Jawas carrying droid

Incredible Shrinking Computer Shelf

Patterns in Tech Change

Personal tech evolves fast. Today’s newest gadget will be second best in six months, and in a few years it won’t be able to keep up. At least, that’s how it seems when you’re looking at advertisements for the latest thing.

There are larger patterns that happen so slowly that they are hard to notice. One of those patterns jumped out at me while walking into a Best Buy the other day.

Hacking

My son is a hacker, in the “can jury-rig tech to keep it ticking” sense. This comes from him being an avid video game player, and me not buying computers for him frequently. I do often inherit computers. This happens when a machine is broken enough that the former owners decide replace it. Such broken machines are often donated to me. I guess people find the look of glee on my face satisfying. Plus they know I make sure their personal / financial info is properly wiped from their old machine.

This led to me having a large Computer Graveyard (as my wife called it.) My son learned that when something broke, or when his computer just wasn’t fast enough to keep up with the latest games, he could often dive into the Graveyard, exhume some parts (Igor style) and solve the issue. It wasn’t as easy (and rarely as successful) as buying a whole new rig, but he learned a lot about how computers work, and how to keep them working.

The resulting contraptions often had strange quirks that he needed to work around, but that was part of the fun. My favorite example was a situation where he found that his computer could work with a particularly nifty video card, but only if he reached into the computer and reseated the video card’s power connection at just the right moment in the boot process. It would have been pretty hard for anyone else to have gotten the timing just right on that one.

The Incredible Shrinking PC Shelf

We moved recently, and the Computer Graveyard didn’t come with us. Okay, I did smuggle a few things into boxes, but most of it went to the e-waste center. Thus when my son needed to add a hard drive and some RAM, we headed to the nearest Best Buy to pick some up.

Once upon a time, there was a big computer section at such stores. There’d be a whole aisle of internal hard drives, plus another aisle of RAM. Now most of the store is cell phones and tablets, with a sizeable chunk of floor space for video game consoles. The computers — both Apple and Windows — are relegated to a shrinking island way over to the side near the back. There were only a handful of internal disks to pick from, and we were lucky to find the variety of RAM we needed.

That’s when it struck me. This had happened before, maybe a quarter century ago.

The Incredible Shrinking Apple Shelf

Apple IIcWhen I was a teen, I had an Apple IIc. Computer stores always had a software section, split into “Apple” and “PC”. There was a time when it was a pretty even split, but the Apple section shrank over time as IBM-compatible machines became more popular. Eventually, the Apple Section became the Apple Shelf. Back then, before the internet made it easy to connect with retailers outside my city, it felt like I was trapped on the wrong side of technological history.

Not Dead Yet

There’s a temptation to use hyperbole to describe things, which is why we frequently read and hear about “the death of the PC” or “the death of rock and roll” or whatever. It makes the speaker’s / writer’s message sound more exciting. Similar to injecting profanity into a sentence. But in the age of the internet, technologies never really die. They may get to the point where only a “few” use them.  Worldwide, “few” can mean a thousand people, or a million people. Now all those people can find each other and communicate, regardless of geography. Their individual experiences won’t be “my local store doesn’t carry it any more, so I can’t get it.” Desktop computers might get to that point some day, but it will be a slow process.

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