Monday, January 7, 2013

Handi-capable II: Electric Bugaloo

I blame the medication.  Specifically the one containing Codeine... I was warned by the attending physician (and later, by the pharmacist) not to drive or operate machinery while under the effects of the drugs.

I haven't been driving, which is good news for you jaywalkers out there, but apparently I shouldn't be using a computer, either... I somehow edited several paragraphs out of today's previous post.

Which isn't a bad thing, mind you, as I thought of several other things I should have added.  With that in mind, I give you the unplanned sequel to Handi-capable:

Handi-capable II: Electric Bugaloo

How long should electronics manufacturers and software developers support their products?

This is something that's been on my mind for a long time, and something I've written about many times over the years.  Longtime readers and old Usenet friends are no doubt familiar with my angry rants about planned obsolescence, and the rapid march of technology which has left countless numbers of dead and wounded devices in its wake.

My typical answer to the question has, for the longest time, been "At least ten years".  After all, nobody wants to spend a ton of money on a smartphone, tablet, computer, piece of software, or gadget that's going to be next to useless in a year or two.

Why hast Thou forsaken me?

I've been burned like this a number of times.  I've been an early-adopter of several pieces of hardware (and software) that have failed in the marketplace, been discontinued, or abandoned by developers within the first year.  Each time it stung a little more.

In my more melodramatic moments, I would take a page from The Bible and tear my shirt, screaming "Why hast thou forsaken me?!" at the developers/manufacturers, "I placed my trust, my faith in you!  How can you leave me hanging?  It can't end like this!"

All too often though, it did end like that.  Stuck with a useless, unsupported piece of electronic detritus that probably cost me more than it was worth.

Around the time of my last electronic heartbreak, I read an expression on the net.  It came from a textfile called "Cowboy Zen" or something similar... "Good judgement comes from experience, which usually comes from poor judgement".

If nothing else, I learned to wait until a product had matured and developed a significant user base before diving into waters unknown.  Never be an early-adopter in the Tech World, more often than not, you'll end up broke and disappointed.

You have to grow up sometime

Which brings us back to the previous post. In January of 2011, at the age of thirty-eight, I broke down and bought my first cellphone... a Palm Treo 650 smartphone.  I'd been an avid user of Palm OS devices for many years and was used to the platform.  I had spent several hundred dollars over the years on apps and software for my Palm Pilots and Handspring Visors, most of which were used on a regular basis.  I went with the Treo because it could run all my old, familiar apps... and in some cases, newer and better versions of the apps I had.  To me, buying the Treo just made sense.

The Treo was already seven years old when I bought it for $15 (incl. shipping) on eBay.  The battery held a decent charge (and still does to this day), and I was able to transfer my apps to the phone without issue.  It was a Telus branded phone, so I took it to Telus to see if they still supported it - and they did.

Another factor in my decision to buy the Treo was the fact that, despite both the phone and Palm OS being long discontinued (and Palm Inc no longer in existence), there was still an active Palm community, and most importantly there was still third-party support!  I could still buy apps at several online stores, and several of my apps (Agendus, Fotogather) were still being actively developed.

With a little research, I bought a mature product with an installed userbase and active community support.  And it worked well.  I used the Treo for just over a year, however during that year, nearly all of the online app stores had dropped support for the device.  My needs had also grown by this point, and the Treo was becoming increasingly unable to deliver.

Shortly after my wedding in May 2012, my mother-in-law had given me a broken Blackberry Bold that she'd salvaged from a phone recycling drive.  As I had started to outgrow my Treo, I was looking to upgrade, and decided that fixing the Blackberry might be educational.  After all, the Blackberry was still a popular platform with a huge userbase, and was still relatively current.  So I gambled and bought a replacement screen, battery, and charger.  It took me all of fifteen minutes to fix the Blackberry, and was pleased to see it boot up when I plugged it in.  For thirty bucks and a bit of effort, I had a current smartphone, and it was compatible with the Bluetooth earpiece and stereo headphones I'd bought for my Treo!  A trip to Rogers ensued, and my Blackberry all but replaced my Treo.

I was still using the Treo for Ebooks, as I found its screen easier to read, and I was unable to find a comparable outliner program on the Blackberry.  Around this time, Chapters began clearing out their Kobo Vox e-readers and, knowing that the Vox was essentially a stripped-down Android tablet, I bought one without hesitation.  It had Gmail and Facebook apps already installed, and I was able to find an outliner app in the Google Play store that was compatible with the one I had on my Treo!

Unfortunately, in retrospect, I really should have hesitated.  You see, it wasn't that I needed or really wanted an e-reader.  What I really wanted was an Android tablet.  The Vox represented the cheapest option at the moment and, while I'm happy with what it does, I'm not happy with what it can't do.

The Vox was never intended to be a full-fledged, fully functional iPad-beating Android tablet.  Therefore it has no built-in camera, no Bluetooth capability, and a USB port that's used solely for charging and syncing with a PC... can't use external devices such as keyboards or Bluetooth dongles.  Hell, I can't even upgrade the version of Android on the machine without a ton of risky hacking.

While the Android OS and tablets are what I'd consider mature products, the Vox's growth was stunted - an evolutionary dead-end.  But it'll have to do until, as I said in the previous post, I find a new partner.

Now that I've brought the previous post full-circle in my own longwinded way, it's time I revisit the question I asked at the beginning of this post... How long should electronics manufacturers and software developers support their products?

I've come to the conclusion that they should support their products as long as they have a large enough userbase and it is financially/practically viable to do so.  If the vast majority of your userbase has moved on (or was never there to begin with), it makes no sense to keep a dead product on life support.

At that point, it's up to the community and third party developers/manufacturers to keep the dream alive.  I have only to point to the Commodore 64, Amiga, MSX, and TRS-80 Model 100 communities as examples.