Sunday, 29 May 2011

The trailing edge

I'm proud to be on the trailing edge of technology.  No, you didn't read that wrong.  I have no interest in owning the latest and greatest electronic gadgets.

Friends point out that my mobile phone is behind the times, because it is just a phone.  Practically speaking, it allows me to call people and send text messages.  They try to convice me that I need their chosen smart phone, be it a Blackberry, iPhone or an Android device.  Actually, no, I don't need it.  They point out that I could access my Facebook account from anywhere.  Why?  How much is it going to cost me?

There's the whole point.  Cost.  Yes, they can access various online services from anywhere, but they pay heavily for the privilege.  I ask them if they have a computer at home.  If so, why are they paying for mobile data access every month, when they have a broadband connection at home lying idle?  It makes no sense to me.  If my car breaks down, I am glad to be able to make phone calls from anywhere.  I can't imagine needing to urgently update my Facebook status, from wherever I am.  The upside of a mobile phone is that I can contact people from wherever I am.  The downside is that THEY can contact ME.  Do I want to be bothered by emails and friend requests as well?  No, no, no.

How much did the device cost in the first place?  Nothing?  Think again about that.  Yes, you got it free with your phone contract, but this means you are paying monthly for your phone.  Don't believe me?  Check out your provider's SIM-only deals.

Here in the UK, the TV companies are in the process of switching off the old analogue TV signal.  For the most part, we have gone digital.  As if that were not enough, we are now also in the process of turning to high definition TV.  Again, why?  HDTV is meant to give a sharper picture, right?  I accept that, because it is undeniably true.  However, if I notice that my HDTV allows me to see every strand of someone's hair blowing in the breeze (as an example), doesn't that mean I have lost interest in the story of what I am watching?

HDTV is higher resolution than standard digital TV, and uses a much more sophisticated compression method.  This means higher power consumption, at a time when we are supposedly worried about energy efficiency.  For what purpose?  To get a sharper picture, that I may notice if I am bored with what I am watching or sat too close to the TV.  So, my energy consumption has risen and the new technology has made the TV more expensive because, let's face it, the electronics companies and broadcasting unions must recoup their research and development costs.  They are really trying to push HD now, so all new TVs are "HD Ready".  Right now, I still have the choice over whether I watch HD content or not.  I choose not to.

Needless to say, the same criticisms I apply to HDTV also apply to Blu-ray.  Given the choice of buying a movie on DVD or Blu-ray, I will go for the DVD, saving myself money in the process.

A victory for my point of view is the state of digital radio in the UK.  The BBC poured a huge amount of money into DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting) radio, and it has failed to meet expectations on a massive scale.  In theory, DAB allows more radio stations within the same frequency spectrum.  In practice, the broadcasting license for DAB is so expensive that few have applied.  The BBC dominates the DAB airways.  Most people report sound quality that falls short of their old FM radio, and an odd "bubbling" effect when the reception is poor.  Again, in terms of energy efficiency, early DAB radios used about twenty times the energy of an equivalent FM radio.

A "feature" of DAB is the display of the name of the station you are currently listening to, along with other text information.  It also automatically sets the time on the integrated clock, if your radio has that feature.  If you spend somewhat less money on an FM radio with a feature called RDS (Radio Data System), it also has those features.  To make matters worse, the next version of DAB, which is called DAB+, has better sound quality and extra features.  It is also incompatible with the current version of DAB.  Unless the manual for your radio specifically states that it can be upgraded to DAB+, you will at some point be the owner of a very expensive lump of metal and plastic.

Uptake of DAB was encouraging at first, but has since failed to meet the BBC's expectations.  It's future, even in DAB+ form, is questionable.  The government, recognising the prohibitive costs of digital broadcasting, recently announced that FM radio transmitters will no longer be switched off, but will be kept for the broadcast of local radio stations.  With internet radio now gaining market share, and even the BBC jumping onto the internet radio bandwagon, DAB is being squeezed from all sides.  Also, another digital radio technology - DRM (Digital Radio Mondiale) - has emerged.  DRM was originally envisaged as a replacement for AM radio, but an extension of the standard - DRM+ - is increasingly being seen as a replacement for FM radio, and therefore a direct competitor to DAB.

New technologies are expensive.  Often, the standards surrounding them are yet to be finalised.  Sometimes, they give maximum benefit to content providers and little to consumers (the digital copy protection on most HD content is a case in point).  Without fail, today's cutting edge technology will be commonplace six months down the line, and much less expensive.  As time goes by, hopefully they will overcome the issues that inevitably plague new technology.

Like I said, I'm proud to be on the trailing edge of technology.  My gadgets contain technology that has been tried and tested, so they do all that I ask of them.  If they no longer work, either through wear or their respective technologies becoming obsolete, my initial financial outlay has been minimal.  I will replace my gadgets with corresponding trailing edge items, which will contain more modern technologies than my old gadgets at a lower price than was paid by the early adopters of those technologies.  To those of you who must always have the latest and greatest, and mock my old technology, I say check your bank balance.