Deploying technology is a double-edged sword — on one hand, it
generally causes a particular task to be performed with greater
efficiency; on the other hand, the value of the investment for
state-of-the-art equipment decreases substantially from the day it is
purchased, similar to the value of a new car as soon as it is driven
off the dealer's lot.
Thefundamental laws guiding technology
It is fair to say that three fundamental laws, laws promulgated by
guys named Moore, Parkinson and Gates, have guided most of the
advancements of technology during the past 30 years. Like Nostradamus,
these visionaries correctly predicted, and in some cases created, the
likely progression of technology that we now take for granted.
The original Moore's Law derives from a 1965 speech given by Gordon
Moore, later a founder of Intel, in which he observed that the number
of micro components that could be placed in an integrated circuit
(microchip) of the lowest manufacturing cost was doubling every year
and that this trend would likely continue into the future. Moore's law
was recently revised to account for the slow down in pace of the
microchip industry. Currently, Moore's law states that the doubling now
occurs every 18 months.
Parkinson's Law of Data
What he actually said was “work expands to fill the time
available for its completion, and subordinates multiply at a fixed
rate, regardless of the amount of work produced.” But that was in
1957. Strangely enough, semiconductor memory wasn't a big deal at that
time, so more recently someone in the Silicon Valley modified it to
state, “data expands to fill the space available for
storage.” This less known truism from the mid-80s poses that the
memory usage of evolving systems tends to double roughly once every 18
months. Luckily, for the same money, memory density also tends to
double once every 18 months. Unfortunately, the laws of physics tell us
that there is a limit to how small an area a bit can take up.
“The speed of software halves every 18 months.” This
oft-cited law is an ironic comment on the tendency of software bloat to
outpace the every-18-month doubling in hardware capacity per dollar
predicted by Moore's Law.
Technology — depreciation and cost
When talking about equipment, depreciation can be categorized into
three specific types: physical, economic and obsolescence.
Physical depreciation is defined as deterioration caused by physical
wear and tear, malfunction, breakage or other type of destruction.
Economic depreciation can have two definitions:
The allocation of the cost of an asset over a period of time for
accounting and tax purposes.
A decline in the value of a property due to general wear and tear or
obsolescence; opposite of appreciation.
People trained to deal with finances primarily use these definitions
to determine the tax consequences of capital purchases that, in most
cases, can reduce the amount of annual taxes paid by an entity.
The computer's operating system sets the fundamental rules of
operation. Subsequent upgrades may render programs worthless.
Functional obsolescence can occur for a number of reasons, including
lack of support and replacement parts from a manufacturer, not
compatible with newer technologies or perhaps replaced by more
We, as engineers and technology managers, view capital purchases
from an entirely different perspective:
Does the purchase increase operation reliability?
Can it reduce maintenance costs?
Will it improve the quality of the final product?
Does it fit with our growth plan?
The issue of increased reliability is relative. Generally speaking,
if we are replacing an ailing piece of equipment, shouldn't it be
assumed that it is more reliable? The answer is “maybe.”
Consider the scenario of simply replacing a dated analog (cart)
playback system with a server-based digital storage system. Is that
dual-processor bit screamer more reliable than the old 30-pound cart
player? The properly functioning cart player will probably withstand
most acts of God without even a groan, while a little zap of well
placed static electricity might render that state-of-the-art server
nothing more than a fancy door stop. The point is that there are
additional costs associated with the deployment of new technologies.
Improved grounding, additional cooling and modifications of rooms to
maintain a certain level of cleanliness are just a few of the
considerations to maintain proper reliability. These items represent
additional expenses that should be factored into any technology
purchase. By addressing these points up front, you should expect that
maintenance costs should also reduce over time.
Improving the quality of the final product might be another goal of
an equipment upgrade. This is how most non-techie types judge the value
of the investment. Engineers are impressed by a widget that can send
1,000 parameters of operational data to our PDA, but nobody else really
cares about that; they want to hear an improvement, they want to
believe that this piece of equipment is drawing listeners (and
advertisers) from every part of the FM spectrum.
Perhaps the most enticing benefit of the current and future
generation of technologies is that it typically is designed to support
earlier versions of software and hardware. Be aware of trends in
hardware and software versions. If something is based on a CPU, there
is some form of operating system setting the fundamental rules of
operation. Most devices permit firmware upgrades through a physical
change of hardware or some form of software patch. Patches and upgrades
are issued to address certain bugs, add new features, exploit features
of new hardware platforms or address compatibility issues with new or
upgraded operating systems. While all of these are important, the last
item is the one to pay close attention to. Be aware of announcements of
major changes to operating systems. Major changes in operating system
software may cause a software application to become obsolete. Get
commitments from the manufacturers of the software or hardware you plan
on purchasing, that they will support new technologies as they emerge
in a timely fashion or you might be replacing all that equipment in a
short period of time.
Here's one more law: Kevin's Law. Equipment you buy today will only
have a fraction of the useful life of things bought 20 years ago, but
the amount of usefulness per square inch will increase exponentially
every 12 months.
McNamara is president of Applied Wireless, Elkins Park,