A little over a month ago in these pages, I posted a paean to my 10-year-old Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) Jornada ultraportable computer and celebrated vintage technology in general, to the delight of hoards of you keeping various technologies alive out there. But I would be remiss if I didn't also point out that I only use the little notebook three days a year for a very special purpose.
Even as I waxed melodious over my experience with the Jornada this year at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, I should have mentioned that I also had the latest Lenovo X301 (with mobile broadband and a 128GB solid-state drive) snuggled next to the Jornada in my backpack. I just used the Jornada for text entry. The X301 I used for everything else.
Given this omission, let me share what I hope is some useful context about technology life cycles.
Anyone who tracks the prices of capital assets can tell you that when a particular technology—be it computers, oil refining equipment, or aircraft engines—evolves rapidly, corporate investment managers need to accelerate depreciation and replacement because old equipment rapidly becomes a competitive disadvantage, jeopardizing future revenue streams. No one would argue that computers aren't evolving rapidly. I'm lucky I can find a use for my old Jornada—and that's because I'm not asking it to do anything beyond accepting keyboard input.
To be productive on a daily basis, I need a lot of screen real estate. So in my office, I have two large flat panels (I could easily use four), driven by graphics cards made by ATI, which is owned by Advanced Micro Devices (AMD). Whenever a new system with a faster processor, memory, bus, or even hard drive comes out, I swap it into the rotation. Less time spent watching the spinning hourglass or rotating circle is more time spent driving customer satisfaction or revenue.
Space is also at a premium in the shop. I just replaced a fax machine, copier, scanner, and printer with an HP OfficeJet J6400 all-in-one. Not only does this one machine do the work of four, but at $120, it also cost about one-tenth the price of my ancient fax, which set me back $1,300 at time of purchase.
Productivity can be enhanced in other ways by acquiring the latest technology. Two trends—mobility and wireless communications—are leading to many opportunities to do productive work outside the confines of the office. It's not a matter of sitting under a beach umbrella doing e-mail or writing the Great American Novel, but more like squeezing in a few vital communications from the airport before taking off. Being able to compute anywhere means having all those otherwise dead hours available to move the ball downfield. Which has lifestyle implications. I'm able to take in my kid's acting in King Lear at school because I can keep the workflow going right up until the play starts or catch up later in the evening when things have quieted down. I get more control over my life in return for a willingness to be flexible. For me, it's an easy trade-off.
And in the coming era of visual computing, when vast amounts of data are made coherent by organizing them into visual representations, only the very latest technology will be able to handle the large datasets, graphical rendering, and display of detailed visual information required. Videoconferencing, coming soon to a computer near you, is also experiencing a surge, particularly as the expense and odiousness of air travel has risen and overall corporate fortunes have declined. The recession is causing a renaissance in telepresence, which replaces travel with point-to-point or multipoint videoconferencing. Collaboration across the Internet adds yet another layer to what can be done with up-to-date hardware, software, and communications technologies to allow remote workers to act as if they're together in the same room.
Consumer Applications Add Up
I haven't even mentioned consumer uses of technology. Yes, you could argue that consumers don't have the same productivity requirements that commercial users do. Yet, many consumer applications push technology even harder than the average commercial load does. Consumers use their machines for entertainment, which is typically either audio or video. They are running movies, making movies, playing songs, writing songs, making ringtones from their favorite songs, posting their latest musings on Google's (GOOG) YouTube, and watching the Daily Show. And they have huge numbers of windows open at the same time, chatting with friends, monitoring Twitter updates, staying abreast of the Facebook action, checking on their eBay (EBAY) auctions, and following their stocks—activities that together gobble up all the performance a system can offer.
As information technology develops further, commercial users and consumers alike will find themselves choosing two or three favorite devices among a wide range, from the smallest phone to the largest desktop. At one end is the most portable device; at the other, the most comfortable, and some people might like something in between for a reasonable compromise of both. Or different devices for different occasions. And data and experiences must be able to follow a person around seamlessly from device to device. We're almost there, but the experience will get better, and those who want it will have to buy new hardware, software, and services.
Don't get me wrong. I love an antique tool that perfectly suits a job that still needs to be done. But in context, that tool is surrounded by many others, most of which must be on or close to the cutting edge to be useful.