Give or take a week or so one way or the other, it has been five years since I began writing for Overclockers.
When I began, most overclockers people were taking these less-than-a-year old things from Intel called Celerons and trying to get them past 500MHz. Some were trying to do the same thing with PIIs, others with the AMD prodcut called the K6-2.
A lot of things have changed since then. Some good, some bad, some indifferent. I’ve learned a lot during these five years, but oddly enough, more about people and how they tick than about how things tick.
To me, the things are just tools. One can have some interest in tools, and figuring out the best tool to get, but that just goes so far. In the long run, what I have found far more interesting is what people do and how they express themselves consciously or not, with those tools, and how they interact with each other with those tools.
The house is more interesting than the hammer and nails.
So what have I learned over the past five years? What has happened in that time?
An Immature Industry
When you look over a five-year period, it’s hard to be impressed by the overall performance of either Intel or AMD. Both have had their moments, but neither has consistently put out superior, or sometimes even OK products.
Since 1999, Intel has a failure to convert the world to RDRAM, a failure to get the PIII past 1 GHz, the dubious Willamette, and now the perspiring Prescott.
AMD had a long-term problem getting the Thoroughbred and an even longer-term problem getting Hammer out the door. It’s still not willing or able to use Hammer as more than a chisel against Intel.
For that matter, no computer component manufacturer has had a record of consistent excellence over five years. All have had a sizable proportion of dogs the last five years, no matter what the name, no matter what the reputation.
And none have shown an enviable record of corporate honesty and responsibility when they do screw up.
In all likelihood, if you thought about a computer company with a consistent record of success, odds are you thought of Dell. There’s a good reason for that; Dell doesn’t make anything!
Despite its size and importance, technology is still a rather adolescent industry. It often pursues its own goals, and still doesn’t really understand that it is a service industry that is supposed to make its customers happy, not themselves.
It wants a Ferrari while its customers want a Volvo.
The next five years can really be summarized with a single question, “Can the techies keep dishing out Ferraris for customers to swallow, or will somebody start making (cheap) Volvos?”
The Silence of the Software
We now run machines that (adjusted for architectural changes) run roughly six times faster than we had back in early 1999.
However, with few exceptions, we don’t have software used by everyone that really needs all the increased horsepower to function. There has been no killer app, and there doesn’t seem to be one coming any time soon.
Yes, of course, there is software that couldn’t function on a 1999 machine (or would work so slowly that it would be near-useless) and really needs 2004 hardware (or close to it) to work well. However, it’s not software the average person uses.
Yes, most software runs faster on faster machines, and that’s certainly a good thing. But if a mundane task that took a minute in 1999 takes ten seconds today, how much more time do you have left to save? Five years from now, if there’s a future machine six times faster than today’s, the same task will take two seconds. The Golden Age of Saving Time for most activities done by most people is over.
You’ll likely point out, “What about gaming?” Yes, this is one of the few areas where there’s a continued demand for improvement, but let’s look at what’s happened in the last five years.
Five years ago, games looked like cartoons. Today, they . . . look like cartoons. I grant you, much better drawn cartoons, but still cartoons. Game developers have found that getting the first 90% of the way to reality is easy, but then the power required to get to 91%, to 92% etc. increases geometrically.
Five years ago, games used primitive AI. Today, they use . . . primitive AI. However, the reason for this is not so much technological limitations but psychological ones.
First, if you did build a game with awesome AI, what would happen? It would be a failure because no one would buy a game that was unbeatable. After all, the computer isn’t facing Napoleon or even some colonel from the Pentagon. More likely than not, it’s fighting some sixteen-year-old kid.
More importantly, what happened with games is that they became a social outlet. People didn’t want to fight the computer; they wanted to fight against (and with) other people. Again, the audience isn’t exactly fast-track Pentagon material.
This is why game developers have put most of their efforts into making their games pretty rather than smart. They have to account for the human limitations of their audience, too.
So even in gaming, there’s some limitations, but the biggest limitation of all is that it is an activity engaged in by a pretty small minority of computer users. Spreading out research and development cost over an audience of some millions is much different than spreading it out over an audience of hundreds of millions.
The Era of “Enough”
Five years ago, no one seriously thought computers were fast enough. Today, many do, and for what they do, they’re correct. Indeed, many who are reading this do. This is like the lunatics in a asylum saying, “This is getting crazy.”
Geeks, of course, will scream otherwise. They’ll say, “Computers have to get faster because I want them to get faster.” So?
