The Race for Unplanned Obsolescence

By  |  Friday, June 26, 2009 at 11:29 pm

[NOTE: Here’s a post that first appeared in our free T-Week newsletter, which you can subscribe to here.]

Floppy DriveI’ve been thinking a lot about PC components lately–the obligatory, the optional, and even the controversial. That’s because I’ve been doing a series of comparisons of Windows PCs and Macs, and most of my comparing involves running down a lengthy list of components to see who offers what, and at what price. Much of the avalanche of feedback I’ve been getting involves varying opinions on just how essential particular components are–such as whether Macs’ lack of memory-card slots is a catastrophe, or whether the fact that Macs do have FireWire ports is a major point in their favor.

“Essential component” is, by its very nature, a moving target of a concept. There was a time when I wouldn’t buy a computer without a serial port, a parallel port, and a floppy drive; today, I have no need for any of them, and neither do you. I recently bought my first laptop in many years that lacks an optical drive (an Asus EeePC 1000HE), and while it didn’t seem like a big deal at the time, I quickly plunked down some money for an external DVD writer. I still wish I could buy a notebook with a trackball, even though it’s one component that the industry declared obsolete about fifteen years ago.

So how about the major components that make up a circa-2009 personal computer? After the jump, my completely unscientific musings on their future, or lack thereof.

Hard drives
Safe for now. I expect to live to see the day when hard drives are obsolete–but with a 1.5TB desktop hard disk costing $130 and a 128GB solid-state drive going fo $330 or so, I don’t think it’ll come soon. Hard drives are going to offer a lot more capacity for a lot less money for years to come, and so they’ll remain commonplace. Of course, there are already neat laptops with solid-state-only storage, and I suspect there will be plenty more of ’em over the next few years. Random, possibly incorrect prediction: By 2014, the majority of laptops won’t have hard disks.

Optical drives
On their way out. They’re still handy, but thin notebooks and netbooks dispense with them rather successfully. You can snag most software you need from the Web; you can be a happy music fan without listening to CDs; movies are morphing from physical objects into downloads. Some people are going to be excited about Blu-Ray on a computer over the next few years, but my guess is this: By the end of 2011, most computers will do without optical storage, thereby saving space, weight, and cost.

Me, I’m looking forward to the day when computing involves few if any cables. But wired USB is one of the most useful PC technologies ever invented, and with USB 3.0 on the horizon, it’s continuing to get better.

Very endangered.
People who like FireWire really like it–and some of them get violently angry at the thought of it going away. And I might too, if I depended on it for something like high-speed video transfers. But even though the technology’s inventor, Apple, brought back FireWire on this month’s new 13-inch MacBook Pro, I’m thinking the technology will be hard to find by 2012 or so. Those folks who can’t live without it will be able to add support via add-on adapters.

Safe for now.
The day will come when cell-based wireless of some sort (4G? 5G?) renders Wi-Fi redundant. But it’s not going to happen immediately, and it may take longer than most people think.

Soon to be at least kind of endangered.
I thought that Apple jumped the gun a bit when it removed Ethernet from the MacBook Air last year. But I have Ethernet on my MacBook Air, and I’ve used it only a handful of times–mostly in hotels. I’m guessing that some notebooks–especially corporate models–will retain Ethernet for years, but it’ll no longer be standard equipment on all of ’em.

Safe for now.
Other technologies which are designed to solve similar problems, such as Wireless USB, don’t seem to be catching on. I suspect that Wi-Fi and Bluetooth may merge into a single short-range connectivity technology at some point, but I also suspect it won’t happen anytime soon.

Dial-Up Modems
Very, very, very endangered.
You can still find computers with them easily enough, but they already feel archaic. They’ll soon join serial and parallel ports in the great component scrap heap in the sky.

