By James Grahame
This week's media frenzy around the iPad 2 has been interesting, to say the least. More than a few people who received iPads as Christmas presents are perturbed that their machines are now yesterday's hot thing. It's a familiar phenomenon in the tech industry, but on a far greater scale than ever before. We're in uncharted waters, and things seem a tad out of control.
Wild-eyed platform innovation was simply too risky for venture capitalists to stomach. The computing world became dull and beige. Even Apples were dull and beige. Sales went through the roof, but innovation ground to a slow crawl. Giants like Dell and Compaq focused on marketing rather than R&D and innovation. The industry became safe and ridiculously profitable. Even mighty Microsoft stagnated, relying on a series of uninspired desktop OSes and office suites with progressively shinier icons.
However, the never-ending march of technology ushered in some new possibilities. The 21st century arrived with renewed promise as all the pieces necessary to produce affordable, usable miniature computers finally fell into place.
ARM-core single chip processors were dirt cheap, battery technology had improved dramatically, vibrant full-color LCD panels were everywhere, and wireless communication had matured to the point that it actually worked.
The result was a frenzy of development. Crude handhelds from Palm, Handspring and Psion gave us an inkling of what was to come, but it was Apple who managed to tap the mainstream with the early hard drive based iPods.
It was a slow burn -- iPod sales didn't take off until the introduction of the iPod 3G, which offered PC connectivity and a massive 15GB hard drive. The display was still a smeary monochrome abomination, but its success bankrolled development of the iPhone and iPod touch -- truly useful handheld computers.
Apple, RIM, Samsung, LG, HTC and countless others started to release handsets at a dizzying pace. The manufacturers couldn't keep up, but customers were loving it.
We hadn't seen this sort of excitement (and interoperability issues) since the early 1980s, when companies like Commodore churned out a series of progressively more powerful machines in a matter of a few short years -- witness the night and day progression from the VIC-20 (1980 - 4K RAM, color), the Commodore 64 (1982 - 64K RAM, 3-channel sound, affordable floppy storage), to the 16-bit Amiga (1985 - multitasking OS, stunning graphics and sample playback sound).
Now, there are several important differences between the microcomputer wars of the 1980s and today's battle for handheld supremacy. The first is a matter of sales volume. Back then, machines like the Commodore 64 sold around 3 million units a year. These days, Apple predicts sales of perhaps 40 million iPads in 2011 -- a phenomenal difference.
The second change is that computing machinery (be it tablets, handhelds or traditional PCs) is now mainstream. Computers are no longer hobby playthings, and it's hard to function without access to online banking, IM, email, a web browser and even Twitter. We rely on portable computers on a day to day basis, and being able to run the same IM program as everyone else or check email on the go is important to us.
So we make sure we have the latest operating systems and the latest hardware.
The trouble is that the pace of change in the handheld industry is phenomenal. It's reached the point where an Android handset purchased early last year probably won't run the next release of Android without severe performance issues, if at all. The same is true of Apple gear -- the iPod Touch I purchased new in September 2009 is now "too old" to receive OS updates. And it's only 18 months old, for goodness sake.
Unlike conspiracy theorists, I don't think manufacturers are deliberately trying to make disposable gadgets. I think the market has simply gotten away from them and we're facing a terrifying era of unplanned obsolescence, where the pace and popularity of personal electronic communication has reached an unsustainable rate of change.
It can't go on.
If we were to stack every iPad sold by Apple in 2011 -- all 40 million of them -- end to end, we'd create a tower of technology that stretched 5,997 miles into the sky. And two years from now, there's a very real likelihood that Apple will no longer provide OS updates for any of them. They'll be relegated to the junk pile, along with untold millions of phones and a heap of yet-to-be-released Android tablets.
The realization that we're manufacturing techno-stuff on a previously unimaginable scale is terrifying. What is the environmental footprint of our love for shiny things? How long can we sustain it?
And yet... I purchased an iPad yesterday. I was unable to resist the clearance price, so I am an integral part of the problem.
I weep for the planet.