What if our tech is good enough?

Incremental improvements just don't get us excited

What if our tech is good enough

Perhaps Blu-ray is the canary in the coalmine. To its makers, it's a fantastic new format, the pinnacle of home entertainment technology.

To the public, it's DVD with a slightly better picture and double the price tag – and most people have decided to stick with what they already have.

Blu-ray isn't the only recent example of this malaise. While the launch of Windows 95 saw midnight queues, Vista's release saw nothing but tumbleweed.

What if this continues and Windows 7 is met with apathy, not excitement? What if iPods stay on the shelves, PC firms can't shift their stock and ISPs investing in ever-faster broadband go to the wall?

It all sounds extreme, but Blu-ray's problems should send the industry a message. "Thanks, but no thanks," we're saying. "What we've got is good enough."

Slowing improvements

The evolution of technology over the past few decades has been incredible. In a short space of time we've advanced from blurry black-and-white television broadcasts to crisp HD programming, from unreliable mobile phones to speedy smartphones, and from computers the size of rooms to intuitive mobile devices that can it into the palm of your hand.

Yet now we find ourselves in an impossible position. In almost every sphere, the technology we have is so good that any improvements can only be incremental. The gap between the first digital cameras – which struggled to produce even grainy VGA images – and today's 10-megapixel models is immense, but once your megapixels hit double digits, any further improvement is hardly noticeable.

Moving from video to DVD-quality camcorders was another giant leap, but the difference between 720p HD and 1080p HD is only apparent if your TV is the size of a bus.

The same applies to our connections; moving from dial-up to broadband was a revelation, but upgrading from 2Mbps to 8Mbps, or from 8Mbps to 20Mbps, is a mere speed bump.

And moving from CD to MP3 was extraordinary, but upgrading from an iPod that stores your entire music collection to one that can store your collection twice is nowhere near as exciting.

The problem is particularly apparent in the world of PCs. Processors and operating systems evolved dramatically in the 1990s, but innovation has slowed – so while the transition from x86s to dual-core processing brought phenomenal changes, the move from fast multicore processing to slightly faster multicore processing didn't.

Similarly, while Windows 95 and the first version of OS X were revolutionary, Windows 7 and Snow Leopard aren't. The big stuff happened years ago, leaving Microsoft and Apple with no option but to polish what they've got and add a few shiny baubles.

That way, we might believe they've got amazing new operating systems instead of expensive and unnecessary upgrades.

'Good enough'

The problem of 'good enough' is a huge headache for the tech industry. When your computer isn't good enough – when a slow processor, meagre memory and tiny hard disk struggle with even everyday tasks – you'll buy a better model as soon as it becomes available.

Now, though, the weakest link isn't your PC: it's you.

Will a 200-core processor make you type an email more quickly, make you work more productively or make your Facebook status updates any more amusing?

It's no coincidence that the biggest tech success story in these credit-crunched times is the netbook, a poverty-spec laptop with a tiny screen, sod-all storage and the ability to browse the web, produce the odd Word document and little else.

Netbooks aren't particularly good, but they're good enough. The tech industry can't do much about 'good enough' – but what it can do is invent entirely new kinds of kit in an attempt to part us from our cash.

We've already seen the rise of the netbook, but that's not the only new category that tech firms are inventing. Memory cards that can deliver a mighty 2TB of storage will make hard disks obsolete and usher in new PC designs; dull network storage systems are being frantically redesigned as home entertainment hubs; and Windows 7 gives hardware firms an excuse to stuff touchscreens into absolutely everything.

More whimsical developments are also on the cards: OLED displays mean that digital photo frames will become miniature HDTVs, HDTVs are evolving new features from internet-connected widgets to full 3D displays and manufacturers are cramming entire mobile phones into the humble digital watch.

These ideas may use hardware rather than hearts and solder rather than stitches, but we can't help thinking of Victor Frankenstein toiling away in his lab.

Like Frankenstein, the tech industry is creating strange hybrids by cobbling together whatever is to hand – and just like Frankenstein, its ultimate aim is to find a way to live forever.


First published in PC Plus Issue 280

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