Sunday, August 9, 2009

Computers Level Off

Computers aren’t improving at the rate they were through the 1980s and 1990s. Technology has leveled off, and the three-year replacement cycle many people followed may now have to give way to a much slower replacement cycle, with perhaps eight years between computers.

This change struck me when I realized that my own primary computer, the one I’m writing on now, is 2 years 4 months old. By now, it ought to be conspicuously old, too old to upgrade, but perhaps not quite obsolete yet. Instead, it still seems basically new, and I am still using it basically the way it came out of the box. My only “upgrades” have been a second hard disk drive, a new operating system version, and a replacement mouse. And if I go shopping for a replacement, it is obvious that it is not time to replace it yet.

It must come as a shock to some people when they go shopping for a new computer, only to find that their computer from three years ago is still state-of-the-art. The replacement for my computer would have basically the same clock speed (actually 11 percent slower — can you believe that?) and essentially equivalent specs. The only big change is the price, 35 percent less than I paid in 2007. That’s progress, of course, and it’s nothing to sneeze at, but it doesn’t give me a reason to replace my computer. To double-check, I looked at a competing computer manufacturer’s online store. There I could select an equivalent system for almost the same price. There was also an option to buy a faster system, but it would cost $1,200 more, and it would be only 7 percent faster. A 7 percent change in speed, of course, is barely noticeable. If you go to the trouble of getting a faster computer, it ought to be at least twice as fast — at least, that’s what we came to expect in the 1990s, when clock speeds (that’s the basic speed of a computer) increased by a factor of 100 in 10 years. Clock speeds have only doubled in the 9 years since — that tells you how much things have changed.

Most businesses have suspended computer replacements anyway to cut costs. When they get back into it in 2012 or 2013, they may find that they haven’t really missed anything.

Of course, some components of computers continue to improve, especially hard disk drives. Since 2000, typical hard drive capacity has increased from 80 to 500 megabytes, a sixfold improvement as prices fell by half. CRT displays have given way to flat-panel displays. We used to have CD-ROM drives; now, DVD±R drives are standard. All of these are reasons to replace a computer, if you are still using a desktop computer from the 1990s. But then, how long will it be before you would have a reason to replace your new computer? I’m guessing eight years, but obviously, it’s foolish to try to predict the computer business that far in advance.

Software publishers that depend on the computer replacement cycle for much of their revenue will feel the slump in a big way, this year and for at least the next two. But the biggest impact will be on clunky, inefficient software. If software engineers are counting on ever-faster computers to cover up the sluggishness of their products, they will find that that trick doesn’t work any more.