About a decade ago, I went through a phase of Zippo lighter collection which lasted about a year or so, maybe slightly longer. It started with an outlier – a brass pipe-lighter Zippo bought in 1997 – and really picked up around late 1999 with the second Zippo, a black-finished Guinness lighter. I wound up with seven or eight, once buying a really old Vanderbilt-engraved Zippo from eBay, but never bought another one after buying the Zippo with the pewter image of an eagle head (a Harley-Davidson design) in September 2001 – it remained my principal carry lighter until well after moving to California.
Along the way, I had the thought that I was buying these with some notional future progeny in mind – not necessarily my own, mind you, but a nephew perhaps (I had just obtained one). A couple of the lighters were millennial commemoratives – one in a titanium alloy and one with a nice satin finish – and it made me think that, like my misbegotten varsity jacket from senior year of undergrad, I could pass them along to somebody else who would think it was cool to have Uncle Stagger’s lighter or coat or what have you.
And I could do that, because the basic design of the Zippo hasn’t budged in almost a century. You could go out and get an old crackle-finish World War II army lighter, pop a flint in it, fill it with anything flammable – gasoline, Ronsonol, fingernail polish remover, you name it – and strike it and light a fire. It’s as elegant a design as you could ask for: simple, reliable, a minimum of moving parts and an even smaller minimum of consumables.
Naturally the lighters went with the pipes – nineteen of them, in a rack probably as old as me, most of them older than me and bought by my late father in his college years or the decade thereafter. I have smoked all of them at least once, mostly in that same rough era from 1999 to 2001, but ultimately wound up buying and carrying assorted pipes of my own for fear of damaging any more of his (like the Walt Disney World pipe, which is literally irreplaceable and which I broke already, damn my luck).
And to round out the catalog of vice, there’s the Browning Sweet Sixteen, the last real gun I own, kept safely away in Alabama (because I don’t need it here, because nobody here wants to kill people like me). It was originally my grandfather’s, bought – when? Who knows? The Browning A-5 semiautomatic shotgun is a design that goes back to 1898 – it’s nineteenth century technology. But then again, the Marines in Force Recon are still using a firearm whose basic design is a hundred years old.
All this springs to mind because I have about decided that based on current rumblings and speculation, I’m going to go for the notional iPad 3 if and when it comes out – simply because I’ve decided I need a personal portable computer and a second laptop is just idiotic. Factor in the superior battery life relative to the 11″ MacBook Air, possible higher screen resolution, potential LTE support and Verizon/GSM interoperability (assuming it follows the iPhone 4S), the A-GPS support, the possible integration of Siri, and a presumable bump in speed, memory and overall performance – and then the cost difference destroys the laptop for good.
But how long can you expect it to last and be viable?
As it stands, we are more or less conditioned by our cellular provider to expect to turn over phones every two years. It’s almost impossible to get a contract shorter than 24 months now; for a while Verizon even had a “New Every Two” promotion which explicitly encouraged you to switch your phone with your contract renewal. The iPhone has followed the same path; if you have last year’s iPhone you’ll probably not feel a burning need to have the newest model, but if you have the one before that you’re really going to want to make the move. (Apple’s ability to keep this up for three years now has been effective to the point of sinister.)
The iPad, though, has remarkably similar innards to an iPhone. Features and processor tend to hop back and forth; a new processor debuts in the iPad and turns up in the iPhone six months later while the iPhone’s front-facing video chat pops up in the new iPad six months after that. Based on that, you would expect this notional iPad 3 to be interoperable between Verizon and GSM services and offer Siri support, but the rumblings of LTE mean anything’s possible in terms of network support. You just know Apple would love to ship one unit for everyone, though.
I say all that to say this: it’s possible that we could wind up in a world where we replace iPads every two years instead of laptops every three to four. It would be about the same cost financially, most likely. Maybe the original iPad can have a third year coaxed out of it; we’ll have to see what iOS 6 is like when it finally drops. Maybe the original iPad can keep going just fine with iOS 5 so long as the battery holds out.
But then what?
I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: our industry isn’t built to last. The most enduring standard we have is cat-5 cable for networking; that’s been the done thing for a good fifteen years now. I suppose you can make a case that USB has stood the test of time, having aced out ADB and PS2 connectors to become the universal peripheral standard and even picked up pretty good speed in its USB3 form. But in my computing lifetime, I’ve seen the rise and fall of the 3.5″ floppy, the Zip disk, the AAUI connector for Ethernet, the CD-ROM, the Apple Display Connector – hell, I bought the first model of PowerPC-based Apple Macintosh and I was there the day they turned the key and went Intel.* And I’ve learned that if your computer is more than about five years old, you can pour all manner of money into repairs and upgrades, but it’s going to be made obsolete. You’ll need a newer OS, or a newer version of Office, or a newer browser that requires a newer OS, or something, and then your goose is cooked.
When I was leaving DC for the West, almost eight years ago, the new hotness was the Powerbook G4 12″, also known as “the blogger’s delight.” It was compact, powerful, everything you needed in one easy package, and they sold like mad. I coveted it like nothing before, and when I had the opportunity (in August 2004), I asked for it on the first day and clutched it to my bosom as if I would never let go.
Now, seven years later, that laptop cannot run the current version of Mac OS. Or the one before that, or even the one before that. It’s stopped dead as of mid-2007 as far as the operating system is concerned, which means you can forget about modern versions of Firefox. You can forget about Google Chrome, period. Or Office 2011. You need an external camera attached for videoconferencing. Its wireless tops out at 802.11g and its display is rigidly fixed at 1024×768, and God help you if you’ve gotten the LCD to last this long. Hell, the machine that replaced it as the blogger’s delight – the first black polycarbonate MacBook – has a cracking case and struggles to run Lion itself, and its entire product line no longer exists.
Someone – I wish I could remember who and cite them properly – wrote of the first iPhone, on the day of its release, words to the effect of “It saddens me to hold this magical thing and realize that in five years it’ll be gathering dust in the back of a drawer.” And sure enough, we’re five years out from that world-changing announcement, and my original iPhone is tucked in a box for safekeeping with my DC work badge and my first brass Zippo and some other priceless personal treasures. It’s dented, it’s scratched, the battery’s probably done for, and even if you fired it up, you’re stuck with the OS version before last.
Maybe it’s a memento mori from bearing down on forty at breakneck speed (one week to go!), but the older I get, the more inclined I am to want to buy something that I could use for the rest of my life. Like my peacoat. Or my Timbuk2 bag (and oh how I wish I still had the original). Hopefully there is a day coming where you can just keep upgrading one piece at a time – I know there was talk of a recyclable laptop project at Stanford that was completely modular and theoretically upgradable in perpetuity, and it’s thoughts like that which make me want to keep an eye on Linux and the idea that somebody could roll me an operating system to run on standard parts anywhere.
But maybe this is what Moore’s Law drives us to. We find ways to use the increasing processor power, or ways to squeeze more out of it while saving energy, and we end up with entire categories of product we never knew we needed and now can’t do without. And the rate of change is so fast – you could still get away with tooling around in a 1956 Chevy Bel-Air Nomad, but heaven help the geek who wants to try to get through the day on a 2004 Nokia 6620.
* No, seriously – I was in the Apple booth at MacWorld San Francisco 2006, when they announced they were shipping Intel-based hardware starting that very day, and I drove a pre-production unit back to Cupertino to put on a plane. It was a unique experience.