That old PC hardware upgrade curve just isnt what it used to be. Remember the days when you would get a state-of-the-art, fully loaded system, and within two years it would be woefully underpowered to run the vital applications of the day?
I sure remember them, but, for the most part, not all that fondly. Like many of you, Ive been enjoying the fact that I can still use 7-year-old Pentium 3 systems for most day-to-day tasks, including e-mail, Web surfing and word processing. In our home lives, weve been able to keep old systems around for different tasks, or, when weve upgraded, pass our older but still useful systems down to friends and family.
Even more important, the fact that there was no real need to upgrade to new PC hardware helped a lot of businesses get through the recent lean IT years. We should all be thankful the hardware curve straightened out during the bust.
But when you compare the current changes in hardware with early times, it is a little depressing. Here I sit, in 2006, still able to use a Pentium 3 system from 1999 for most, if not all, of my regular computing tasks. This is the equivalent of using a 386 system in 1999—a system that had trouble running software from 1995, never mind 1999.
So while its been helpful for us that we havent had to upgrade our hardware all that aggressively, I dont think it has been all that healthy for the industry as a whole. To a large degree, PC innovation has stagnated, and we are probably missing out on new products and advantages that would result from a more robust cycle.
As with a lot of IT woes, the entity that most often gets blamed for this slow hardware cycle is Microsoft. Lots of pundits and critics have said that Microsoft has failed to create new operating systems that force users to upgrade to better hardware. Even the forthcoming Windows Vista wont do much in this area, as the only feature that will require more modern hardware is basically eye candy.
But I think those who make these criticisms have gotten things all wrong. In retrospect, Microsoft almost never pushed hardware forward. Every new Microsoft operating system has been able to run on systems that were several years old. The biggest hardware change I remember from the 1990s was the high-at-the-time (8MB or more) memory requirement for Windows 95.
To me, there is only one software area that has consistently pushed the envelope when it comes to cutting-edge PC hardware, and that is gaming. While I can easily run nearly all of the current generation of business software on a system that is 3 or 4 years old, I dont have a chance in an evil alternate universe of playing Half-Life 2 on anything less than state-of-the-art hardware.
It might seem that PC gaming has taken a back seat to console-based games, which are highly profitable. However, insiders know pure sales is a poor measure of success, especially since the massively popular and successful multiplayer online games such as World of Warcraft are mainly PC-only games.
Weve recently seen recognition from major IT players that PC-based games are not only alive and well but also worthy of very focused attention—for example, from Dell, with its purchase of Alienware, and from Microsoft, with its recent announcement about pushing the PC game arena once again.
Now, some of you out there are probably thinking, What does PC gaming hardware have to do with my business systems? Well, think of it as trickle-down economics.
When gamers of the world just have to have that mega-expensive rig with quad-high-powered-physic-engine embedded graphics capabilities, the hardware just a step below that goes way down in price. This leads to PC suppliers adding one-step-below-cutting-edge equipment to the systems they sell to businesses.
And the more businesses that have these powerful systems, the more developers will start to write programs that take advantage of them—which will lead to new software innovation.
Yes, this may mean that, in 2010, you may not be able to run stuff on your stodgy 2005 Pentium 4 system and that youll have to invest in a newer system. But at least youll have something worth running on it.
Labs Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.