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Monday, May 05, 2008

All good things come to an end as Fred reboots

"I was asked by editorial director Brian Livingston a question that was as profound as it was simple: "What have you learned from the computing industry over the last three decades?"

Here are my short-form answers:

Don't sweat the small stuff

For example, we all know someone who obsesses over CPU clock speeds, GPU texture fill rates, broadband RWIN size, or some other performance variable as if it held the key to computing happiness. The fact is, most computer users don't notice performance differences until they're in the range of 15% to 20% below "normal."

People who use their PCs a lot and are well-accustomed to how their systems work are a bit more sensitive to performance, but even they don't normally notice differences until the slowdown is greater than 10%. Computer pros and some very well-attuned individuals may notice speed drops of around 10%, but almost everyone needs a stopwatch to discern performance changes in the single-digit-percentage range. So why obsess over small differences that will most likely go unnoticed anyway?

Note that this doesn't apply just to CPUs and GPUs. It also affects operating systems, hardware name brands, and even non-tech issues in life. Most small differences just don't matter and aren't worth getting worked up about.

The grass isn't really greener in the next yard

All software has bugs and vulnerabilities. All hardware contains design flaws and can fail. Anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is nuts. For example, you'll hear people claim that there's a far smaller incidence of malicious hacking in the Linux and Apple worlds, and it's true — up to a point. But there are far, far fewer target systems in those worlds. With most of the planet's crackers trying to subvert Windows, is it really a huge surprise that more flaws are found in Windows than in other OSes?

This isn't to say that Windows has been a paragon of security; heck no. But to flip it the other way and say "Linux doesn't have many bugs" or "Macs don't get hacked" is just plain silly. Nothing is perfect, and you'll be happier with your PC — and with your life — if you simply deal with the flaws you encounter and move on. Perfection doesn't exist.

There's no such thing as a magic bullet

This is a close relative of the greener-grass myth. By the time you can buy a PC that's twice as fast as the PC you have today, the software you'll want to run will need twice today's power. In fact, there's no single thing — no new operating system, CPU, graphics card, etc. — you can change that will suddenly make all of your computing problems go away. Sad to say, your PC will always run slower than you want it to.

Hang on to your sense of wonder

There's something in human nature that allows us to become accustomed to even the most remarkable things. For example, my current PC clocks almost 2,000 times faster than my very first PC, and it has over 4,000 times as much RAM; yet in inflation-adjusted dollars it cost literally about one-tenth of that first system!

Is there anything else in our lives that even comes close to that kind of improvement? If you can manage not to get jaded about the many wonders in the world of computing or in our wider daily lives, you'll enjoy yourself that much more.

Remember your humanity

Alas, the world of high tech isn't immune to some of humankind's baser impulses. For example, consider Apple's elitist marketing. A PC is a tool, not a lifestyle, but Apple embraces the dark side and tries to sell its PCs by appealing to vanity and narcissism, implying that owning an Apple makes you smarter, cooler, and just plain better than those sorry-assed PC people.

Yes, it's a small thing, but the world has enough divisive issues in it without Apple marketers trying to invent silly new ones. It's just a computer, Apple! How about thinking really "different" and coming up with ads that don't promote snobbery and elitism?

Apple execs aren't the only tech snobs

This is a corollary to the above item. Apple's leaders just happen to be the worst offenders in the computer industry, and that's why I'm singling them out here. But I personally boycott any products whose main sales pitch is based on making one group of people think that they're inherently better than others. If you're as bothered by such ugly marketing ploys as I am, perhaps you'll consider a similar personal boycott."
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