustrations. The reason is that when you have a CD/DVD to read/write, the external unit is never near. Heck in most cases, it takes a while just to remember where I last put it. But when I balance these minor frustrations against the smaller form factor, I am ahead.
The CD/DVD will become obsolete shortly. People are quickly moving to downloading software from the internet rather from a CD in a box. Same for music. More importantly, the internet is changing the way that we fundamentally consume video. With all this change on the horizon, there is no way that the good old optical disk will survive.
PCMCIA – THe PCMCIA standard (also called PC card) dates back to 1991, and my NX100X has one PCMCIA slot 17 years later. I have not used it once, and I cannot imagine a potential use in the future. But it sure brings back the nostalgia. PCMCIA was a key standard in the 90’s. Originally, PCMCIA was intended as a universal method for laptops to upgrade memory. However, in the 90’s, PCMCIA slots were essential in order to add sound, SCSI, and then the all important modem. PCMCIA provided a bridge to millions of laptops begging to get online during the internet explosion of the mid to late 90’s.
In the 21st century, I used PCMCIA slots primarily for wireless networking. But now, with the introduction of the Centrino chipset with integrated networking, I predict that the PCMCIA slot has run out of its usefulness.
Flash reader – To be honest, I didn’t even know that this little bugger was on my laptop until last week. It sure came in handy. My camera has a mini USB cable that I always used to transfer my photos to my computer. Then, I lost the cable, and now I realize that the cable isn’t even necessary. Our own research also proved empiracally that the flash reader is always equal if not faster than using the USB cable.
This is one technology that is just getting started. Unlike a stagnant CD/DVD disk, flash capacities continue to grow every year. We can now fit on a tiny chip what was once an entire hard disk 10 years ago. Aside from digital cameras, we are still scratching the surface of the potential of these tiny chips. This is definitely one technology that will not be obsolete any time soon. Don’t get a PC without a flash reader.
Parallel – I was shocked to see that my NX100X (circa 2007) had a parallel port. The parallel port dates back to 1970, predating the PC itself by at least a decade. It made me chuckle to find it on my new Vista PC close to its 40th birthday. Like a hall of fame quarterback that refuses to retire, searching for his past glory. Well it isn’t going to happen. Parallel was washed up with the advent of USB 1.0 back in the mid to late 90’s. I am curious, does anyone out there still use a parallel port?
Even stranger, is that my laptop has a non standard mini parallel port. So even if I had some bizarre desire to use a 20 year old printer, I would have to scrounge around for a non standard parallel cable. It’s definitely time to hang up the cleats, but I am happy to nominate the parallel standard to the PC Hall of Fame.
VGA – Every computer in all of existence has the same video adapter. And it continues to amaze me. The VGA standard is over 20 years ago, but the plug is exactly the same as it was at conception. I can connect a 20 year old monitor to my laptop and it will work. Yes there will be driver issues, but the hardware is compatible. That is good engineering and a ton of foresight. Moreover, as digital LCD displays began to take the market, competitors tried to overtake the old boy. The competitors are now all gone and the old boy still remains. Congratulations to you VGA. I predict that you will be around for a long long time.
Modem – I have a telephone jack on my NX100X, and I will never use it. Not on my last one either. The modem is dead, and there are two assassins. First, is the incredible adoption rates of broadband. The problem with the modem was that it had and always had a ceiling on its performance. It capped at about 56kbps in the mid 90’s. Furthermore, 56kpbs was a theoretical number. Us normal people usually got somewhere close 40kbps. I am amazed to see broadband velocities continue to grow each year.
It took more than one assassin to kill the modem so quickly and completely. Enter, wireless networking. Between broadband and the 802.11 protocol, people have dropped their modems and never looked back.
Amusing tangent. Shortly after leaving Gateway in 1999, I had a meeting with some of the managers at AOL. These guys were cocky. I have met a lot of cocky people. Heck, I am cocky, but these guys took it to a whole new level. As we were drinking a beer, I said “Guys, you have a great business, but there is a big threat – BROADBAND.” They literally laughed me out of the bar. It was unimaginable that something could threaten the AOL Empire. I left humbled.
Broadband was a tidal wave to the PC industry that had many victims. Two of the largest are perhaps the modem and my good friends at AOL.
Network. Here’s a trivia question. What is the oldest standard in your PC? The answer is the Centronics parallel port established in 1970, but the network port, conceived in 1973, isn’t far behind. More importantly, unlike its older brother, the network port isn’t going anywhere. I still use the network port when traveling. Although the world is quickly moving wireless, the hotels are still reeling from retooling from the modem transition. I’m betting that it will be at least a decade before all major hotels have wireless internet. A network port should be on all of our check lists for at least 10 years.
Firewire (1394). I predict a very short life for 1394 for those of you that don’t think it is dead already. Firewire, driven by Apple, was to provide a fast standard to move video information quickly. In the 2002-3 era, I remember resorting to 1394 to move around large amounts of information because USB was too slow. Enter USB 2.0, which blows away Firewire on performance. Moreover, USB is compatible with everything, where Firewire has compatibility with just a handful of high end video cameras. The game is over, and Apple would do us all a favor if they would announce the date of the funeral. I can’t make it but I’ll send flowers.
USB. Perhaps the one technology that is the most important in a PC is USB. Back in the day, there were separate and uniquely color coded ports for the mouse, keyboard, printer, serial port and much more. USB cleaned it all up in one swoop. Then with the advent of USB 2.0, the largest problem with USB was addressed – performance. The number of things that connect to our USB ports is jaw dropping. Cameras, printers, keyboards, mice. Heck, the USB port made the entire thumb drive and external hard drive industries possible. Just today, I saw a TV commercial for the new everywhere wireless internet. Guess what technology they are using? USB, of course.
More importantly, plans are underway for USB 3.0. I can’t wait. USB promises transfer speeds up to 600GB/sec. Can you imagine making a back up of your entire hard drive in a little over a second? Maybe I’ll remember to do it more often. With this type of data, backups will become so painless that we will never lose data any more. There are a lot of winners and losers in the technology obsolescence wars, but the most important one is USB.
At any point in time, a PC is an amalgamation of technologies. Some of these technologies are in their infancy, and others are on their last legs. Some represent the potential of the future, and others represent a link to the past. Either way, how these technologies ebb and flow influence how we use our PCs and more importantly when we will need to buy a new one.