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THE LIFE SPAN OF MODERN TECHNOLOGY

Jim Halliday
President and CEO, HumanWare, Inc.
6245 King Road
Loomis, CA 95650

Phone: 800-722-3393
Fax: 916-652-7296
Email: halliday@humanware.com

I was recently asked a very interesting question: "What is the life span of a notetaker?" As I thought about the question, I realized that the answer depends on many different factors. The purpose of this document is to summarize some of those factors and use them to help answer the question. I suspect that there are more factors than just ten, but here are the top 10 factors for me.

  1. Functionality
  2. Technology
  3. Compatibility
  4. Production Volume
  5. Parts Phase-out Due to Product Obsolescence
  6. Loss of Components Due to Mainstream Producers
  7. Operating Systems
  8. New Product Alternatives (Competition)
  9. New Applications
  10. Boredom

1. Functionality - I still have an old Apple IIe in the warehouse from the late 1970s. It still works. If all I want to do is word processing, I can still do it with that machine. In the past 20 years, I have owned or used in a work environment 4 different MACs and at least 15 different PCs that used various versions of MS DOS or almost every version of Windows. I still do word processing more than any other computer application and I would not want to go back to the slow and limited Apple IIe, but it still functions. Based on functional usage, the life span of a computer might be 15-20 years.

2. Technology - Moore's Law suggests that, for a similar price, technology doubles its ability to process and store data every 18 months. This law would indicate that our computers become obsolete every year and a half, not necessarily in terms of functionality, but in terms of speed, power and capability. If you want to keep up with the latest technologies, then the life span of a computer is painfully short.

3. Compatibility - Most of us live, work and compete within a mainstream world. The best personal productivity tools provide an environment that is friendly and efficient for the user. Such devices must also provide output that is compatible with or indistinguishable from mainstream formats. Although still functional, products that do not meet these criteria are essentially obsolete for the person who must compete in a sighted world.

4. Production Volume - There are still people who use an Optacon to read with every day. Even now, after 30 years, there has been no invention to replace the Optacon in terms of portable reading or direct access to print. With no direct competition, how can such an important product disappear? "Limited funds... hard-to-learn... too many other options that more efficiently perform the same functions..." As the demand for a particular product decreases, thus impacting the number of units produced, the price of parts will increase until the manufacturer can no longer afford to build the product. Additionally, as the volume of parts diminishes, the manufacturer of the parts will ultimately find the low volume too much of a distraction to keep producing them. Admittedly, people who are blind now have a variety of technologies that do for them some of what the Optacon once did. Now, the only way to keep an Optacon functioning is by scavenging parts from old, dysfunctional or abandoned units. Most technology uses some kind of proprietary chip or technology that is likely to be replaced or superceded by some new wonder-chip or component. As a result, even though the product itself is still functional and has not been directly replaced with newer models, its life span has been cut short by the disappearance of essential parts or components.

5. Parts Availability Due to Product Obsolescence - The term obsolescence does not relate to the product's functionality, but rather to the fact that another model has been introduced that causes production of the earlier model to cease. HumanWare sold its first ALVA Braille Terminals in 1988. Many customers have replaced these original units with newer models, but others still clean their displays annually and maintain the use of their old units. Some of the parts for these products are no longer available. For example, if a unit is dropped and the case gets cracked, ALVA no longer manufactures these cases.

6. Loss of Components Due to Mainstream Producers - One way to keep prices down in our industry is to use as many off-the-shelf components as possible. If a component manufacturer produces 10,000 parts every day, it is cheaper for us to use those same components rather than to design a proprietary part that required only 100 units per month. The dark side of that scenario unfortunately means that if the product that requires those 10,000 parts per day suddenly disappears, the component for our products also disappears, and we have no control over it because our volume requirements are so miniscule.

7. Operating Systems - MS DOS remains a very functional operating system, but its life span was terminated in mainstream computing when Microsoft introduced Windows. Windows 3.1 was killed by Windows 95, and 95 by 98, and so on... Any product that was linked in any way to the older operating systems became obsolete when the new operating system was introduced. Think of JAWS, MasterTouch, VocalEyes, Flipper, Business Vision, VERT, and other DOS-based screen readers. Some great products disappeared, not because they were obsolete in and of themselves, but rather because mainstream technology, on which they were dependent, was superceded by new technology.

8. New Alternatives - Five years ago every speech user had a hardware synthesizer. Prices ranged for $50 for the lowest quality to $4,000 for the state-of-the-art. Today, almost no one uses a hardware synthesizer because new computers have the processing power to produce efficient speech while simultaneously performing other applications. The hardware synthesizers haven't lost anything in terms of their functionality, but they are no longer manufactured because new alternatives are cheaper ($0-$250) and easier.

9. New Applications - 20 years ago, I ended each day typing into a Telex machine, one character at a time to someone who had a similar machine in Europe. 15 years ago, I marveled at our amazing ability to send and receive faxes, and I would drive over to a local shop that had one of these amazing new machines so that I could send hardcopy documents over a phone-line. I still use a fax machine occasionally, but rarely when compared to email. Today, if you don't have email, you are unable to communicate with the majority of the people in our modern world. If the technology we use doesn't offer email access, then WE are obsolete in terms of our communications.

10. Boredom - In our modern world, we often just plain want a change. We get tired of old, slow technology and we want something that feels new, fresh and fast. I still have technology that just sits on a shelf and never gets used because I got tired of it and found something better to play with.

Whether we accept the above variables as progress or not, we understand that the "life span" of a given product is rarely dependent on that product's functional life expectancy, but rather on a variety of extraneous factors over which little or no control. People don't stop developing nor does technology. As the world changes, we have no choice but to keep up with the latest technology regardless of whether the old products are still functional or not. I suspect that many customers will still be using their current BrailleNotes for at least 5 years. In terms of the technology, the reliability, and today's functionality, the product will most likely be very usable for 10 years and beyond. However, with the changes in technology and the increased demands to stay competitive, sighted people certainly will not be using the same technology in ten years and neither should people who are blind. At the very minimum, users will require updates and upgrades to software and probably hardware. In a single year we have gone from having 92 Megabyte ATA memory cards to 2 Gigabytes hard drives on the same size PCMCIA card. Products like the BrailleNote are designed with such advances in mind because they have standard PCMCIA slots, and standard serial, parallel, and infrared ports. The choice to use Windows CE as the operating system allows such products to ride on Microsoft's developments. We are now finding GPS (global positioning systems) on a BrailleNote, and Ebooks and Internet access are on the horizon. The BrailleNote's foundation is designed with the future in mind, but look at every other form of computer technology and you know that there will always be something newer, faster, smaller, and more powerful. Computer technology will not stand still and neither will the BrailleNote. New models will appear, always with the goal of enabling people who are blind to keep pace with a rapidly changing and extremely competitive sighted world.


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