The Northern Spy: the desktop/laptop market is past mere maturity
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The Northern Spy: the desktop/laptop market is past mere maturity

By Rick Sutcliffe

The Spy and wife own and she drives a 1991 Buick Regal that in today's terms is generally regarded as hopelessly obsolete driving technology. It has no informative car computer display, not GPS, no telephone, no heated seats, TV in the back seating area or anti-lock /skid braking system, and the climate control system is primitive and manual.

Even the 2002 Buick Regal he drives has some of that, though it too is regarded as ancient by some people. Yet both continue to do the job for which they were purchased--transporting among home, Church, town, and children/grandchildren--and, contrary to some, the end use is far more important than the means. So, in what practical sense is either mere means of transport obsolete, except from an advertising bumph point of view, where the goal is to persuade us, against a known lack of need, that we want to buy the latest replacement?

Likewise, hundreds of millions resist computer upgrades because their old beat up Windows XP or Leopard box still defies the odds and keeps on handling email, browsing, and a little document composition. True, the former is likely to have been recruited into one or more bot nets and spend the night sending out bogus emails to plague honest folk, but both do what their owners want.

Customer demand in the modern computer industry is highly artificial--the market is all but saturated and any latest and greatest machines are only needed by a few very high end professionals in computing science, graphic arts, or video editing, who have put off upgrading until the old box' limitations become an obstacle to their work. Who else will buy a new Mac Pro, significant though the upgrade may be? Well, the Spy will, but he fits the profile.

Face it. The desktop/laptop computing industry is past mere maturity and well into old age. Very few people could make a convincing argument for more power in their box than they already have, could discern the difference between a "retina" display and the next notch up or down, could creditably claim that they are using what they have at a level even close to its capabilities. Want a new computer? Produce the truly important use cases as justification.

Recall the Spy's Tenth Law: Computers are not toasters. They're compound sliding mitre saws. The time is coming, perhaps has already arrived, when it makes most sense to sell them that way--in either tool stores, among general electronics goods, or at office supply emporiums, with the occasional shelf space in some of the large discount or general box stores. How long can Apple maintain the high end mystique for the corporation as a whole, or more particularly, for its retail boutiques? A broadening of the retail product line may soon be in order to keep those in business. More to the point, Apple must either produce a new game-changer, or slip into the mediocrity of a mature manufacturer lacking any distinctive cachet.

Consider the case of Sony which used to operate many retail stores. Three remain in the Lower Mainland of BC in very large shopping centres, none within fifty kilometres of the Spy's igloo. It's not hard to predict there will soon be none. With Sony's commercial paper now degraded to junk, corporate profits a thing of the far distant past, and few ideas to take to the bank, there's no access to capital for building out.

As with Kodak, there may be patents worth acquiring in a bankruptcy, but it's not clear there is sufficient "there" there to tempt even a breakup artist, much less a takeover or turnaround expert. And, in what mould could the company be re-invented? The only mould is what has grown on its problematic products and development department. No new ideas = no future. (Apple beware; the honeymoon is over.)

So why, faced with a bewildering array of other choices from marginally more viable suppliers, did the Spy purchase a Sony STR-DN1040 home-theatre-style receiver (list $799; actual about $549)? After all, he knew supplies had nearly dried up--a sure harbinger of either a new model line (typical at this time of year) or an ignominious exit from the business.

Answer: see the above. Both reviews and specs seemed promising, the price and service from electronics retailer giant Crutchfield were attractive, and the unit would do the job he wanted. As long as the latter is the case, the technology remains locally current, whatever the new product market is doing--or saying. This one has all of AirPlay, Wi-Fi, Ethernet, and BlueTooth networking, though, contrary to what the Spy thought pre-delivery last month, the unit does not in fact have a phono input--a curious omission given the recent comeback of vinyl, though perhaps not in view of many newer turntables sporting a built-in pre-amp.

