Thursday, August 24, 2017

Tech Death

Yesterday’s title included “sex,” and today’s includes “death.”  This concludes Goth Week.

I had to smile at Josh Kim’s column about his MacBook dying.  It triggered memories of previous tech deaths, and what they used to mean.  

My first computer was a 286 PC, connected to a dot matrix printer.  The display was a small black screen with green type, and there was no modem or other connection to any other device.  It was a glorified typewriter, and it cost over $1,000 in 1990 money.  It got me through the first couple of years of graduate school.  (In college, paper writing required trekking to the campus computer center, an incongruously pink building full of other students doing exactly the same thing at exactly the same time.)  It died slowly, with the keyboard being the first clue.  Sometime in its second year, the keyboard stopped working whenever it got cold.  I actually picked up a small space heater that I used to warm it up -- literally -- before writing.  It was a different time.

Replacing it was painfully expensive, given that I was living on grad student money on the East Coast.  It was followed by a series of PC’s, first running DOS and later running Windows.  None retired while fully functional; each one died its own version of an ignominious death.  As Tolstoy would have said, functional pc’s are all the same, but each terrible computer is terrible in its own way.  Some had keyboard issues, some would randomly lose data, some (later ones) had viruses that laid waste to everything.  

Late in grad school, I remember a gas explosion and major fire at an apartment complex a few miles away.  My friends and I had the empathy beaten out of us by that point, so we processed the event by speculating what we would do if our dissertations (and the computers that held them) went up in flames.  There was no such thing as cloud storage back then; the best idea we could come up with --- and this is true -- is storing floppies in refrigerators.  We guessed that they’d be likelier to survive that way.  Happily, I never had to test that theory.

Macs were always price-prohibitive, so I dealt with Microsoft for years.  That meant plenty of quirky software glitches, weird viruses, and…I know this is a family blog, but there’s no other way to say this...Windows Vista.  Oh, the humanity…

I learned the hard way about data backups, when a family PC laptop shuffled off this mortal coil with one year’s worth of photos on it.  Never again.

Netbooks proved frustrating.  I liked the portability and low cost, but XP was sluggish and the build quality was terrible.  I chucked one of them when the screen physically pulled away from the keyboard, with all sorts of wires poking out.  But the concept remained enticing, even if the execution didn’t.

In other words, I was primed for chromebooks.  My first one was a very early model; the screen was dark, the keyboard shallow, and the responses slow, but I still loved it.  It was so...simple.  After a couple of years, I upgraded to my current one, which has spoiled me utterly.  (It’s a 2015 Toshiba.). It can’t do a lot of things, but the things it does, it does quickly and painlessly.  And I moved to Google Docs years ago -- the updated version of storing disks in the refrigerator -- so that was easy.  The only serious pain point with a good chromebook is printing, because Google Cloud Print makes Windows Vista look good.  When they finally fix the printing issue on chromebooks, Windows will be in for a world of hurt.

Any piece of equipment can flake out at any time, but at least now the important stuff is backed up elsewhere.  And I haven’t used a space heater on a keyboard in years.

Phones are another matter.  I had a Palm Pre Plus -- yes, that was me -- that developed a periodic habit of draining its battery at scorching heat in about ten minutes.  I followed it with an early Republic Wireless phone, which mostly convinced me that I shouldn’t have bothered.  The IPhone 4S wasn’t much for battery life, but I did enjoy bantering with Siri.  (Actual exchange: “Siri, will you marry me?”  Bloop bloop.  “Let’s just be friends.”). A Galaxy S4 had a bright and colorful screen, but the battery cover kept popping off, and eventually the screen developed a crack all the way across.  I still don’t know why.  When the kids got old enough for smartphones, I went with the Moto X series, and eventually bought one of my own.  They were better than they get credit for, and I still don’t know why they didn’t prove more popular.  When The Girl dropped hers and shattered it, I passed mine to her, and bought a used IPhone that I still have.  Now The Boy’s IPhone appears to be possessed by demons, so the cycle starts again.

After all these years of wrestling with tech -- most of which I’ve mostly enjoyed, when I wasn’t cursing it -- I think I’ve figured out how tech designers think.  Below, my speculative account of a conversation between an Apple designer and a frustrated customer.

AD: What would you like to see in the next model?

FC: Better battery life.  Also, less expensive.

AD: How about Apple Pay?

FC: Better battery life.  Also, less expensive.

AD: Hmm.  I hear you.  How about dual cameras?

FC: Battery.  Life.  Less. Expensive.

AD: Got it!  We’ll take away the headphone jack!

FC: (quietly pounding head on table)

AD: And we’ll finally break the thousand-dollar barrier!

FC: (starts stabbing table with fork)

There’s a weird indifference to the user experience that seems rooted in whiz-bang bragging rights.  I get that -- I like black slabs that beep as much as the next guy -- but some of us have kids, and “reliable and cheap” fits our lives much better than “fussy and expensive.”  My guess is that these are designed by well-paid childless 25 year olds for other well-paid childless 25 year olds.  Nothing wrong with being a well-paid childless 25 year old, but it’s a bit of a niche.  Most of us don’t fit that description.

And don’t get me started on printers.  Just don’t.

Still, I have to admit real progress.  The kids are perplexed by the concept of a phone that only makes voice calls, and I love knowing that my stuff is backed up externally, so a fried laptop is only a hardware problem.  And I admit that podcasts and downloaded audiobooks beat the daylights out of commercial radio, or trying to change CD’s while driving.  I don’t quite know how I functioned before GPS.  And then there’s Twitter.

I’ve told the kids that ten years from now, they’ll look back incredulously at the primitive stuff we’re using now.  They don’t quite believe me yet.  But I’ve got a space heater that says otherwise.