A little while back, Nanani took me to task on how on one hand I poked fun at old ads talking about wizbang technology and then right after comment about how our technology today is so wizbang that there’s nowhere to go from here. I was actually making a comment about the technology from five years ago, but in actuality I think we are reaching the point with some technologies that we’re really beyond the point that the vast majority of the computing public is going to need to advance. Not indefinitely, of course, as technological progress always marches on. But I think that the march is going to start really moving in a direction other than bigger-faster-better. And the advances in the PC world are going to be sideways things that are only “better” insofar as they are more convenient and/or easier to use.

In fact, I think we’ve already past that point. I’ve alluded to it several times but I’m not sure if I’ve addressed it head-on. The most recent desktop CPU I’ve bought has processors running at 3GHz, roughly (I’m too lazy to look it up). That is actually the slowest (or maybe second slowest) speed of my last four processors. Of course, there’s a pretty crucial difference. The new computer is a dual-core and the others are not. That means that the new computer has two processors working together. But you can’t add that up and say “so it’s like 6GHz” because it doesn’t actually work that way. Rather, the enhancement comes from the fact that it can more easily do more things at once. This is especially convenient for a guy like me that has numerous windows open (19 at the moment), but it’s not quite the same as “faster”. Better, but not faster. Cooler, but not necessarily necessary for the average user.

A better example is netbooks, which run slower on single-core processors. Not just single-core CPUs, but ones actually slower than the Pentiums that were available years ago. But netbooks have their own appeal in the form of portability and better battery life and price. This, to a lot of people, is more important than bigger-faster-better the same way that having two 3GHz processors is better than one 6GHz processors. These things are only true because processors have gotten faster than we need them to be.

The same goes to hard drives. Most people need a pretty limited amount of hard drive space. Entry-level HDs on bargain computers actually contain enough HD space for a pretty huge music collection. Most people don’t collect videos yet. But if they do, they’re still more likely than not covered with the 2TB drives available today. They’re covered with half that, most likely. The only real exception is hoarders. But the technology has surpassed the need and this happened some time ago. That’s why the focus is on better and not bigger hard drives. Solid-State Drives, available at sizes a fraction the size of regular ones, are becoming increasingly available. The people don’t need more space, but they need the drive integrity that SSDs offer. Also, portability has become an important thing with pocket drives (not to mention thumb drives).

Now, processors will keep getting faster and hard drives larger because there is a non-trivial segment of the population that will have increasing needs. Businesses can never have too much HD space. Certain tasks can never have too much processing power. But what we see from here is an ever-increasing divide between what the power-user needs and what the average user needs. Since the R&D money has already been spent, the huge hard drives used on corporate servers will be made available to everyone else. But people won’t need them. Almost nobody is anxiously awaiting a 3TB hard drive. The 1TB drives just go in computers cause it’s an impressive number and it’s available and cheap.

This sort of thing does require something of a mind-shift among buyers who are used to things being rated by numbers. That’s something I ran into years ago when it came to CD-ROM speeds. I told people “For what you (and 99% of the public) do, you don’t need a 24x CD ROM. You really don’t. It’s faster, but without purpose outside particular tasks. A 12x will do you just fine. They’d end up getting the 24x anyway because they had internalized that CD-ROM speed matters (and when you were talking about 1x vs 2x or 2x vs 4x, it did!). Then, of course, burners became commonplace and that was a place where speed really did (and does) matter.

All of this really puts the computer industry in a bind because it’s getting harder and harder to convince people to upgrade every three years or so. I am convinced that they used to intentionally short RAM on stock models because they always lowballed that very important component and it made computers seem obsolete (and thus in need of replacing) sooner. But with RAM so cheap they don’t even do that anymore. Another catalyst for upgrades, the latest and greatest Windows OS, is also something of a moot point because Windows 7, as neat as it is, does not actually represent importance in upgrading over XP as did XP over 2000 and (particularly) 2000 over 98. Half of the buzz that Win7 gets is that it’s not Vista and so looks really good by comparison, but most people still don’t need to upgrade. Thankfully, they made it really pretty, and that helps.

