The Laming Of Computer Technology (End user's perspective)

Written in September of 2002

  Some time ago, I wrote a fairly pessimistic rant entitled "The Laming Of
Computer Technology". It was all about how the computer industry has taken a
turn for the worse. However, it was an essay written from the technical
user's side of things. I have increasingly come to feel that computers are
not the same as they used to be for the end user either. So in case you just
can't get enough of me whining, I decided to write another writing about this
particular subject. The end user has different wants and needs from their
computer than the tech-head, and usually also less as well, so this article
will be consequentially shorter.
  The obvious first place to look is the lack of innovation in the market. I
think that this is something which has not escaped anyone's notice. Does
anyone remember the time when computers were still new and exciting, and
thousands of creative minds were thinking up all kinds of possibilities for
them? Those were the days when many software programs for all kinds of
purposes were constantly coming out; There were speciality programs for
various special-interest groups and hobbyists, games were creative instead of
being tired old first-person shooter or role-playing game clones, and even
office productivity applications were somehow exciting, because people were
thinking up new features to add to them, devising new things you could do
with a word processor or a spreadsheet.
  Today, the computer market has bottomed out. We have our nicely-packaged
office applications suites which do all the things that most offices will
ever need in terms of paperwork, and one or two specific names dominate that
market, with little room for new contenders. Hobbyists and small-time
programmers don't get much publicity, because they've been pushed out of the
limelight by the big corporations. In the old days, a single person could
write a software program and have a reasonable chance of it becoming famous;
No longer. It only happens in rare, isolated cases now. Even games are
boring. They're all the same: Shoot, shoot, shoot, kill, kill, kill. Ask any
  This is not necessarily anyone's fault; To a large extent, it has been the
simple result of the rapid development that took place during the early days
of the microcomputer revolution. The technology was built up so fast that it
has now been established to the limit of necessity. Just about anything that
people need from computers has been built, which is why there's not much
place to make anything new. In a sense this is actually a good thing, because
it means that the market has become relatively mature and is a stable, solid
thing, able to supply people with their basic computing needs.
  But for every sunny day, there is a cloudy lining. There is no longer a
need for new computer technology. Not among the users, anyway. (Scientists,
hackers, and the like still need more, but that's not what this is about.) A
5-year old computer running a basic set of applications could do everything
that a "normal" person needs to do with their computer. The typical human's
needs have already been satisfied long ago, and that leaves the industry with
nowhere to go.
  When the computer industry first started, it was exciting partially because
demand far exceeded the supply. When the tiny pioneering company of MITS
began manufacturing the Altiar, the first widely-distributed personal
computer, they were swamped with orders. The response to their little
computer, which has no screen or keyboard and was little more than a box with
some switches on it, was so immense that they could not even begin to fill
all the orders they received. People ended up actually flying to MITS'
headquarters in New Mexico and camping in their parking lot, daily checking
to see how the company was doing and waiting for when their own Altairs would
finally be ready.
  I'm not saying it should be like that, of course, but today we have the
opposite problem. The computer industry has drawn in so many people, who have
thrown so much time, money, and effort into it, that the supply for tech has
overshot the demand by quite a large margin. Computers are bought for less
than a thousand bucks; You'd have a hard time finding a desktop system which
costs more than $2,000 these days, and if you did find one, it would be a
waste of money, because it would have more power than you'd ever use. It
would be like buying a Ferrari to drive to the grocery store with. (Again,
keep in mind I'm talking about the end-users here.) This means that the
industry has been weakened because there's not much profit left in it
anymore. There used to be a lot of competition; Now most of that has died
out, and the industry has been left to a few big-name companies. Even these
are struggling in the wake of the high-tech collapse, because there's so
little profit to be had in the industry that it's hard to even stay in
business. Yes, all of this means that it's very easy for a typical person to
get a reasonably powerful computer, but it also means that the computer
industry has become sleazy, sort of like selling used cars.
  What's even more scary is if you imagine this trend continuing, in which
case it could easily become worse. Computers are STILL becoming more
powerful, and as they continue to do so, older technology continues to become
cheaper. 20 years ago, you could buy a fully-loaded PC XT with all the
trimmings for about $10,000. Today such a machine would not be bought by
anyone; It is very nearly worthless. (I have seen them priced at $20, and I
believe this is probably overcharging.) The computers which we use today will
someday be that cheap as well. And as we have already observed, the need for
advancements in computer technology has dropped off; People don't need any
more power from their systems. The direction this is taking starts to become
painfully obvious when you view it in this light. Perhaps in 20 years from
now, a typical computer will be an almost casual purchase, like buying a
screwdriver or a roll of tape. Yes, it's still great for the consumer, but
it's hard to imagine any company thriving in that kind of environment. It
seems ominous somehow.
  One of the things that has always struck me about "cyberpunk" science
fiction (sci-fi which is focused on the future of society in a computerized
world, rather than on space travel and visiting distant planets) is how it
blends the old with the new. The fringe elements of society (drug addicts,
drug sellers, prostitutes, pimps, and anyone else who doesn't live a
fulfilling, meaningful life) are mixed with bits of high-tech like artificial
body parts and ultra-powerful microcomputers. How do such poor people get
such fancy technology? Because it's cheap; Computers and other electronics
are given away or thrown away because they're so plentiful that they're not
needed. Just toss 'em into the dumpster like that old rocking chair you don't
use anymore. In the future, computers may be cheaper than food. People who
can't afford to eat or live in a house will be checking their e-mail and
surfing the web from their cardboard box.
  That's a good thing for those people. And yet it all seems depressing
somehow. Maybe it's because it means that there's no money anywhere anymore.
There's no way for people to make a living off it anymore. The industry is
desperate. Like the music industry, which is filled with thousands of artists
which will never be heard of by most of the population, the computer industry
longs for the next big hit, something to market, something, anything. There
is despair: We're not finding anything. It's all been done before. There is
boredom and indifference: Nothing seems to matter anymore.