ExpressCard slots
They’re useful in some cases today, but most of the things we use them for, such as wireless broadband, are going to be built into every laptop before all that long. And ExpressCard suffered a blow this week when Apple removed it from the 15-inch MacBook Pro and finally added an SD slot. Speaking of which…

Memory Card slots
Safe for now.
Although I’m guessing we’ll see fewer that support 17,253 card formats and more that simply take SD. And it may not be all that long before photo transfers are usually done wirelessly via Wi-Fi or some other technology.

We’ll continue to see experiments with keyboard-free computers such as tablets, and they may become common. But many computers will sport QWERTY for a long time to come.

Touchpads and mice
Even with Windows 7 adding touchscreen capability, I don’t see laptops ditching their touchpads, or desktops doing away with mice–they’ll probably be around for as long as there are keyboards. At least I have trouble envisioning an input device that would be clearly superior.

In fact, I’m assuming they will go from almost-universal to universal, and stay that way. And their image quality will likely improve, too.

. I mean, don’t you think it’s time that laptops will go the way of the iPod Shuffle and communicated with us entirely by speaking? (Kidding!)

Any feedback on my prognostications above? Any components you don’t want to see disappear, or ones you’re looking forward to seeing die?


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26 Comments For This Post

  1. TheRyker Says:

    I absolutely agree with every one of these to some degree. As much as I hate to admit it, the one which rings most true is the FireWire prediction, though I see it hanging on valiantly a few more years than you suggest. Why am I quick to point out FireWire? USB 3.0, and that’s the end of it. Faster speeds on a universally accepted standard of peripheral connectivity will no doubt lead victory. So sings the swan song of FireWire, I fear.

  2. Jake Seliger Says:

    Safe. We’ll continue to see experiments with keyboard-free computers such as tablets, and they may become common. But many computers will sport QWERTY for a long time to come.

    And the funny thing is that old keyboards are sometimes among the very few components that can last over time; the Model M and Apple Extended II are both widely loved. The former is even still made, although now it’s called the Unicomp Customizer.

    A design that’s virtually unchanged for decades: now that’s rare in the world of obsolescence.

  3. theharmonyguy Says:

    I’m just glad to know I’m not the only one who misses trackballs. 🙂

  4. jose Says:

    About your list,I agree more or less but I think:

    Harddrives: Endangered, once you test a solid state that works you don’t go back. So, you need a 1,5Tby? Interesting,I’m a power user and I have an external 500Gbytes( I use it maybe once a week) for storage and use solid state drives, they are noiseless and fast, 90% of the people don’t need 1,5Gb storage, if they do, they can buy a cheap external unit only when needed. In this year they will become half expensive, and more reliable.

    Ethernet, I love it, simple, really really cheap, and really really fast. When I look for a laptop, it’s a must.

    Keyboards: Dead, it’s not(only) touch(available in mass production for medium-big screens in middle 2010 by pixel qi sources) what will kill it, it will be (wacom) tablets and voice recognition too, way more natural than typing in a terminal. Remember this and come back in two years time. You won’t believe you used to type in a keyboard(slooooow) when you have something that works.

  5. nagaraj Says:

    getting rid of the optical drive also saves energy and is more environment friendly.

  6. ralphg Says:

    Memory card slots are already going.

    My daughter needed a new laptop last month, and so I picked out a lowcost HP model for her. Just before I bought it, I compared its spec list with one model higher ($50) more, and was stunned to find that I hadn’t noticed that the cheaper model had no SD card slot. No webcam, either.

    Modems are still important in isolated communities. My dad and my in-laws both live in small northern Canadian villages that have no high-speed Internet. When I go to visit, I have to leave behind my netbook, because it has no modem. (I have to take my older, heavier laptop.)

    Touchscreens for computers will be passe a year from now. On cameras, iPods, and Palm-like devices, they make sense; on computers, they do not.

  7. Sanchith Says:

    The one thing I find to be an overly optimistic idea that touch technology will replace keyboard. Touch technology is yet to gain the maturity of tactile feedback that we are so used to in keyboards and mice. Also you cannot work for long hours shuffling your arms across the screen as you work. Eventually your arms will experience fatigue.