The average computer buyer isn’t you. The average computer buyer knows little about computers and finds them a necessary evil in his life. He certainly doesn’t love them like you do, and he couldn’t care less about getting 1000 fps in Quake.
There’s a lot more of them than there are of you, and when push comes to shove, the manufacturers will cater to them, not you.
Unless, of course, you’re willing to pay for your passion.
Up to now, the high-performance people have pretty much gotten a free ride from the Joe Sixpack unwittingly footing most of the bill for R&D for computer technology advancements. This is ending.
It is reflected in the shift to lower-end processors. It is reflected in the shift to cheaper and cheaper machines. It’s reflected in the shift to notebooks and portable. Joe Sixpack isn’t paying a lot for his computer, and if he does, it’s for portability, not power.
That doesn’t mean advances stop. What it means is that those who want cutting-edge equipment are going to have to foot the whole bill for it. This time around, you’ll be paying Joe Sixpack or Suit’s R&D bill rather than the other way around.
We’ve predicted this for years, and now it’s starting to happen.
Don’t believe me? Look at some of the prices these days, and the split between the high-end and low. Look at $900 Extreme Editions, or $750 FXs, or $400 9800XTs.
Look at the emergence of the “luxury” PC industry.
Yes, of course, the top end products have carried high prices in the past, but there’s a difference between now and five years ago. What has been happening lately is that a (still high) floor has been set on “performance products.” You won’t get the Extreme Edition or FX for $150 or $200 a year from now. Look at the Radeon 9700 Pro. The price went down to about $200, and no more than that. Still too high for you? Settle for a 9600, then.
We expect this trend to continue and intensify. A lot of people will perceive this as greed and blood-sucking, and no doubt there’s some of that, but the root cause of this is Joe Sixpack not buying “your” kind of equipment anymore.
The Subordination of the Websites
Five years ago, while computer hardware websites weren’t exactly rare (the pioneers had already been around a couple years by then), they were just beginning to become commonplace
At that time, manufacturers really hadn’t integrated such places into their way of thinking (or marketing).
This, of course, is no longer the case. Computer hardware websites are now considered an auxiliary to a manufacturer’s marketing and promotion efforts, and pretty much act that way. There is little editorial independence left today.
When these sites were first created, a reason (or at least excuse) for them was that the established print magazines were hopelessly compromised by their need for advertising to provide critical, honest reviews.
What a foolish argument that was! After all, the print magazines have a much broader base of advertising support than any website. Being financially weaker, any website would inevitably be more suspectible to pressure.
Disagree? Look at a few issues of a print magazine, then look at a few websites, and note the number of critical (as in, “Most people shouldn’t buy this”) reviews. You’ll almost certainly find that the print magazines have a much higher proportion of generally negative reviews than the websites.
Are we talking about bribery here? Well, over the years, we’ve heard enough rumors about that here and there, but I think what is happening is much more subtle than that. I think it’s more a matter of self-censorship.
Those who depend on the manufacturer to provide product to review find themselves inevitably trying to balance the needs of their audience for an honest review with their need of product to review for the audience. There is inherently a threat of being cut off from the gravy train from a blatant pan, so what many places try to do is put as much of a positive spin as they can stomach without completely whitewashing a bad product. Some have more stomach than others.
This editorial approach is quite appealing to manufacturers. After all, whom do you want as your ally, someone who has to be paid to say good things about your product, or someone naturally inclined towards and who has a track record of usually saying good things about products?
BTW, this is really how campaign contributions work in Congress. You don’t bribe a Congressman to change his mind, you give money to those Congressmen who would normally be inclined to vote your way anyway. You pay to keep your friends in power; you don’t pay to change your enemies’ minds. Or, for a cruder comparison, it’s the difference between sleeping with a prostitute and with someone promiscuous.:)
It’s almost like being a writer in a Communist country. You can get away with a little veiled criticism between the lines, but if you keep saying, “This sucks” when it does, you end up in the Gulag.
For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. In general, the conclusions of the average hardware review are given much less credence today than it was five years ago, and the longer someone has been around, the less likely any credence will be given to its conclusion. It’s almost the sign of a newbie to say, “Well, _________ said this was really good.”
Rather, over the course of time, people rely more and more on the opinions of fellow users to make up their minds, using the benchmarks of reviews as mere reference material.
I don’t think this picture is going to change much in the future. Some of the more blatant panderers will go down, but others will take their place.
The Socialization of the Internet
Five years ago, if you had to describe the average person interested in computer websites, that person was a hobbyist primarily interested in the hobby, and talk was primarily about the hobby.
Today, that average person is on average younger than he was five years ago (lower computer prices opened the door to younger people), and views the Internet as a general if not primary social outlet.
