Obsolete-proof hardware

A week ago I was attending a technical seminar in Hyderabad. Here a certain company was trying to pitch ‘Green IT’ products to its customers. A customer asked why the switches he had already purchased could simply be green-enabled instead of replacing these with new ‘green’ ones. Technical obsolescence makes it necessary for companies to replace products every few years. Isn’t there a way to make hardware obsolete-proof? And why can’t vendors take back old products and sell new ones at a reduced rate?

Buying new hardware every few years is getting to be a costly proposition and IT managers are feeling this more so now, during the downturn. But there is a way to make hardware obsolete-proof, to a certain extent or limit.

Have you heard about the concept of upgrading the firmware by flashing the BIOS? And then there are updates for device drivers. The feature set of a certain device, such as a MP3 player, motherboard, EPABX system or network switch can be determined by the corresponding device driver or firmware. The former is a piece of software that you install on the hard disk while firmware is special software that’s hard-wired on a chip in the device. The manufacturer could periodically release updates which the user could download from its website and then, following a special procedure, upload these into the chip, thereby overwriting the previous version of the firmware.

This concept is now applicable to the iPod and the iPhone. Apple releases updates periodically to extend or improve the functionality of these devices. Motherboard and graphics card manufacturers also offer driver and firmware updates.

There’s a Linux and Asterisks software solution that converts a PC into a full-fledged EPABX system. New features are easily added just by installing additional software modules rather than purchasing additional hardware.

Touch screen phones have virtual keypads and buttons that replace physical ones. The manufacturer can add new buttons or change the functionality of the buttons by updating the phone’s firmware.

The point is software updates can bring new or enhanced functionality to hardware and thereby increase the product lifecycle. But that doesn’t make the hardware obsolete-proof.

And there are physical limitations. Memory has a finite capacity. New ports and circuits can’t be installed on old devices. Wireless technology evolves and new radio chips are developed. Data transmission speeds increase and new bus interfaces emerge. Controller chips get more intelligent.

But this is all food for thought, nevertheless.

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Alice in Tele-land

My first glimpse of Telepresence was in the old Star Trek TV series with Captain James T Kirk confronting the Romulans, Klingons and other aliens via a huge screen on the bridge of the USS Enterprise. And then I discovered holographic communications in the film Star Wars (1977) and the concept of Teleportation in The Fly and Star Trek.

These days I do a fair amount of inter-city travel and I can see that the ‘laptop generation’ is abstaining from travel. Apart from the downturn, the fear of Swine Flu infection is another reason for the reduction in corporate travel. Obviously, there are a lot more audio and video conference sessions happening in boardrooms and meeting rooms in Indian enterprises. During a recent visit to a PR agency in Bangalore for instance, my presentation was beamed live to their offices in other cities via video links.

Telepresence and video conferencing are certainly helping organizations cut down on travel costs. Wipro for instance, has been able to save close to 100 trips per year leading to approximate savings of USD 2.5 million. Proter & Gamble is another big user of telepresence solutions.

I saw (and liked) the Cisco ‘Human Network’ ads on TV. Cisco obliged when I asked for a telepresence demo. They organized a telepresence session at their Mumbai office with a Cisco spokesperson in Bengaluru. I sat in front of three large screens and after a few minutes of conversation it felt like the person at the other end was in the same room—sitting across the table. Spatial sound and high definition video can surely fool the brain.

I think the next big technology shift in communications will be holographic projection. A three dimensional image of you will be projected to another location, so that you can be there—virtually.

Beyond that it would be teleportation. If that become possible due to a big research breakthrough, the transportation industry would have to change its business model, completely. I am hoping my child experiences teleportation in her lifetime. Thankfully, she would be spared the agony of traveling in packed trains and buses.

And no, her name is not Alice.