When speed isn't everything

· by Steve · Read in about 3 min · (616 Words)

For the last several decades, the computing industry has depended on what was perceived to be an insatiable desire for more raw computing power. The WinTel alliance has worked well, with the world’s most popular operating system demanding ever increasing resources (sometimes for debateable practical benefit), driving the demand for new chips. One of the latest drivers making people buy new systems is virtualisation, a nice little earner for those wanting to sell nice big mainframe-like boxes to replace the multitudes of servers - the ones they previously sold people to replace their original mainframes in many cases of course. 😉

However, the fact is that demand for ever faster boxes is waning. Personally, even as a developer who makes pretty heavy use of my machines, I’m increasingly finding my upgrade cycles slowing, and it’s been a long time since I’ve genuinely felt that my hard drive space was under serious pressure - usually it’s just me being lazy and not deleting all my old crap. Since I work with GPUs I probably update my graphics card more often than your average consumer (excluding hardcore PC gamers), but as regards everything else, it pretty much works ok most of the time. Server consolidation will drive sales for a while yet, but on the desktop side I see things going in a completely different direction - rather than chasing processing muscle, I think we’re increasingly going to be chasing form factor, power consumption, and aesthetics.

In every previous iteration of Windows, people have generally upraded their machines for it, and it’s pretty much worked every time. Vista tried to do the same thing, but it hasn’t really worked. Firstly, there was the whole confusion about what ‘Vista Ready’ meant - in many cases, it meant Vista would boot, but be pretty unusable compared to the same machine running XP. Along with that, people using it often responded with a gigantic ‘meh’ as regards the enhancements they were getting in return for this additional overhead - and many just decided that their machines ran a lot better on XP, and tossed Vista out the window. I don’t blame them - having used Vista I really can’t say it’s my OS of choice, and certainly can’t recommend it to others - I just can’t justify the extra RAM it needs to do the exact same tasks as I can do on XP. I also can’t explain why OS X and Ubuntu can do everything Vista can do, just more elegantly (especially OS X) and on a lower hardware spec.

So, mindless upgrading because of bloated Windows code doesn’t seem to be par for the course any more. People are staying on XP and some are even trying out OS X and Ubuntu, and liking what they’re seeing. More importantly, people are getting more discerning about what their devices look like, how much power they draw, and how easy they are to use - this is I’m sure related to the iPod effect, but also environmental concerns. Small, elegant, portable, intuitive, power-efficient - these factors are all more important now than ever before in our industry, pushing out the big, high-powered, inelegant but muscle-bound approaches. Sure, computing power will still be important, if we want voice controls some time and ever flashier displays, but really I think we’re very much exiting the period where raw brute force was an acceptable technical focus, and entering a period where design is more important. It’s not what you’ve got, it’s what you do with it, as they say. This is definitely a good thing, and I think we can expect to see more success from the likes of Apple in this sort of market.