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Summary:

Technology moves faster than I can sometimes believe, but generally we take the view that speed is an opportunity rather than a problem. However, as connectivity becomes more ubiquitous and stretches beyond people to things, rapid obsolescence can make life difficult.

Technology moves faster than I can sometimes believe, but generally we take the view that speed is an opportunity rather than a problem. However, as connectivity becomes more ubiquitous and stretches beyond people to things, rapid obsolescence can make life difficult.

A recent example was the shutdown in February of U.S. analog networks that left subscribers to GM’s OnStar systems whose cars were sold after 2004 unable to upgrade their radios. In the Midwest, Illinois Valley Cellular is keeping their analog network running because wind turbines in the service area have radios that rely on it to communicate.

For a much bigger potential problem, look to Europe, where companies are using the current GSM/GPRS network for wireless backhaul on meter-reading systems. In 2001, Italian utility ENEL deployed more than 27 million smart meters, creating a two-way communication between the meters and the home that enables demand-response programs, automatic turn on/shutoff, and remote meter fault detection. Other European utilities followed this model.

According to a report from ABI Research, GPRS is the cellular technology used for backhaul on these systems, raising obsolescence fears among some utilities concerned that GSM/GPRS will be phased out as 3G networks are deployed. ABI Research believes GSM/GPRS networks will be widely available for at least the next 10 years, but at the 15-year mark, prospects get much more uncertain.

Sure, that’s eons away in innovation years, but as that time frame comes up against the investment and amortization schedules used by utility companies (which can leave meters in homes for decades), it’s important to think about the technology you’re installing today. Does the technology match the life cycle of the device?

Need an example closer to home? What about in-home wiring? How many of you paid thousands to run cables and even Ethernet (!) throughout your home to connect speakers, computers or whatever, only to see advances in wireless devices negate the investment? Or (more recently) upgraded your wireless network only to realize 802.11g isn’t backward compatible with 802.11a? That’s not as bad as having to pay to keep an analog network operating so electricity is still generated, or watching a section of your dashboard turn into a useless lump, but it’s galling nonetheless.

Assuming that we don’t buy new cars every few years, or want to dig up the newly connected sprinkler system in our lawn every decade, what can be done? I thought about hooking home appliances or sprinkler systems into a Wi-Fi network, where you could just change the router when the backhaul technology changed. But that depends on the chips in the actual devices being backward compatible with whatever version of Wi-Fi is on the new router.

Utilities have the market power to sign contracts with cellular providers to keep networks up and running for their use. For consumers, however, although it may not be a problem today, as more things (especially things that cost more than a handset or laptop) connect to the Internet, figuring out how to keep them connected through the long life of the product and short life of technology will become an issue.

  1. I wonder what we can really do? I mean, speed can be good in terms of opening new markets or else can be a problem.

    any views?
    srini
    http://codingweb.blogspot.com

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  2. One of the bigger concerns I have is with this speed and constant upgrading, all of the stuff that came before goes somewhere else and that somewhere else is many times the local dump or a third world countryside. The best thing to do as a consumer is to step away from being a consumer and not buy into the constant upgrade game.. seriously, does one need the new ipod or the new laptop or the new whatever? If GSM/GPRS goes away and everyone is forced to move to a new phone, that’s a lot of mobiles in the waste pile.

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  3. It costs money to be on the cutting edge because sometime the cool technology that is going to save the company a billion dollars might really be the wrong technology to choose. This isn’t an issue of technology changing or advancing to fast it is about poor decisions make by corporations. If you want to invest in a new technology you better do some research on if there is anything else out there that is going to better in the near term. I am sure when the utilities companies installed the GSM/GPRS system there was 3G already being deployed.

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  4. I don’t think it’s all that bad. And yes, many folks do buy a new car every few years. One example CCTV (it’s old right ?) but just put in a new DVR and it’s got transcoders for Composite to H.264 nd in a built i web server. Result is keep all of your old wiring and now view your CCTV from your dekstop or across the internet. The progress actually creates new opportunities for product to bridge the gap. Examples:
    - Print servers for non-Ethernet printer
    - Storage servers for hard drives without networking
    - bridges for wirelss a to b to g conversion (yes you can make both work).

    I for one I have coax, cat 5, and wireless all happily co-existing (and for a while there I was also using MMF (fiber) and MoCA (coax). I’m glad I installed them all at a cost of a mere few hundred dollars — and I use it all.

    -Victor

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  5. another factor, which is even deeper under skin, that all major OEMs and vendors nowadays also involved into insane competition on price (read costs & BoM bottom line) – and it makes all what they do cheaper and cheaper. And what comes cheaper and quicker hardly ever designed to stand for 10 years, leave alone tens of years. So it is not only networks of aging technology, but also terminals with cheap components which will merely kick you to buy again and again, or change everything to new. Modern mobile phones are prone to loose usable quality in 2-3 years, driven mostly by accumulators. Say hello to other side of competition’s coin ;)

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  6. I wouldn’t give up my in-home wiring for wireless any day of the week. 1Gb ethernet > 802.11g. Wireless is great for laptops, and being able to sit outside and surf the web, but that’s it. I don’t see how people put up with wireless networks in urban areas, where all of your neighbors have wireless networks and everyone runs them on every channel. I’ll keep my “obsolete” wiring, thank you.

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  7. Everything changes so fast I just dont buy anything! Seriously, im still on DVD, wont upgrade for years!
    http://www.hideNsneek.com

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  8. [...] to be a limit to how technology is adopted in our lives, before it begins to backfire on us.  The GigaOM blog from March 7th discusses the notion that technology may be moving too quickly and spinning out of [...]

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