The Opposing Forces of Consumerism

I listened to the audiobook of Adam Minter’s Junkyard Planet recently. It’s quite an eye-opening look into what happens to much of our waste, the stuff that gets recycled anyway. The phrase ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ stuck with me (although it’s not new).

To counter the growing amount of waste the world generates we should first reduce, i.e. buy fewer things; second reuse, either ourselves or hand off to someone else who can reuse the item for its original purpose; and only then recycle.

Anyone who has seen the huge amounts of toxic chemicals both required and produced in recycling much of our waste (especially e-waste) can obviously understand why, not to mention the growing pressures with dealing with our waste in general.

toxic waste in living color

The problem is that our economies are built on continual demand for new things. When consumer demand dropped after the financial crash it threw most of the world into chaos. It’s been a long haul back to where we were and we’re not there yet.

So how do you balance these two opposing forces? On the one hand we need to buy less, and on the other we must continue to buy or many businesses will cease to function (and their associated jobs will go). Continue reading

Why Our Homes Remain Dumb

Jacob Kastrenakes has a piece over at The Verge called The Dumb State of the Smart Home. It talks about how current ‘smart’ devices aren’t capable of interconnectivity, largely because they don’t talk the same language.

I know a bit about this subject, because I put together some basic home automation myself. Nothing too fancy, mine just controls a lamp, on a timer. Mine’s a bit smarter than the units you plug into the wall because it changes based on sunset as to when it comes on in the evening, and only comes on if sunrise is after a certain time (i.e. it’s dark enough for me to need light) in the mornings.

To do it, I use a standard set of remote control plug sockets, and a USB dongle from a company called Telldus. I use the bottom of their range, which only talks one-way, it doesn’t receive data back. My application, as I said, is very basic.

The Internet of Things seems to have become a growing buzz-phrase this year, after talk of it forever. If it sounds like it’s on the verge of breaking into the mainstream, I can tell you now, it won’t.

Interoperability is certainly one reason. You see, my dongle transmits on 433.92 MHz. As you can see, that makes it compatible with a range of protocols, including X10, the grandfather of them all, having been around since 1975. Z-Wave and ZigBee use 868 Mhz (in Europe), which is another popular frequency. Continue reading

What Now for Hardware Vendors?

PC sales are down, way down, and falling. At least, typical PC sales (I tend to agree with the view that tablets can be classed as PCs) and, while I doubt we’ll ever see the end of desktop computing, that market is going to continue to shrink. For now, tablets may fill the void, but they’ll give way to smartphone all-in-one devices at some point.

This drop in sales isn’t news to most people, but I was surprised to find that it’s not just desktops and laptops, server sales are in decline as well. You’d think that with the rise of web and cloud services, along with the general return to client-server style architecture, they’d be on the up.

The problem is that, while everyone used to buy their own servers, one for each job/role, over-buying on the specs to ensure future-proofing, perhaps even buying a backup device, more and more people are opting for virtualisation (it’s estimated that by 2014 as much as 70% of new servers could be virtual). That means fewer boxes as the resources of one machine can be used to serve multiple tasks.

Added to this is the fact that the big boys (Google, Amazon, Facebook, etc) are building their own hardware, and allow people to buy those services as and when they need it, rather than having hardware sitting idle for most of its life.

It’s not just about better utilisation though, we’ve reached the point where we have more than enough computing power to do the majority of tasks. In fact, as far as desktop PCs are concerned, we probably reached that point several years ago. That’s part of the reason for the growth in tablets: the relatively little processing power they possess is more than capable. Continue reading

The 7″ Surface

So PC sales are falling, big time, there’s a shock. To protect its two cash cows (Windows and Office), Microsoft has jumped into the hardware market to try and guarantee it can expand onto devices other than the serves and workstations that have been its mainstay for the last 30 years.

By all accounts, it’s not going well, with Surface sales poor, while Nokia is still struggling to make headway against Apple and Samsung (although sales of their Lumia range are improving). It’s too early to tell how it’ll pan out, Microsoft has a history of starting slow in new markets, but it has deep enough pockets to stick around to get it right.

So it was with interest I noted the potential launch of a smaller Surface tablet, 7- and/or 8-inch models are rumoured. Add to that the likelihood that Windows Phone is due to have 1080p output by the end of the year and you have some interesting specs to roll together.

Compared to their rivals, the Surface tablets feature quite a lot of connectivity options. Even the lowest model comes with a USB slot, a microSD expansion slot and an HD video out port. These are in addition to Bluetooth support. Continue reading

The Case for Routine Monitoring

It was with some sadness I read the story of Iain Banks’ diagnosis of terminal cancer. I’ve not read any of his books (though I’ve been meaning to), but I have recently seen him in a Google Hangout (along with Alastair Reynolds and Peter F. Hamilton) and in a ‘Five Minutes with…’ interview on the BBC.

In both cases he appeared to be more than just an intelligent and thought-provoking man, but one who was energetic and full of zeal. Which makes the news even more shocking, because he appeared perfectly healthy.

Gall bladder cancer is an extremely rare condition, with fewer than 700 people being diagnosed in the UK each year (1,000 according to the NHS).  It’s more common in women than men and in people over 70.  Iain is 59.

As with many cancers, if caught early enough it may be possible to remove/treat it, but like many other cancers it usually remains undetected until it causes problems, and therefore symptoms, in some other organ. Continue reading

The XP Subscription Model

The venerable Windows XP operating system is due to be completely retired in April 2014. First introduced back in 2001, it has stood the test of time, with many people still happily using it and holding a significant market share.

Microsoft obviously wants to move on and doesn’t want to support code that’s now well over a decade old. For many consumers XP is good enough though. Some are so familiar with it that the massive changes in Windows 8 forces them up a significant learning curve (and it’s an OS that has been criticised for its lack of usability).

So why keep turning over new operating systems? Apple’s OS X has been around about as long as XP and has required very few changes to the interface in that time. My suspicion is that, as one of Microsoft’s big earners, they need to keep producing new versions so consumers and businesses will keep buying them.

So I’m proposing an alternative revenue model for Microsoft, so they can keep updating XP into the future: subscriptions. It seems to be the way they’re going anyway, so why not offer existing XP users a £12 a year (£1 a month) subscription to keep XP? I’d guess you’re looking at millions of existing users, so while that doesn’t sound like much, it should be plenty to support a team of developers to keep releasing patches and updates.

Cool Factor vs Practicality

While I largely agree with Jason Kottke’s recent article on the MYO armband, I have to disagree with some of it, particularly this statement:

The Segway was another great idea on paper that failed in part because of human vanity. Segways weren’t cool…you looked like a dork riding one. You’re gonna look like a dork wearing Google Glass. You’re gonna look like a dork unlocking your car with a swipe of your Myo-enabled arm.

The Segway didn’t fail because it was uncool, it failed because it was fundamentally flawed and didn’t fulfill a need. Consumers are ruthless, it’s one of fundamentals of capitalism.

Launched in 2003, the Segway had a 15 mile range, way too short, and travelled at 12mph, way too slow. Then there was the fact that it cost $3,000 (£4,600 in the UK) which made it far too expensive for any consumer to buy as a bit of fun and it was royally legislated against. The only place you can drive one in the UK is on private property, for example, as it’s classed as a powered vehicle but it doesn’t pass the requirements to be used on the road.

So what you’re left with is a very expensive novelty toy, that’s why it failed to sell. Continue reading