This is one of the reasons for Apple’s recent success. This is something that they get. They don’t need a better product. They need a more pleasant one. And they deliver it. One of the big ways in which sideways upgrading has manifested itself is through fragmentation. Apple is jumping onto this with Apple TV and the iPad. the iPad is only for a subsection of the population, but it is the perfect item for these people. Those of us that want something different scratch our head and ask why they didn’t make it so that it can do this or do that and what is it supposed to replace anyway… but it doesn’t have to replace anything. That’s the genius of it. People don’t need to replace their old laptops cause their old laptops work fine. So they created something new that their laptop can’t do. I’m old school enough that I prefer devices that can do more, but it’s becoming more and more apparent that there are huge profits to be made in things that can do less but are more reliable and easy/fun to use in that more limited capacity. They can blow off the bargain-shoppers who want to limit how much they spend with the Mac and blow off the business/serious users with an iPhone that is not remotely as professionally-friendly as the alternatives and blow off the geeks that want to tinker away to get it exactly as they want it. We’re moving towards specific products for specific people rather than the bigger-faster-better that can do more.

I don’t fancy myself much of a futurist, so take my predictions for what they are worth. But this is what I see happening all around us. You should always be careful before saying “the assumptions of yesterday must be replaced” cause that’s the sort of crap that caused the Bubble of the ’90’s, but the assumptions of yesterday must be replaced. Actually, they already have been. Moore’s Law remains in effect – more or less – but has become increasingly irrelevant.


Category: Server Room

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14 Responses to Sideways Upgrades

  1. Brandon Berg says:

    That is actually the slowest (or maybe second slowest) speed of my last four processors. Of course, there’s a pretty crucial difference. The new computer is a dual-core and the others are not.

    There’s more to it than that. While it’s true that clock speeds for silicon CPUs pretty much topped out several years ago, there have been significant advances since then in the amount of work that can be done per clock cycle, such that even purely single-threaded applications run much faster on modern CPUs than they did on the CPUs of five years ago.

    Take a look at Tom’s Hardware’s CPU chart for mp3 encoding with LAME in 2007. The Core 2 Duo E6850 encoded it in half the time the Pentium 4 630 did, even though both ran at a 3.0 GHz clock speed.

    Yes, the Core 2 Duo was dual-core and the Pentium 4 wasn’t, but LAME isn’t multi-threaded. The Pentium D 930 (dual-core) didn’t significantly outperform the Pentium 4 630. The difference was due to better single-threaded performance. Granted, some of that was faster RAM, but most it was the CPU itself.

  2. trumwill says:

    Fair enough. I tend to think of things in terms of multitasking because that’s most of what I do. I should have looked at it more like the Sempron/Athlon or Celeron/Pentium split, where similar cycle-speeds can lead to pretty different results regardless of what how many processes you’re running.

    Neat chart!

  3. ? says:

    So they created something new that their laptop can’t do.

    Other than greater portability, what can the iPad do that a netbook can’t?

  4. trumwill says:

    They can be used without a keyboard and for hours and hours on end (which netbooks can compete with, but laptops have more difficulty with). The increased portability means that they can easily be used in ways that laptops can’t (easily, anyway). And they run phone apps.

    None of this is enough to make me really want one.

  5. rob says:

    I don’t have an iPad either, but what most appeals to me is the horizontal screen. Looking at a screen in front of me, I get distracted. It’s harder to take notes because I’m constantly looking up and down, kinda losing my place. I think the iPad would be much better for studying than reading laptop screen.

    This is one of the reasons for Apple’s recent success. This is something that they get. They don’t need a better product. They need a more pleasant one. And they deliver it.

    Apple was the computer company that decided to target non-geeks. Most people just want computers, or basically any technology to just work. They don’t want to know what a driver is, edit the registry…Computers are engineered by, uh, computer engineers: people who don’t think anything is much more fun than fiddling around with computers all day. They aren’t plugged in to what the mass market wants.

    Remember back in what? ’97? when Apple came out with the iMac. No other computer company thought of colors!

  6. trumwill says:

    Yeah, the vertical screen on the iPad is kind of neat. I swear, widescreen is such a waste.

    Remember back in what? ‘97? when Apple came out with the iMac. No other computer company thought of colors!

    Yeah, and it was all downhill after that. (I’m glad that ThinkPads stick to black… for the most part).