    Voice recognition looks promising but again the idea of fatigue caused by constantly speaking seems to be lost on people hyping this technology. Also voice gives you absolutely no privacy.

    Wi-Fi is still a strong contender for short range wireless networking with the 802.11n specification almost ready to be ratified by the IEEE. 802.11n will provide a large range and throughput improvement while the upcoming version of Bluetooth will provide improved short range wireless connectivity. Whether bluetooth and Wi-Fi may merge, for now they are oriented towards different needs.

  8. Vulpine Says:

    As a long-time Apple user and Windows consultant (consumer-level) I need to drop in my views.

    Hard drives: Agreed; safe for now… at least for desktops. What with operating systems getting ever bigger (Windows now using 20GB all by its lonesome, though Snow Leopard will drop down to barely 10GB) and media files taking up tens of gigabytes, ever larger drives are needed for desktop operation. Even laptops need decent capacity, especially since some people are replacing their aging desktops with laptops. But for portability, SSDs are eventually going to dominate the laptop market.

    Optical drives: Relatively safe for desktops, almost gone for portables. Until some form of long-term [i]reliable[/i] electronic storage comes available, optical is still the best way to store data outside of the machine. Back up drives like Apple’s Time Machine are well and good, but still subject to failure and require a power source. An optical disk doesn’t need to maintain any kind of a charge to hold its data. Expect higher capacities, but don’t expect them to disappear any time soon.

    USB: Safe. It’s catching up to Firewire’s speed, but at least for now there seems to be a speed limit where large files begin to get corrupted. This is especially visible when transferring video from a camcorder into your editing software. I’ve found it more reliable to transfer the entire file to hard drive before importing it into the editor.

    Firewire: Faster and more reliable than USB, at least for large files. Apple tried to eliminate it in favor of USB, but demand forced them to bring it back. I expect to see it fade, but not until USB improves its speed and reliability or something better comes along. USB3 might do it, but we’ll have to see.

    Wi-Fi: I don’t really expect to see it fade any time soon. Rather, I expect to see its range increase to the point where it effectively replaces current cellular technologies, which is where 3G and 4G cellular seems to be going. 3G seems roughly equivalent to a 56K dial-up modem; 4G may be equivalent to DSL. Look for an advanced 802.11x to replace the dedicated cell and smart phones to replace almost all the older handsets. VOIP has already proven cheaper over copper, the savings should be even greater on the airwaves.

    Bluetooth: Limited. Equivalent to a Serial connection on the old desktops in more ways than one. Many other wireless technologies already available to replace it.

    Ethernet: Safe–for now. When it comes to speed, reliability and security, Ethernet tends to provide a level of security that Wi-Fi can’t match; especially in the enterprise. Private data is too susceptible to interception on any form of wireless connection, even when encrypted.

    Dial-up modems: If it weren’t for so many rural areas of America unable to connect any other way, they’d already be gone.

    Express Cards: Almost gone. USB dongles already replacing them and at least some features already built-in to the newer laptops.

    Memory Card Slots: Just coming into their own. Expect more standardization down to a limited three or four specific types rather than the dozens we currently know, but even entertainment systems will see these cards replace optical disk eventually. For that matter, if they continue to grow in capacity and demonstrate true long-term reliability(multi-year storage), these may be what eventually replaces optical disk. Of course, they’re much easier to lose due to their tiny size.

    Keyboards: Safe–for now. New technologies are proving that the physical keyboard will eventually be replaced, but as yet nothing beats the feel and accuracy of hitting physical keys for rapid typing. However, a large touch-pad-style keyboard may replace physical keys on portable computers.

    Touchpads and Mice: Expanding and fading, in that order. A graphics-pad-sized touchpad could literally replace a modern mouse once you add multi-touch capability. A touchpad/keyboard-mouse combo could become the perfect tool for everyone from gamers to graphics artists to photographers to writers, giving you the chance to develop on-screen very similar to the technologies shown in the latest Bond movie and even in Star Trek: TNG. I’d consider the standalone display to be at more risk.

