Tech up­grades re­ally aren’t that great any­more

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - By Me­gan McArdle Me­gan McArdle is a Bloomberg colum­nist and the au­thor of “The Up Side of Down: Why Fail­ing Well is the Key to Suc­cess.”

This week, af­ter 4 ½ years of faith­ful ser­vice, I fi­nally re­placed my old lap­top. I will not bore you with the litany of trou­bles that led to this de­ci­sion. The only in­ter­est­ing thing about my de­ci­sion to re­place my old 15-inch Mac­book Pro is what I chose to re­place it with: a nearly iden­ti­cal Mac­book, about four years newer. But not quite the new­est model.

For the first time in my life, I de­cided to sit out an up­grade cy­cle and buy the older model, now be­ing sold at a dis­count like day-old bread.

I won’t say that the dis­count played no role in my de­ci­sion. But in pre­vi­ous years, I’d have swal­lowed hard and handed over the money, be­cause I am, in the lap­top world, a hard­core power user. I game on my lap­top. I fre­quently have a dozen or so ap­pli­ca­tions open, two or three of which are browsers with many tabs open. Faster pro­ces­sors, more mem­ory — these things are suf­fi­ciently valu­able that I’m will­ing to pay for them, be­cause they make me more pro­duc­tive.

The trou­ble is, the up­grade cy­cle is no longer de­liv­er­ing those things. The pro­ces­sors in the lat­est model were marginally faster than in the pre­vi­ous one, but you couldn’t add mem­ory, which I needed more. In­stead, Ap­ple is fo­cus­ing on things I care about a lot less, like mak­ing the lap­top thin — even though that meant los­ing USB and SD card ports that I still use, and los­ing a lot of “play” from the key­board.

But my de­ci­sion is not pri­mar­ily ev­i­dence of Ap­ple mak­ing poor de­sign de­ci­sions. In­stead, it’s a les­son in the lim­its of the form — and the way that’s af­fect­ing up­grade cy­cles, and very prob­a­bly, Ap­ple’s fu­ture rev­enue.

For decades, we’ve been talk­ing about “Moore’s Law” — the rule of thumb that the num­ber Emoti­cons are dis­played on the Touch Bar on a new Ap­ple Mac­Book Pro lap­top dur­ing a prod­uct launch event on Oct. 27, in Cu­per­tino, Calif. Stephen Lam, Getty Im­ages file of tran­sis­tors on a chip dou­bles every 18 months. More tran­sis­tors mean more pro­cess­ing power. And in my early years as a com­puter user, that mat­tered a great deal.

Each new gen­er­a­tion of com­puter de­liv­ered a mas­sive im­prove­ment in per­for­mance — more hard drive, more mem­ory, faster pro­ces­sor. Those things meant that the soft­ware that ran on those com­put­ers rapidly de­vel­oped more bells and whis­tles that took ad­van­tage of all that new power. Peo­ple who used that soft­ware found them­selves forced to up­grade, be­cause try­ing to run it on an old sys­tem was un­bear­ably slow.

But we’re start­ing to hit the lim­its of Moore’s Law. As Ars Tech­nica re­cently wrote: “Con­strained by heat, clock speeds have largely stood still, and the per­for­mance of each in­di­vid­ual pro­ces­sor core has in­creased only in­cre­men­tally. What we see in­stead are mul­ti­ple pro­ces­sor cores within a sin­gle chip. This in­creases the over­all the­o­ret­i­cal per­for­mance of a pro­ces­sor, but it can be dif­fi­cult to ac­tu­ally ex­ploit this im­prove­ment in soft­ware.”

Im­prove­ments on lap­tops and phones are in­creas­ingly com­ing from more mar­ginal fea­tures: sharper dis­plays, solid-state drives, bet­ter cam­eras, dif­fer­ent sets of ports. In con­trast, more com­put­ing power is a gen­eral-pur­pose im­prove­ment that pro­vides a lot of dif­fer­ent ben­e­fits to dif­fer­ent kinds of users — and can force users to up­grade, as their old de­vices be­come un­us­ably slow

And we’re see­ing this in up­grade cy­cles. My 4.5 years is ac­tu­ally on the low side for re­plac­ing a com­puter; the av­er­age now is nearly six years, which of course means that a sub­stan­tial num­ber of users are wait­ing longer than that.

For re­plac­ing mo­bile de­vices, too, con­sumers are wait­ing longer, in part be­cause phone com­pa­nies are no longer sub­si­diz­ing the phones to get you to in­vest in a con­tract, but also, I sus­pect, be­cause de­vices are just not get­ting bet­ter as fast as they once were. We used to up­grade our phones every two years be­cause the new op­er­at­ing sys­tems ran on old phones as if they’d been given high doses of val­ium. Now we’ll wait un­til the bat­ter­ies won’t hold a charge; I’m not will­ing to pay hun­dreds of dol­lars to get a bet­ter cam­era while los­ing my head­phone jack.

And that may be the big­gest rea­son that up­grades are slow­ing down. The old im­prove­ments in pro­cess­ing power meant that up­grades were pure up­side. The new im­prove­ments out­side of pro­cess­ing power of­ten re­quire trade-offs. The lat­est iPhone de­sign is thin­ner and more wa­ter­proof than older mod­els. But to get there, Ap­ple had to lose a head­phone jack that peo­ple were pretty fond of.

This hardly means that tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies are go­ing to go out of busi­ness. But it may well slow rev­enue, and in turn, slow in­no­va­tion. In­vest­ing in a big over­haul every year or so makes sense when con­sumers were re­li­ably swap­ping out their gad­gets at the two-year mark; that gives you a very big mar­ket over which to de­fray the cost of all that R&D. As the mar­ket for each new model shrinks, com­pa­nies may make each new over­haul less flashy, or in­tro­duce big im­prove­ments only around the time that con­sumers are ready to re­place their last model.

In other words, per­sonal com­put­ing is com­plet­ing the shift from an early-in­no­va­tion mar­ket, which sees mas­sive changes in form and power every few years, to a ma­ture mar­ket in which peo­ple treat prod­ucts like cars: Gee, that fea­ture is nice, but I can prob­a­bly wait a few more years to have it.

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