  7. Nanani says:

    Thank you for making this post;
    I work in a field where I have access to the latest tech news and trends, so sometimes I forget what a normal person needs and wants.

    I still think there’s a basic fallacy involved in saying bigger hard drives aren’t needed *on the basis of currently-common files*.
    Five years ago almost nobody downloaded full TV show episodes or anything like that — becaues they couldn’t.
    Now HDTV files DLable at something like 3GB/half hour are current.

    With 3D TV, those files are going to get even bigger – never mind what comes after 3D, such as tactile broadcast (Which is not as far off as it sounds).

    Though it’s definitely true that “more convenient” is a completely different meaning of “better”.

    Another sense of “better tech” falls under “easier to make and therefore cheaper to sell”. This can be invisible in all but the pricetag though.

    Good food for geeky thoughts.

  8. rob says:

    Will, I forgot you were a computer engineer. Of course you hate colors.

  9. trumwill says:

    Five years ago almost nobody downloaded full TV show episodes or anything like that — because they couldn’t.

    In the US, anyway, they were widely available five years ago. It never took off like I expected it to. Like music did. I think that the interest (both in terms of the studio releasing stuff for download and permanent storage and in terms of consumers having these files on their computer) are limited.

    I still think there’s a basic fallacy involved in saying bigger hard drives aren’t needed *on the basis of currently-common files*.

    But will desktop computers house these future files? I’m not sure they will. Videos, which have been widely available for years now, haven’t really caught on. To say nothing of HDTV and future 3D files. People that want the really high-quality stuff want them on their desktops.

    Now DVRs are a slightly different story. Those hard drives will keep getting bigger. Compliances with specific uses will have different needs. The hard drives made for them (and for network servers) will likely migrate to desktops, but they won’t really be used for the most part.

    I think that the *big focus* is going to be on portable media combined perhaps with copy protection. I think that’s really where the money is going to be. Fitting a season of a TV show in HD (or an entire 3D movie or whatever) on a single disc that’s cheap enough for TV studios to use those instead of scratchable discs (with bonus points for copy protection).

    If I’m a muckity-much, that’s the direction I go. We’re way ahead of what most people need in terms of internal HDs (even for DVRs) but portable media is actually behind what we need (some because of capacity, some because of portability, all but BluRay because of IP-protection).

    That’s how I see it.

  10. David Alexander says:

    I’m glad that ThinkPads stick to black… for the most part

    The ThinkPad Edge and X100e come in black, red, and white to appeal to non-traditional TP buyers who used to shy away from the brand because of the “boring” designs. While I’m fond of the aesthetics of the ThinkPads, especially my T410, and my nephew can easy spot the difference between a laptop and an “IBM” as he calls it, most people think they’re ugly and won’t buy them for that reason even despite the other positives of the units.

    I think that the interest (both in terms of the studio releasing stuff for download and permanent storage and in terms of consumers having these files on their computer) are limited.

    To a certain extent, DVRs have killed some of that demand, and DVD box sets have filled that niche as well. Ultimately, I suspect it’s because a thirty minute TV show is roughly the equivalent of fifty songs, so hard drive space can be an issue for some, and also there really hasn’t been an easy way to play movies from a desktop or some laptops on TV unless one starts to purchase high end media sets. Besides, who really wants to watch TV on their crappy 20 in desktop LCD (or 14 in laptop LCD) when the big TV sits in the living room?

  11. Nanani says:

    >Besides, who really wants to watch TV on their crappy 20 in desktop LCD (or 14 in laptop LCD) when the big TV sits in the living room?

    It’s not an either-or issue.
    Just use TVersity or a similar client to stream anything off your hard drive to your TV. I use my PS3 as a media centre for this purpose, but an XBox360 or any computer can do the job.

  12. trumwill says:

    While I’m fond of the aesthetics of the ThinkPads, especially my T410, and my nephew can easy spot the difference between a laptop and an “IBM” as he calls it, most people think they’re ugly and won’t buy them for that reason even despite the other positives of the units.

    Sigh. Yeah, I knew Thinkpads had a line with colors, which is why I added the “almost”. I’ve never seen an actual Edge, though. Maybe because those I hang out with care about the actual computer and not the frou-frou. Seriously, though, I *prefer* black. Isn’t black supposed to be perpetually “in”?