Hey, the Spy and wife are pleased to be able to play their fifty-year-old LPs, whether on their existing turntable upstairs, or a new one down. There's no music like it today--lyrics you can actually understand set to melodious and memorable tunes. Records were never obsolete except in the minds of those who came to believe something better had replaced them, and whether this was ever really true or mere advertising myth seems now to have become a matter of debate. (Careful objective analysis may verify this; opinions on the other hand are no longer so universal as they once were.) But the vinyl will still play, albeit through an inexpensive separate pre-amp box to the Sony receiver, and thence to a nice Tannoy home theatre speaker array--itself not top of the line, but adequate for the minimal basement space the Spy is willing to share for such amusements.

Unit setup was simple. Run a little plenum-rated speaker wire to achieve the surround effect with speakers installed beside the sitting area, hook the equipment to the receiver, attach the configuration microphone, power the unit, go through the simple calibration, lock in a few radio stations on the tuner presets, and all was ready to use. The sound is of course a vast improvement over the tinny speakers on any TV screen, and any source with better than mere stereo encoding offers a whole new experience in listening. The setup delivers pure, clean, listenable sound, and audiophile reviewers (which the Spy is not) rate receiver and speakers well.

One oddity--the 1040 detected the small Tannoy bookshelf left and right front speakers as "large" but apparently this is a recommended default, though it can be manually altered. The available 7.2 setup is currently being employed in a 5.1 arrangement, though the Spy may mount front high or zone two speakers in place of the unused rear (configuration options). He sees no need to employ the second sub-woofer, however. The kind of sound for which some find that useful has zero appeal here.

The 1040 has eight (one front) HDMI inputs--more than most people would ever need--plus component, AV, coax, and analog audio inputs (2). Some of these are assignable, meaning they can be used, say, for audio or component, but not both. Seven total is the maximum in any one configuration. One or two more pure audio RCA inputs would have been more convenient, but there is one optical audio input besides the return on the TV--the latter needed because the set in use does not return on the HDMI connection. The unit can handle 4K video, which the Spy does not require. There is one switched AC outlet.

The remote is of course programmable. Once the code for a component is discovered and attached to a selector button, that button turns the remote into the controller for that peripheral--except that oddly, there is no eject. For a second zone, one can either co-opt the powered rear/high front pair, or employ a separate unpowered output for a pair with their own amp. The multi-lingual GUI is minimal when displayed on the receiver's own screen, but quite acceptable when routed to the TV screen. (First thing the unit did was download an update to this.) Network choices seem quite broad for radio, but limited for video. Local network choices are limited to audio and video, and the unit does not recognize a photo server. Fortunately the existing Samsung Blu-ray does, so there is no loss.

The Spy and wife inherited from her parents a beautiful old stereo cabinet dating from the late 1960s that is even now being gutted of electronics and fitted with shelves for components. There is nothing obsolete about a piece of furniture this fine--solid wood and plywood put together with glue-and-screw joinery and given a finish never to be seen in the modern particle board imitation furniture milieu. The electronics still functioned, and the scratchy tuner and volume control and the sticky phono might have been repairable, but forty-six years is perhaps slightly past the best-before date.

What other "obsolete" technology will the Spy install in said cabinet, besides a better phono than came out? A dual cassette tape player, a combination DVD/VCR (for the latter) a newish Blu-Ray player, and an ancient (1970s) cartridge-style CD player. The latter is the 6-disc type made for many years by Pioneer and sold by them and under Toshiba, JVC, and Kenwood brand labels. Since there was already one of these in the living room (picked up for $10 on EBay as a replacement for a broken one) it made sense to acquire another from the same source so the cartridges could be played downstairs as well. There's nothing wrong with the electronics in these; it’s the mechanical parts in the changer that eventually fail.

