Nailing Standards to the Wall@ 2005/07/01
Actually, they barely exist. A standard is nothing more than a construct designed to comfort the technologically challenged. It lends an air of stability to something that’s inherently unstable by freeze-framing a moment in technological time. But as time elapses, the standard looks more and more like an ancient artifact, like a trilobite trapped in amber.
While technology will never stop changing, it comes in waves, and when you’ve seen enough of them, you begin to discern patterns in the waves. Once you’ve spotted the pattern, it gets easier (or at least possible) to judge whether a new standard, format, or feature should win your bucks.
Reading tech patterns is not rocket science. Consumers do it on a large scale all the time. After all, we decide which new technologies live and die. Of course, if you take the trouble to read the patterns consciously, you may be able to get a little ahead of the wave—and possibly avoid wasting some of your hard-earned cash on a nonstarter.
So let’s look at a few waves of technological change and see what patterns we can find in them.
The Orderly Succession Pattern
If the Compact Disc were the model for all new technologies, you’d be a lot happier, and I’d be flipping burgers. The LP had a good run from 1948 to 1983, but the succession to CD was assured by a whole bunch of easily understood benefits: compactness, durability, ease of use, and the Trojan horse of digitization—which would drive the next wave, compressed file formats, about 15 years later.
Recording technologies have a long and honorable history of orderly successions. We started with the wax cylinder but moved on to Alexander Graham Bell’s handier flat disc—Richard Thompson has actually written a song about it. Lacquer-disc recording gave way to audibly superior recording tape, which progressed in the home from open reel to 8-track and audiocassette.
Then disc recording made a comeback in the form of CD-R. Now hard-disc drives dominate everything from portables to multi-zone audio systems to recording studios—the evolution of his flat disc would probably amaze Bell. However, even that wave may be cresting with the drop in flash-memory prices.
Each of these shifts—cylinder to disc, disc to tape, back to disc, and perhaps finally beyond the land of moving parts—has provided easily understood benefits, as a product of consensus, in a logical sequence, with relatively little trauma. If only things could be this good all the time.