    Webcams: That depends on your viewpoint. If a camera is an integral part of the computer, can you really call it a webcam any more?

    Displays: Safe. While many people may not need a standalone display any more, there are times, especially in gaming, publishing and the enterprise when a separate display becomes a necessity. What I expect is that the display will continue to grow to where a 24″ is the smallest standalone and anything smaller is integrated either into the desktop or laptop computer, quite often serving as both display and keyboard/mouse. Sometimes even a 24″ display just isn’t big enough when you’re working on multiple documents or playing an FPS/MMO.
    Then again, this might be a great place to introduce video headsets that allow you to create a full 360° environment. The only thing better than that would be an holographic display that eliminates the need for a physical projection surface.

  9. KM. Says:

    I can’t see Ethernet going away, at least not in desktops and workstations. If you’ve got a computer in a fixed location, then a wired connection is definitely the way to go – faster, more reliable and more secure than a Wi-Fi connection.

  10. Eric Says:

    Keyboards are safe in my opinion, but what I think will replace them is not touch screens or voice input. As someone mentioned, flailing one’s hands about the screen is impractical, and voice input won’t work in most cases because you can’t be talking out loud in many situations.

    Rather, I think they’ll come up with keyboards that are projected from a device onto a surface and can detect where your fingers touch for input. I remember reading something about this but can’t remember what it was called or any details, but it made a lot of sense. Tiny devices could have a full keyboard when needed.

  11. justcallmeben Says:

    @Eric: projected keyboards have been around for a while and failed epically.
    -you need a large empty, flat surface. While you can take your wireless keyboard and easily place it somewhere else, this prooves a lot more difficult with a projected keyboard.
    -Typing comfort is abominable. First off you’re typing on a flat surface (desk) which is a lot worse for the wrists then a slightly tilted one, and secondly typing on a hard surface for a long time irritates the fingertips.
    -There is, just like with touchscreens no tactile feedback
    -There is a very high error-rate. First of with the user (jsut like with touchscreens, because of the lack of tactile feedback), secondly with the device: a fair amount of the keystrokes isn’t detected.
    -The sensor is pretty bad at detecting whether a key is being held or not. Try using your command-key then…

  12. Ferodynamics Says:

    Keyboards safe? I’m shocked this is even up for debate. This is why I own a Thinkpad:

    a) orgasmic keyboard
    b) time-saving trackpoint

    Have you ever tried speech recognition?! Just wait until it misinterprets you, “Oops!” Now you can spend an hour editing out your frustration.

    As for speed, I think even an amateur typist (40 WPM) has plenty of speed for all but the worst stream-of-consciousness drivel.

  13. Brian S Says:

    This list should be retitled as being for portable computers, rather than PCs and computers in general.

    Built-in optical drives and ethernet are possibly endangered for laptops and portables, but for less portable machines not so much. It’s still tough to beat the reliability of a wired network, and my understanding was that the reason that optical drives being externalized with portable computers was because they aren’t used that often… mainly for installing things from physical media (operating systems and drivers in particular), which you’re not going to be doing every day.

  14. Stilgar Says:

    Ditto on the laptop trackballs.

  15. Simon Says:

    This kind of article is why I love Technologizer.

  16. Jesse Says:

    Most of the points are right on, though I’d extend the hard drive prediction or at least make it laptop/netbook-specific. I don’t see desktop computers abandoning hard drives until at least 2020, as the capacities and price are fantastic, and adoption of new technologies by consumers tends to be slow.

    I do disagree with memory cards, though. They most likely will become standardized into one or two formats (SD for storage and CompactFlash for media devices, for example), but they’re not going to die for a good while now. Even with the promotion of wireless networking and Internet storage, it’s often much more convenient (and in some cases, more secure) to have it stored on a physical device. And in the case of video games and movies, there are already talks that Flash cards could be the next medium for store distribution (online distribution is becoming more prevalent, but isn’t practical for everyone).

