Monday, April 24, 2006

#22: Propping up progress?

I have spent the last few days reading books about online journalism – oi, no, stop snickering at the back there. The library resources here being what they are, all the books readily available are now three or four years old. What’s remarkable about this is how out of date aspects of the information has become.

It’s such a short period of time, in cosmic terms. But the world of information technology moves like nothing else on earth, and three years can be like a generation – there’re recognisable similarities over the distance, but expectations, predictions, and normalities are often considerably out of whack.

And people complain that the speed of advance in the automotive industry hasn’t matched up with the pace of change exhibited in computers? Can you imagine what this would actually be like?

The analogy suggests that if cars followed the same kind of rabid development as the personal computer, then we’d have much smaller, even more greatly efficient power units, standardised componentry and connectivity, and perhaps as esoteric a practical result as cars routinely capable of 100 miles per gallon, and so…yawn.

Whatever.

It is true that computing has come “a long way” but let’s consider the realistic implications of the auto industry following a similar pattern.

It’s the early in the year 2006. Just over a decade since Microsoft launched Windows 95. Yet to all intents and purposes, anyone still using this operating system is an anachronism. Trying to find compatible software? You can forget it. Trying to find compatible hardware? You’re out of luck. Even if you do rustle up an example to contradict this rule you’ll discover a snag. The machine running 95 will need to have been seriously top-end at the time of purchase for it to stand any chance of meeting the performance requirements necessary for today’s additions. And let’s face it; anyone still using such an antique is unlikely to have purchased the best model in the first place.

That’s obsolescence 11 years after inception (I resist the temptation to describe it as built-in…). This may be the kind of thing car manufacturers fantasize about in board meetings, but it’s hardly a realistic proposition for most motorists. It’s like saying all the periphery necessary to make a car into a functional device – tyres, replacement parts, maybe even lubricants and fuel – have become gradually unavailable, or rather, “incompatible.” All vehicles of that “vintage” would be confined to the fettling of hobbiests and collectors, all madly scouring eBay for relevant parts. This is how the classic car industry works – alright, probably not including eBay for most people – but after 11 years? You’ve got to be kidding me if you think people would be willing to accept that.

It gets worse. The whole false concept of standardisation would be a disaster area for the motor vehicle. This website, for example, is built using the supposedly universal medium of html, the basic foundation of the world wide web. But, open it in Internet Explorer and you will get a – sometimes wildly – different viewing experience in comparison to Firefox. And both of these are running under the same operating system; introduce the Mac OS, add the native Mac browser Safari, and you’ve got even more variation. This with a supposedly professionally approved template offered by Blogger, the company that allows this weblog to happen.

Transfer this over to the garage and you’d have a situation where the exact same tool has a differing effect depending upon the operating environment. For your main dealer the spanner will work one way; for your independent specialist the result will appear similar, but not necessarily entirely so – making the situation even worse through its apparent lack of predictability.

Performance, then? Surely that’s shown improvements in a way to make the auto industry green with envy? Well, not exactly.

An entry-level pc now costing about £400 is probably less than half the amount an entry level computer cost a decade ago, and many, many times more powerful – an economising of exploitable performance that car users can only sniffle at. But in terms of being really “green”, improvements in computing power have not exactly resulted in environmental efficiency.

Today’s pcs are vastly more powerful but also use much greater amounts of energy in terms of electricity demands and waste through heat that needs to be dissipated. Only recently are we starting to see companies, such as Fujitsu Siemens, producing computers that take environmental issues seriously, reducing the amount of harmful lead that goes into their production and making greater efforts to manage their power consumption.

Following this analogy out to the point where we came in, it’s a self-defeating exercise to try and predict the future. The apparent innovation of the moment may turn out to be unworkable – WAP mobile internet being the example these books bring to mind – while something else entirely may spring into popular being – WiFi, wireless networking anyone?

Everyday useable 100mpg vehicles remain a distant dream; wishful thinking isn’t the answer. Increasingly, designs such as this Massive Yet Tiny engine are poking their heads over the parapet, waiting to see if anyone wants to give them a hand up or take a pop at shooting them down. Then there’s the rumoured X-Prize for cars, and the claims surrounding the production of hydrogen fuelcell vehicles – which requires the kind of infrastructure and commitment to change typified by computing. But I wouldn’t like to guess where the automotive industry is going even at its current rate of development; if it changed at the pace of the pc I think we’d all be lost.


Links:

Angel Labs Massive Yet Tiny Engine: The Little Engine That Could? @ Gizmodo

Fujitsu Siemens Personal Computers

Honda drops the Hydrogen Future [internal]


Picture from JeffryAtW.com v11; Jeffrey Faden is a part-time comic book artist- amongst many other things - and the image is on his fan art page.

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