Trapped in a cycle of endless updates

Computers: Society needs Henry Ford's genius for standardization to balance Bill Gates' genius for innovation.

February 24, 2002|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

IF YOU WANT the societal revolution once promised by the dot-com visionaries to come to pass, refuse to buy a new computer.

Stand pat on your single-gigahertz model and scream - as a technological harbinger of another generation said in the movie Network - "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore."

In other words, make the promise of technology come true by slamming on your brakes in the fast lane of the information superhighway.

Ironic, isn't it? But consider this: Would television have had the impact it did if 45 years ago your Mom had turned on the set and, about every two years, found out it no longer picked up I Love Lucy?

"I guess we just have to get a new one," she would say with a shake of the head. Time for another hole in the family budget.

Or if every two weeks, right when Gunsmoke was about to start, your screen read "Error Message 436."

Or if you brought home your new RCA set and discovered it only picked up shows on RCA-owned NBC. To get CBS and ABC, you would need adapter kits that you could try to install with over-the-phone instructions, though that would void the warranty.

A quarter-century after the first PCs arrived on the scene, computing has unquestionably altered society and the lives of those who live in it. But that is in spite of the fact that it remains stubbornly stuck in what could be called the "hobbyist" phase.

Certainly, computers are infinitely easier to deal with and much more reliable than those first crash-a-minute models, but too much of the industry is still directing its appeal to the cognoscenti, those people who are in love with the technology itself.

Stewart Leslie, a historian of science at the Johns Hopkins University, says it took the automobile industry a little more than a decade to move beyond its hobbyist stage.

The first car owners had to be mechanics to keep them running because the people who designed and built the cars were gearheads of the first order and sold them to like-minded individuals.

"They were all hobbyists, including Henry Ford," says Leslie. "They built for themselves, or for the next guy. They were all racers. It was sort of like a home-brewing club."

Ford saw the wider possibilities and began mass-producing the Model T in 1908.

"There is no doubt that he gave up innovation for standardization," Leslie says of Ford and his you-can-have-any-color-you-want-as-long-as-it's-black approach.

But what Ford got in return was nothing less than a revolution in American transportation.

"You have to give Ford the credit," Leslie says. "He said we can freeze the design and we can make millions of them, there's a market out there for them."

Technical innovators, particularly at General Motors, soon surpassed the Model T and forced Ford to scramble to catch up. But by then the foundation was established - the internal combustion engine, paved roadways and, most importantly, the idea of the automobile as a mode of personal transportation.

Such a foundation is exactly what the computer industry cries out for. And if you add your voice to what appears to be current consumer resistance to buying faster and faster computers, it might give the industry an opportunity to settle on some basic standards, ensuring that home-based programs will run efficiently on such a computer. They might run faster or have more features on a fancier model - just as you could get an automatic transmission and electric windows if you wanted - but this model will do fine far into the future.

There is no doubt that something would be lost in such a transition.

David Kirsch, a professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland's Smith School of Business, notes that television's standards were government mandated.

"TV was much more regulated" than computers, Kirsch says. "I think the industry paid an enormous price in terms of innovation to maintain that level of standardization, of across-platform interchangeability. There is no doubt, as you go back and look at the history of standards, that we often face this trade-off between innovation and standardization. There are costs to both."

Television arose out of radio. Since both took up space on the broadcasting spectrum of wavelengths, there was perceived to be a need for government regulation to ensure that this public property was properly used.

Among other things, that meant that those in broadcasting were forced to adhere to standards assuring widespread availability of their signals. Even as television has moved into HDTV and digital broadcasting in recent years, regulations have required that the signals be compatible with older sets.

The result: Today, you can turn on a TV built in 1950 and receive a broadcast. Try turning on a computer built in 1990 and running a program bought today.

Kirsch says computers are in enough homes now - over half the country - that they should have moved beyond the hobbyist stage, but in some ways they haven't.

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