    Finally, I don’t see Ethernet being threatened too much either. It’s certainly being used less than it originally was, but I don’t see Wifi completely replacing it until it can reach speeds that are comparable. An ethernet connection on local LAN or fiberoptic Internet can easily reach speeds up to and beyond 100 Mbps, and most cables allow 1 Gbps now. Compared to Wifi, you don’t get nearly as much throughput and don’t have to worry about connection reliability at all.

  17. Scott B Says:

    Keyboards safe for the foreseeable future. As long as software needs to be written, code will have to be typed. Most code is not pronounceable, and programmers will not sit and spell every command and parameter into voice recognition.

  18. Mike P Says:

    Wireless electronics is like pipeless plumbing…if you really need it, it kinda works…but wired is always better.

    Serial ports are still VERY widely used in lots of things other than mainstream computing. They will be around for a VERY long time.

  19. JEDIDIAH Says:

    Hard drives are safe for the forseeable future. People will always find
    new way of filling up RAM or Disk. There will always be room for cheaper
    random access persistent storage.

    One of the first things that was added to netbooks (besides Windows)
    was disk storage. The ability to have 20x the space is usually hard
    to resist.

    My 2 desktops have 11TB of storage between them and I use every bit of it.

  20. Dave Says:

    You, sir, have obviously no idea what you are talking about.

  21. Nate Says:

    Serial ports :: I would be lost without them, and I would never, ever, buy a laptop that didnt have one. They may not be used by everyone, but if your in IT like I am, they are still a requirement for configuration of many IT systems.

    Ethernet Ports: What makes you think that these are going away, the technology behind Ethernet is still coming out in faster speeds (10G anyone?) — Once again, I would have a real hard time doing a lot of my job if my laptop didnt have it’s ethernet port. Wireless is great for many things, however many corporate environments avoid it with good reason.

    Maybe these types of things are what seperate a business machine from a typical home machine, which is where Apple falls for the most part. Also the attitude that has kept most businesses away from Apple.

  22. TheNet411 Says:

    I am afraid that every single one of you are wrong about your ideas about SSDs. They will not be taking the place of anything in the next several years. While it is true that some netbooks are coming with SSDs and SSDs do outperform a lot of HDDs, they are absolutely not a viable alternative to good old HDDs yet. SSDs have a fundamental problem that prevents them from being candidates for long term storage. The more they are used, the more likely they are to fail. The “thrashing” problem that occurs with all operating systems has not been overcome and is not likely to be overcome anytime soon. To get beyond that problem would require the operating system makers take the issue seriously which they have yet to do. There are some promising new technologies on the horizon that may help with these problems but they are several years away from being used in consumer-grade products. HDDs are here to stay for quite a while. SSDs are a nice toy but nothing else.

  23. Billy_Bob Joe Ben Says:

    The one and only piece of tech to replace a keyboard should be –

    it’s so bad

  24. Old gamer Says:

    I still need a 3.5″ drive in my not so old desktop (6 years) in case I need to re-install XP since it does not have the appropriate SATA drivers. These come on a seperate 3.5″ disk which I have to load during XP’s installation.

  25. _iCeb0x_ Says:

    I don’t believe FireWire is going anywhere that soon. Eventually, it’ll be phased out, as everything does, someday.

    But, in the meantime, it will be a niche-specific technology (mostly professional audio and video).

    Don’t believe me? ATA and Serial-ATA never truly killed SCSI (even if they were not meant to do it). SCSI is still used in servers (some new “entry-level” servers use hot-swap SATA disks, but SCSI still is the leading technology). SAS will make SCSI keep its position for some time to come.

  26. _iCeb0x_ Says:

    Oh, I forgot to mention that FireWire is still supposed to reach a 3.2Mbit bandwidth. So, USB 3.0 will not kill it at all, at least in those niches I cited in the previous post.

    Not to mention that USB is not really efficient and never, ever, ever reaches the advertised top speed! For that matter, FireWire also doesn’t, but gets much closer!