The Computer's On The Fritz

  • There is a mint-condition slide rule stored in a flawless leather case in the center drawer of my father's desk. Oh, it saw plenty of use in its day, but it was always handled with extreme care and stored properly to protect it from harm. It was a device composed of moving parts, after all. In order for it to retain its precision, it had to be treated with reverence.
  • As cherished objects go, the slide rule holds a special place in the mind of many an engineer, as it is a vestige of the era of moving parts. Similarly, there are those who marvel at audiocassette players and even CD players that were once manufactured with real metal parts that seemed to have a life-span longer than that of a mayfly.
  • Today, in the era of solid-state electronics, the ones that were supposed to last forever, we still fall victim to moving parts. Countless iPod users have been devastated to learn that the hard drive in their music player is broken and can't be replaced by Apple. Instead, they are told to surrender their once beautiful and cutting-edge device in return for a ten percent discount off the purchase of their next iPod.
  • What if that iPod has sentimental value? Is it possible for it to have sentimental value? Fortunately, there are always newer, sleeker toys to distract us in these retail wonderlands of planned obsolescence. "Ah, but now I can get an iPhone...oh look how small and cheap that iPod Shuffle is!"
  • Still, denied even the slightest comfort from the manufacturer of these expensive gadgets, we continue to invest in them. Because the truth is, we've been trained to replace reliable devices that have moving parts with fickle digital objects. The slide rule was replaced with the calculator. Cassette, CD, and record players were replaced with iPods. Filing cabinets and rolodexes were replaced by computers.
  • Over time, the number of "analog" back-ups has shrunk as more do-everything products appear on the market. This has triggered the addition of a new factor in our purchase decisions: the "works right out of the box" factor. In the systems integration world, if something doesn't work right out of the box, an entire project may be at risk.
  • "Works right out of the box" is thrown around by manufacturers as a somewhat unique virtue these days. Really, shouldn't this be the least we expect? Those companies that actually invest in thorough quality control testing are rewarded with loyal customers. Meanwhile, other companies seem to rely on customers' reduced expectation for the life span of the products that surround us and supposedly make our lives easier.
  • In the end, even solid-state components need moving parts to perform well. They need talented engineers, attentive production managers, and competent quality control personnel to keep that "works right out of the box" percentage on the rise.
Kirsten Nelson is a freelance content producer who translates the expertise and passion of technologists into the vernacular of an audience curious about their creations. Nelson has written about audio and video technology in all its permutations for almost 20 years; she was the editor of SCN for 17 years. Her experience in the commercial AV and acoustics design and integration market has also led her to develop presentation programs and events for AVIXA and SCN, deliver keynote speeches, and moderate and participate in panel discussions. In addition to technology, she also writes about motorcycles—she is a MotoGP super fan.