    To a certain extent, DVRs have killed some of that demand, and DVD box sets have filled that niche as well.

    I think that’s mostly right. I think that there are some pretty big advantages to not having to handle DVDs, but I don’t think enough people really care. Maybe in time they will. Currently, though, there are affordable hard drives available to house most peoples’ DVD collection.

    Besides, who really wants to watch TV on their crappy 20 in desktop LCD (or 14 in laptop LCD) when the big TV sits in the living room?

    That’s why I think it’s going to be appliances that are going to use the HD space. DVRs, consoles, and (if they ever come) dedicated video storage boxes. So people can watch them on TV. But for the most part I think we’re a ways out from that happening and when it does, we have the required HD capacity now.

  13. trumwill says:

    Just use TVersity or a similar client to stream anything off your hard drive to your TV. I use my PS3 as a media centre for this purpose, but an XBox360 or any computer can do the job.

    I have a computer hooked up to my TV. I am not insistent on HD-quality, though. For those that are, your options for acquiring material is relatively limited at present. Some people think change on this matter is right around the corner, but I am more skeptical. I don’t think the studios want to distribute their material that way and, because there are alternatives available like DVRs and easy rentals and people are not as insistent on watching the same shows/movies over and over again as they are the same songs, I think that the consumer push will be more limited when it comes to being able to store it on your HD as you do with music.

    I think the future of movies and TV is more or less going to be what we have now but improved. Portable media (maybe they will be on right-protected thumb drives rather than DVD/BluRay disks) for the good-quality stuff and streaming video for people who are not as particular. There may be a niche for Apple TV, but it’s noteworthy that they’re focusing on rental rather than ownership.

    On that tangent, I find it amusing that now that Apple is looking at getting into the streaming audio subscription business, all of the techsperts are respecting the model that they dismissed when it was only Rhapsody/Napster/Yahoo doing it.

  14. David Alexander says:

    I’ve never seen an actual Edge, though.

    Go to Lenovo’s website for a look. Some have argued that it’s merely a regular Lenovo laptop with a ThinkPad keyboard with none of the other features, and at a cursory glance, it’s hard not to agree with them. It’s not as if they’re bad laptops, but they’re just not “real” ThinkPads when compared to the T and X series. I suspect it’s the best way of branching out to people who like the keyboards, but want a more conventional design.

    Seriously, though, I *prefer* black. Isn’t black supposed to be perpetually “in”?

    I’ll agree with you here. Black is one of the main reasons that I like the ThinkPad series, and they’re remained relatively decent looking units. They’re not perfect or polished, but they’re great looking laptops to me. In contrast, most people think they’re just ugly because they don’t look like MacBooks or the imitation models with different colours that are sold with other mainstream laptops. It’s a polarizing design that attracts some and repells others. Black may be popular, but not on laptops.

    Currently, though, there are affordable hard drives available to house most peoples’ DVD collection.

    But how many people even do something as basic as ripping DVDs? I’m not a movie person, but with the exception of computer literate people, I don’t hear about people doing that. Movies are still seen as a format for DVDs. Even with TV tuner cards and software, most people still pay rental fees each month for a DVR. It’s easy, but it’s still too geeky for the average person.

    That’s why I think it’s going to be appliances that are going to use the HD space.

    If I was bored and had some cash lying around, I’d probably replace my DirectTV DVR with a old desktop and TV tuner, but it isn’t ideal given the integration offered with the DVR and the high energy use* of the desktop. Using a desktop powered with an Atom seems slightly better but has high upfront costs. It’s issues like this which will drive the use of appliances. The dedicated appliances do a great job of using little energy compared to regular computers, and while limiting, they’re potentially easier to use than building your own equivalent because they’re dedicated to a limited range of tasks. They’re not computers attempting to be DVRs or DVD players.

    *I live in an area where energy is roughly 18 to 20 cents per kwh which is significantly higher than the national average.

    I find it amusing that now that Apple is looking at getting into the streaming audio subscription business

    I suspect that Apple dismissed that model because it doesn’t drive hardware sales of portable units that have little to no internet connectivity. Now that it’s in the cellphone industry, it can present such a model, and point out how one would need the iPhone/iPad to listen to unlimited streaming music. I’d wonder how our friends at the Ministry of Justice would feel given anti-trust laws…

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