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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