"Impossibly old fashioned" you say? Perhaps true, but the Spy has neither the time, the inclination, nor the motivation to copy all the household music from CDs to the house server in order to play it from there. True, he has the house wired with CAT-6 (because he could) but does not do everything for that reason. He limits how much time he'll allot to toys or tools. When the old perform to the necessary level, he sees no need to change. When the new does a new task he deems useful, he considers a purchase. But, this column notwithstanding, people are far more important than things.

Oh, and you might have wondered why only radio presets were mentioned. That's because there is no television feed in the house. The cable company supplies Internet and phone, but there is no need for modern broadcast TV here. This household is content with classic BBC productions and a very few very old TV shows on DVD or Blu-ray, but this true-north-strong-and-free household cannot even justify TV for hockey, and there's certainly no "want" for a single current entertainment offering, thus, nothing to justify a cable TV feed. Don't want it, don't miss it.

So, though it's a pity that the Sony 1040 receiver may already be an orphan, quite probably to be joined soon by everything bearing that brand name--unless a buyout can quickly be organized--that consideration didn't play into the purchase decision. Every mere thing eventually becomes obsolete. The need/want was delineated, what was on the market to meet the required specs was investigated, charted side by side, and the best technology fit ordered and installed.

Considerations of the supplier's future prospects did not factor into the decision. If one hammer, drill, or brand of compound mitre saw vanishes from the tool store shelves tomorrow, another will replace it the next day. Meanwhile, the one purchased remains current and useable for as long as it continues to pound nails, drill holes and set screws, or saw boards, respectively. True, his current Bosch cordless drill and driver offer more torque than the older corded models, but they were bought for the portable convenience, not because the others were obsolete. Same goes for electronics.

Ditto programming languages which are also tools. They remain useful until their utility falls behind the demands of emerging use cases. That's the motivation for the Spy being involved in the Modula-2 R10 project--moving the art and science of programming language design into the modern era so as to have tools to solve present day problems. The older languages remain useful for the purposes for which they were invented, but clumsily bolting on new features to accommodate new needs eventually becomes old. The time comes when the basic structure of the tool needs a partial or complete gutting, the philosophy needs a re-thing, and the tool re-cast for modern construction methods. The authors froze the grammar this month, and look to freeze the library structure shortly, so a descriptive book can be published, and a compiler built.

The top line:

Let's have some perspective. Technology only becomes dead dead--or even obsolete--when it either ceases to perform the task to which it was set, or the task itself no longer needs to be performed. Until then, it remains current, no matter how old. The useful retains at least some value. Moreover, of those who say "(s)he who dies with the most toys wins", the Spy gently enquires, "Wins what and where, pray tell?"

Friends and family are of infinitely more importance, will always endure, never become obsolete. Human values such as fidelity, constancy, truth, love, righteousness, honour, duty, and morality are timeless. Such will be current even when the universe itself is replaced by a new heavens and a new earth, at which event both technology and the negations of such values will forever be forgotten. Let's have some perspective, even when we talk ephemeral toys.

--The Northern Spy
Opinions expressed here are entirely the author's own, and no endorsement is implied by any community or organization to which he may be attached. Rick Sutcliffe, (a.k.a. The Northern Spy) is professor of Computing Science and Mathematics at Canada's Trinity Western University. He has been involved as a member or consultant with the boards of several community and organizations, and participated in developing industry standards at the national and international level. He is a co-author of the Modula-2 programming language R10 dialect. He is a long time technology author and has written two textbooks and nine novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers (paper and online), and he's a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of BC since 1972.

Want to discuss this and other Northern Spy columns? Surf on over to Participate and you could win free web hosting from the subsidiary of Arjay Web Services. Rick Sutcliffe's fiction can be purchased in various eBook formats from Fictionwise, and in dead tree form from Amazon's Booksurge.

URLs for Rick Sutcliffe's Arjay Enterprises:

The Northern Spy Home Page:
opundo :
Sheaves Christian Resources :
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General URLs for Rick Sutcliffe's Books:

Author Site:
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URLs for items mentioned in this column
The Sony 1040:
Modula-2 R10--see the link at:


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