It’s the difference between Popular Mechanics followers and a posse of hotrodding teenagers.
This shows itself in a number of ways. You really couldn’t describe early forums as social organizations the way you can now. You didn’t have game or SETI/folding/whatever else clans five years ago. Competitive activities like benchmark testing didn’t exist back then, either.
There are those who think that people using the Internet as a social tool is a terrible idea, but on the whole, I think it’s more positive than negative. One of the biggest advantages of the Internet is that it makes tieing wide-separated but like-minded people together for a common good feasible, and this is what is happening here.
Yes, this can have negatives, one can easily live in a cyberghetto and lose/never establish contact with reality (and I’ll talk more about that shortly), but on the whole, for the vast majority of people, this is a healthy social outlet.
Kids need places to hang out. It’s much harder to do these days than it was in years past, and even back then, if no kid on your block shared your interest is say, chess, tough luck. The Internet opens up social possibilities that didn’t exist before.
Geeks, Meet World
Now, the negative aspects.
To say about someone that “they’re off in their own little world” is a cliche, but for much of extreme geekdom (which I think is a tiny though noisy percentage of the whole), it’s literally true. Cyberspace is considered a whole new world in which old world rules don’t apply.
The geek worldview has taken a battering over the past five years. First and foremost, millions of people found out the hard way that Internet businesses had to make profits like everyone else, and the rigged version of “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” went off the air.
Next, to the horror of many, not only were people getting paid less, but their work burden increased. It was pretty hard work making all those promises, but now companies had the nerve to actually expect them to keep them and be held accountable for them!
The geeks screamed “Linux,” and “open source” and the world kept bowing to the Great Satan praying “Windows.”
It was enough to any self-respecting X-geek to retreat into the Magic Kingdom of cyberspace, but those real-world bastards somehow managed to chase them in there, too, and started suing them for the ludicrous reason that they didn’t have the right in their Kingdom to take anything digital they felt like for free.
To add final insult to injury, companies began to use their Magic Kingdom to take some of their jobs away and give them to college-educated, gramatically-if-not-accentually-correct and, well, more reliable Third Worlders who can answer a technical support question or program some code without a line of crystal meth to keep them going after last night’s rave.
Outrageous exaggeration? Sure, but just to give a little insight and reason as to why some people in some companies might actually want to outsource to India. I remember very well one Gateway tech support person in a newsgroup a few years back who cheerfully acknowledged posting crystal meth recipes in druggie newsgroups, copious use of same, and on Christmas Day played Santa told the audience how to con a free computer from Gateway.
And I thought he was one of the better tech support people Gateway had in that newsgroup. 🙁
What is all this? It is the ending of delusions. It’s the real world stepping in and saying, “Grow up.” It’s the real world showing who’s boss.
It’s not going to get any better.
Understand what all the ranting and raving is about behind the gigabytes of rhetoric. It’s about power. Whether it’s talking about making “the masses” accept x86-64, or open source or considering copying a Constitutional right; it’s all about exerting power over the real world. “No, Joe Sixpack, you’ll buy that 10GHz processor. No, Microsoft, we’ll control the world’s computers, not you. No, RIAA, we decide what the music industry will be like.”
And it will fail. It’s bound to fail. It has to fail because the real world can’t afford to let it succeed. It will fail because organizing geeks is like herding cats (and because most aren’t that crazy). It will fail because the only actions it can take as a mass is that of an unorganized rioting mob, and the gut feelings of that rioting mob are fundamentally criminal in that it does not acknowledge or feel bound by a society’s law. There is no negotiating, no compromise, no democracy, no rule of law in a mob. It is “our way or no way.”
It will fail because when push comes to shove, it’s all bluff. It’s the little guys who start the fight and the big ones that end it, and over the course of the next few years, the big ones, whether it be “the masses” voting with their wallets or government voting in law, are going to start seriously swinging. Some people are going to find out that they’re legends in their own minds.
Obviously, what I’ve said doesn’t apply to all geeks, or even most of them. Much, probably most of the rebellious adolescent attutudes come from most of the participants being . . . well, rebellious adolescents.
But the mindset and ideology is commonplace enough for it to present a real problem for the world. It’s a tough one for it to answer effectively, but it will be answered eventually.
The last five years haven’t really been a technical story. It’s been a human story. It has been about people making things, then using the things they make to make their lives better, often in very new and different ways.
If I’ve learned anything in the last five years, it’s been that it isn’t about the tools. It’s about how people use those tools to grow and develop and change their lives.