Saturday, 15 November 2014

The Hardware Cycle

I’m writing this on a Windows XP netbook that is now well out of extended life support as far as Microsoft is concerned. I’m still happily using Microsoft Office 2002 to read and send email and the same version of Word to write my articles. This blog post is being written with Windows Live Writer which is considerably newer (2009) but still more than adequately does the job. At Agile on the Beach 2014 back in September, I give my Test-Driven SQL talk and coding demo on my 7 year old Dell laptop, which also runs XP (and SQL Server Express 2008). But all that technology is pretty new compared to what else we own.

I live in a house that is well over 150 years old. My turntable, CD player, amplifier, speakers etc. all date from the late 80’s and early 90’s. My first wide-screen TV, a 30 inch Sony beast from the mid 90’s is still going strong as the output for our various games consoles - GameCube, Dreamcast, Atari 2600, etc. Even our car, a 7-seater MPV that lugs a family of 6 around constantly, has just had its 8th birthday and that actually has parts that suffer from real wear-and-tear. Our last washing machine and tumble dryer, two other devices which are in constant use in a big family, also lasted over 10 years before recently giving up the ghost.

Of course we do own newer things; we have to. My wife has a laptop for her work which runs Windows 8 and the kids watch Netflix on the iPad and Virgin Media Tivo box. And yet I know that all those things will still be around for some considerable time, unlike our mobile phones. Yes, I do still have a Nokia 6020i in my possession for those occasional camping trips where electricity is scarce and a battery that lasts 10 days on standby is most welcome. No, it’s the smart phones which just don’t seem to last, we appear to have acquired a drawer full of phones (and incompatible chargers).

My own HTC Desire S is now just over 3 years old. It was fine for the first year or so but slowly, over time, each app update sucks more storage space so that you have to start removing other apps to make room for the ones you want to keep running. And the apps you do keep running get more and more sluggish over time as the new features, presumably aimed at the newer phones, cause the device to grind. Support for the phone’s OS only seemed to last 2 years at the most (Android 2.3.5). My eldest daughter’s HTC Wildfire which is of a similar age is all but useless now.

As a professional programmer I feel obligated to be using the latest kit and tools, and yet as I get older everywhere I look I just see more Silver Bullets and realise that the biggest barrier to me delivering is not the tools or the technology, but the people - it’s not knowing “how” to build, but knowing “what” to build that’s hard. For the first 5 years or so of my career I knew what each new Intel CPU offered, what sort of RAM was best, and then came the jaw-dropping 3D video cards. As a gamer Tom’s Hardware Guide was a prominent influence on my life.

Now that I’m married with 4 children my priorities have naturally changed. I am beginning to become more aware of the sustainability issues around the constant need to upgrade software and hardware, and the general declining attitude towards “fixing things” that modern society has. Sadly WD40 and Gaffer tape cannot fix most things today and somehow it’s become cheaper to dump stuff and buy a new one than to fix the old one. The second-hand dishwasher we inherited a few years back started leaking recently and the callout charge alone, just to see if it might be a trivial problem or a lost cause, was more than buying a new one.

In contrast though the likes of YouTube and 3D printers has put some of this power back into the hands of consumers. A few years back I came home from work to find my wife’s head buried in the oven. The cooker was broken and my wife found a video on YouTube for how to replace the heating element for the exact model we had. So she decided to buy the spare part and do it herself. It took her a little longer than the expert in the 10 minute video, but she was beaming with a real sense of accomplishment at having fixed it herself, and we saved quite a few quid in the process.

I consider this aversion to filling up landfills or dumping electronics on poorer countries one of the better attributes I inherited from my father [1]. He was well ahead of the game when it came to recycling; as I suspect many of that generation who lived through the Second World War are. We still have brown paper bags he used to keep seeds in that date back to the 1970’s, where each year he would write the yield for the crop (he owned an allotment) and then reuse the same bags the following year. The scrap paper we scribbled on as children was waste paper from his office. The front wall of the house where he grew up as a child was built by him using spoiled bricks that he collected from a builders merchant on his way home from school. I’m not in that league, but I certainly try hard to question our family’s behaviour and try to minimise any waste.

I’m sure some economist out there would no doubt point out that keeping an old house, car, electronics, etc. is actually worse for the environment because they are less efficient than the newer models. When was the last time you went a week before charging your mobile phone? For me there is an air of irrelevance to the argument about the overall carbon footprint of these approaches, it’s more about the general attitude of being in such a disposable society. I’m sure one day mobile phone technology will plateau, just as the desktop PC has [2], but I doubt I’ll be going 7 days between charges ever again.


[1] See “So Long and Thanks For All the Onions”.

[2] Our current home PC, which was originally bought to replace a 7 year old monster that wasn’t up to playing Supreme Commander, is still going strong 6 years later. It has 4 cores, 4 GB RAM, a decent 3D video card and runs 32-bit Vista. It still suffices for all the games the older kids can throw at it, which is pretty much the latest fad on Steam. The younger ones are more interested in Minecraft or the iPad.

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