Monday, November 19, 2012

Appliances

In the last year I've brought a coffee maker, ice cream maker, bread maker, lawn mower (it's a long story). I love appliances. But there's something that I'm finding very concerning in the computer world.

I could do without a toaster. I mean... an oven does a very similar job right? I mean... it's just an element inside a box. I could heat up the oven, chuck a couple of bits of bread in there, turn them over, take them out etc. But, of course, it takes a whole lot more effort and time to do so. It's convenient to be able to chuck in a couple of pieces of bread and push a button.

I remember getting my first IBM compatible computer - a 486 - and the excitement over being able to do EVERYTHING! The computer and printer cost a whooping $3,000. From then on I was able to do some programming (Though I found it hard in Windows. Compare this to the humble little Amstrad I had prior to this), watch movies (although, they were horribly choppy and pixelated. I remember a group of friends and I gathered around a computer watching a movie as this particular computer had a MPEG decoder card - meaning you could watch a vcd quality movie without all the choppiness), do assignments (although word processors were thin on the ground. You basically had 2 options back then - Word Perfect or MS Word) and even play games! My beast of a 486 was brilliant!

Fast forward to today. Nowadays I don't actually have a desktop computer (and I'm fretting the fact... My laptop is going to have to go away for a warranty claim leaving me without a usable computer). I have a phone which is basically a really funky touch screen mini computer which is, while not great for consuming media, is really crap for generating it. I have an ebook reader which runs Linux on an ARM processor - making it a computer as well. I have Raspberry Pi's around the place which I'm using for various purposes (mainly development of really funky things).

This scares me a little bit. Not the fact that I have lots of computing devices around, but that they're now seen like a bit of a toaster. They're appliances. So what happens when your toaster craps out? Do you get it repaired? Even if you take it in for a warranty claim, they chuck out the old and replace it. There are brands of TV's that operate in this way - they're actually made to be hard to get back in.

So what happens when we start to apply this to computers?

  1. Computing devices become limited in scope. They're only made for particular tasks. The customer is being unreasonable to expect them to do more. A chromebook is just for browsing the Internet and interact with a few things that Google think you should be able to do.
  2. Computers become a whole lot more disposable. That 486? I had it for around 4 years before replacing it (though there were upgrades - more memory, a faster video card etc.). Would you even contemplate repairing/upgrading a tablet?
  3. Computers are controlled not by the owner, but by the manufacturer.
With the launch of Windows 8, the TV3 News story actually said something about the the desktop computer being replaced by appliances. That box that you could do things like add more RAM, add a network adapter, replace the hard drive or add more hard drives.... all gone.

Google are even limiting things further. Their Nexus phones/tablets - don't have the normal sdcard slot. You have to buy them by their memory (at a hugely inflated price of course. i.e. the 16GB model is US$50 more expensive than the 8GB model. Compare that $50 to the cost of a 16GB sdcard). So say you brought the 8GB model, and found you needed more memory. Your only choice would be to ditch your old device and buy a new one.

And should we even open up the can of worms that is the iSheep culture? Don't know what the iSheep culture is? It's a bit of a play on the whole Apple naming scheme. The way that people will ditch perfectly functional devices that they were singing the praises of only 12 months earlier just to have the trendiest device - with very little in terms of change of functionality. The difference between an iPad 2 and iPad 4 for example is more RAM, a faster processor (1GHz to 1.4GHz) and a denser pixel screen. It doesn't matter that the functionality hasn't really changed. What's important is that they have the latest and greatest.

To me this is all an environmental nightmare. We may feel good about ourselves sorting our recyclables from our rubbish (Although it's mileage is debatable. Often the products are recycled into something that's quite nasty to the environment - milk bottles into road paint for example. And just because things are recyclable, doesn't mean they are recycled. Mixed plastic media - yoghurt containers for example - don't have a demand thus aren't recycled) and in my case, using fountain pens to avoid having to throw away bits of plastic (as well as the added benefit that they're just a hell of a lot nicer to write with) and DE Razors because there's no real reason to use that much plastic to shave etc. but we seem to be being sucked into this horribly wasteful culture.

Not only that, but I really like owning my devices. I wouldn't have bothered with Raspberry Pi if it wasn't for the fact that I was prepared to hack away at it and come up with my own interpretation of something (i.e. I'm not happy running XBMC - I want to create my own Media Centre). If I want to do something outside of X manufacturer's way of doing things (I like being able to just plug into my printer without having to check for Internet connectivity first) then I don't want to feel that I'm fighting to do so. I really like being able to use my devices to what I think is their useful life (really this is a matter of usage. If I'm just using a tablet as a remote for another device, then there's no reason that I couldn't use a horribly outdated tablet) is rather than having to go with X manufacturers sales cycle. Owning my device is really important to me. It's the Free in Free Software.

So this post is basically a call out to people out there to consider their impact on the environment before that next insubstantial upgrade and a call to consider what you're really going to use the appliance for and what limitations these devices have on you.

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