Too much bloatware?

Other retro technology buffs argue that the huge software development environments running on today's gadgets bring little benefit. One is Herb Johnson, who runs www.retrotechnology.com. "These are huge development packages of hundreds of megabytes of programs and files," he says. "And yet, these embedded computers may only have megabytes of program memory or even less – much like the 'classic' computers of decades ago.

"In the computing world today," he says, "it's impossible for one person to fully comprehend an operating system right from high-level functions down to the operation of hardware. In fact, those are now specialised skills. But in the 'old days' of much simpler hardware and software, knowledge of both was required. That's because both areas were still in development until a stable and generally accepted OS and hardware platform was established."

Johnson argues that bloat is something that's also creeping into other areas of technology as big business tries to capitalise on the increasing availability of hobby electronics. "There is growing interest in hobby robotics as a literal 'nuts and bolts' environment," he says. "But there are also moves by Microsoft and other large companies to introduce very complex and large tools into robotics. They claim these are 'efficient' tools, but their motives are simply to grab market share with tools that you can't escape from."

The microcontrollers available to home robot builders contain about as much RAM as a home computer from the early 1980s. Part of the joy of such devices is getting the best results possible out of them; overcoming their limitations with ingenious creativity, as Johnson and Moore say.

"If you know the fundamentals," argues Johnson, "and your tools are fundamental, you can always use other tools or adapt your tools for other purposes. Knowing the basics makes you flexible, and I'd argue that's still an advantage today."

Living without a mobile

Robert Östling is an assistant professor at the Institute for International Economic Studies at the University of Sweden. Despite having to stay up to date with the technology-orientated business world, Östling doesn't own a mobile phone.

"Since I don't have any friends who don't use IRC, cell phones are unnecessary," he says. "Same thing goes for these social-networking sites, instant messaging and those things that seem to be so popular these days." Östling believes that new technologies are not always a step forward in terms of efficiency.

"Word on the latest Windows is about as slow as the corresponding combination 15 years ago, in spite of running on a PC that's several orders of magnitude faster," he says, "so efficiency is down by the same factor. And Gmail, which I use right now because I'm pretty lazy, is much slower than a decent mail client even on an antique computer. Yet it and other web-based services seem to be gaining popularity. So when it comes to modern technology, development is not always going forward."

Though Östling admits to recently buying an Eee 701 laptop, has he bought any other new high-tech devices recently? "I think that the only other piece of technology that I've bought new in the last five or 10 years would be a graphics tablet that I got a few years ago when I was constructing a handwriting recognition system. Everything else is stuff I got cheap from flea markets or for free from people who thought that the item was old and useless."

Of course, not everyone considers old to be beautiful. The bleeding edge will always have its allure, and if technology didn't progress, we'd never find those key concepts that really do change the world. Still, it's worth remembering that what we want isn't always what we need, and that sometimes, good enough is just that.

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First published in PC Plus Issue 283

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