Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Devices and PCs

The device wave seems to be sweeping the world. Apple's new tablet is selling like hot cakes, there are over a dozen of eBook readers on the market, and Android announces the support of a new device category every week.

I have been building the OS for devices for what is still the majority of my career at Microsoft, and had been a passionate advocate for and an avid user of various embedded electronics since 1997. I have shipped the first Microsoft's embedded product that sold for less than $100 (MN-700 residential gateway).

I have used video players, networked storage, terminal server clients, eBook readers, tablets, Internet terminals, portable music players, PDAs, car media players, portable displays, residential gateways, cameras, game boxes, etc, etc, etc. And, of course, smartphones, smartphones, smartphones, and more smartphones.

Over the years I have accumulated 4 large cardboard boxes full of devices in my basement. Almost all of them followed a very similar usage pattern: a new exciting device would come to market, I would get it and use it for about a year. Within a year though, rarely two, almost never three, the device would be obsolete. A new media format will become popular. A new display technology would call for higher video resolution. An upgrade to an OS would obsolete the device drivers. A company would go out of business and shut the web service down.

In the end, the destiny of all these gizmos was always the same - the brown box under the stairs. I think the longest I had embedded device was a couple of $15 wireless routers I got at Fry's 3-4 years ago, and I had a Sony eBook reader for 3 years. All the rest hit the box in at most 2 years.

I actually loved my SONY Reader. Despite the fact it took 10 minutes to boot. Despite the fact that there was no way to organize the collection in any meaningful way, so I always had to go through 66 pages of book titles to find the one I intended to read. Despite the fact that the battery life was nothing like advertized.

I even wrote a filter to automatically translate Project Gutenberg books to LRF format (http://1-800-magic.blogspot.com/2008/01/gutenberg-for-sony-pre-alpha.html).

What eventually killed the Reader was a multitude of factors. The hacked support for Russian script was no longer available for the most current firmware upgrade, so I had to stay on the old version. The new connection software no longer supports the old firmware. Finally, BookDesigner, a program that I used to translate RTF files into LRF to read them on the device does not work on newer operating systems.

At the same time, while playing with all these devices, I was slowly but surely - and mostly without realizing it - replacing them with PCs. Where devices lasted only a bit, PCs persisted.

A NAS device was replaced by three of server PCs first consisting of expensive case, good power supplies, cheap motherboards, and 30 disks. The cheap motherboards were quickly replaced by an expensive ones, but the rest was reused, and the machines are now in service 24/7 through the last 5 years. I have replaced a few disks, taking a couple of opportunities to upgrade - first going from 300 to 500GB, then to 1TB drives.

A couple of media center PCs that were in the house since 2005 went through a refresh this year. I have replaced motherboards, CPU, and memory ($400 per PC for 6-core Athlons, 8GB RAM,  and top of the line ASUS boards), and upgraded the OS to Windows 7. I have reused the 500GB disks that were left over from the server upgrade.

A gaming PC that I have in my garage in front of a thread mill is in daily use since 2007, and it plays Halo 2 as well as it was on the first day of its life four and a half years ago. I have turned on the Xbox 360 next to it less than a dozen times over the same period of time. Last time only to find out that it had died, perhaps of loneliness.

Because of the super high level of commoditization, PC hardware is unmatched in price. Even the retail markup is different - for devices such as DVD players it usually is over 50%, whereas for PC hardware - thank you, Dell! - it is almost always below 15%. So you can buy a 4TB TerraStation for $800, or a pretty decent PC with 4 1TB hard drives which would in many cases cost much less.

And because PC hardware is interchangeable, when you decomission an old PC, you can almost always reuse at least some of the parts - a case, a power supply, a DVD drive - at a minimum, which makes your new build so much cheaper.

But of course the biggest advantage of the PC platform is that it is constantly evolving. A new codec that could kill a media player will be just a tiny upgrade to a Media Center PC. A Blu-ray is trivial to install without changing much of the existing functionality.

PCs do come with a cost - they could be hard to maintain. But there is a very simple solution - my PCs are all single function. A game PC is only used to play games. A Media Center is only used to watch movies. Servers are only used for storage and virtualization. There is a dedicated PC for Skype. I do software development and email on a VM that is specially built just for that.

As a result, there are usually no compatibility problems with software, and in fact configuration changes are very infrequent, so I spend very little time on my home infrastructure these days. Much less, in fact, than I used to spend trying to get all the devices to talk to each other :-).


Anonymous said...

Have you used an iPad

DzembuGaijin said...

PC became junk as fast as the rest of h/wand s/w or even faster. Fact of life. Some people love recycling and simply enjoy collecting old junk. I would admit I am one of them, but I try to fight if :-)

But one thing is for sure: PC is hard to use. Waste majority of people have no freaking idea about h/w and even s/w and stupid/naive enough to download malware when prompted.

In my household, Apple products last most. PC became obsolete the moment I bring it home.

My favorite gadget is iPhone form the day one. It lasted as not other gadget I had did, maybe with exception of Sony Mylo that I still use as land line replacement and got a year before my first iPhone.

Devices do evolve. PC and OS stagnate. Even OS X start to suck compare to iOS and iPad.

There is no replacement to joy of a new gadget :-) and old things does not work good or even economical: they usually bigger, hotter and eat more energy. Fans and HD spindles does not last forever and RAM and HD space price drops almost exponentially and you can stick just as much in M/B or box.

But one observation is true: when you buy a cheap gadget with small markup :-) it ends up in junk box much faster.

When you buy a quality and well designed product, even if it is more pricy, you tend to enjoy it more.

Competition for price is lost game for both consumer and company.

Competition for quality is the thing :-) I guess this is why you do not buy in Frys anymore and that why people love iPad and do not like Sony Reader (that I have and do not use)

DzembuGaijin said...

Another comment:

You say 15% margin as it is a good thing. Microsoft has much bigger one: it is s/w biz and you are OK with that. IMHO: I think it is too high.

Margin is just a fancy word for profit.

So, why you are so happy that company that made a toy for you get no or low profit?

What do you expect from such a company next? Right, the less profit company make, the crappier product you should expect.

That does not mean that company that charge premium will always make a good product, but one thing for sure, if company have to save every penny to break even, you should not expect miracles.

That why most PC's one can buy are junk infested with crapware.

This is no good if you ask me.