Issue #18: Obsolescence

The Twenty-Year Computer

Computing needs to become significantly more long-term in its outlook, if we are to play our part in the coming move from a growth economy to a planetary survival civilisation. We need to move from a situation in which we expect people to buy (or lease) a new handheld computer every 1-2 years, even if their existing one works fine.

Why? The amount of pollution and toxic mineral extraction involved in producing, using, and disposing of these computers (what, you thought that recycling electronic equipment was actually a thing?) is vastly amplified by the demand for the new iPixel Galaxy Razr 14 Pro every year. Tim Apple has a meeting where fuck everything, we are doing five cameras, and then marketing comes up with reasons why your shitty three-camera phone makes you a social pariah who probably deserves to get green bubbles in your friends’ messaging conversations.

Speaking of green, the vendors greenwash their new devices, explaining how their manufacturing processes reclaim more materials, produce less waste, and do not use chemicals that have already been banned in parts of their market anyway (like BFRs), or chemicals that you would never find in the component under consideration (like Mercury in LEDs). But make no mistake: recycling aluminium to make a new enclosure still takes more energy than continuing to use an existing enclosure, and that recycled aluminium enclosure is still packed into a plastic wrapper, placed into a plastic insert that is then glued into the box, for maximum viral unboxing video pleasure. The new computer may sip less electricity, but offset that against the energy required to build the thing and the picture is a lot less attractive.

This needs to change, not just technologically, but socially. We need to produce computers that we can still use decades from now, and we need to congratulate not the yuppie with their brand new device, but the hipster with their ancient computer. They are the one who has not required a new computer to be manufactured.

What would a twenty-year computer look like? Probably a lot like the computer you are using right now. Look back 20 years. We already had both IPv4 and IPv6 network protocols. We had Windows NT, UNIX, and UNIX-like systems. We had 64-bit CPUs. We had 32-bit colour depth, CD-quality sound, and full-motion video. We had Wi-Fi networking.

Processors from the time had approximately the same (advertised) speeds as many CPUs available today, though used a lot more power to achieve the same computation rate (often because they ran at the advertised full speed at all time). Storage has peaked and declined in the intervening two decades, as cloud computing makes it possible to store much user data on centralised sytems more efficiently. And yes, we had that two decades ago, too.

We would probably want to diverge from today’s computers in some ways, almost by definition as current machines are designed to be discarded and replaced within a small time. Believe it or not, a great example of the choices that go into a two-decade computer is a platform that only existed for under a decade. The following describes research undertaken with Steven Baker.

The Amiga, a computer produced by ex-Atari employees at a Silicon Valley startup and launched by Commodore Business Machines in 1985, is almost famously a non-future-proof system. Its impressive multimedia capabilities were implemented in custom chips that proved hard to update while maintaining backwards compatibility. The final model, 1993’s CD32, featured the same “Paula” 8-bit sound chip as the original 1985 A1000. By this time, gamers came to expect higher sound quality, which games developers supplied by playing CD audio tracks during gameplay.

Nonetheless, there is much that the Amiga can teach us. There is still a vibrant, if small, community, using their Amigas today and developing new software. These are not twenty-year computers, these are twenty-seven to thirty-five year computers. How do they do it?

Compatible software upgrades. Three (at least!) different organisations supply updated versions of Amiga software that is compatible with existing applications and existing hardware. Much of the benefit of a computer is in the capabilities of its software, and you can upgrade the software without buying new hardware… as long as your vendor lets you.

With the Amiga platform, AROS, MorphOS and Hyperion offer post-Amiga environments with varying levels of source and binary compatibility. This extends to the firmware, with both AROS and Hyperion producing updated Kickstart ROMs.

Modular hardware upgrades. Need a new storage medium in your computer? Not just a bigger whatever-you-have, but a different thing? Throw your computer away, and buy a new one! Want a newer generation of CPU? Buy a new computer!

These are not answers that make sense in the Amiga land. Retrocomputing communities in general have put a lot of work into adapting modern hardware onto old connectors, so SD card readers that can be used from SCSI and IDE busses, for example, are common. A more interesting development in the Amiga community is the invention of “vampire” accelerators like the Apollo hardware, which mounts onto the pins on the CPU package. It draws power from the CPU’s power lines, interfaces with the existing hardware using the data and address busses, but otherwise runs a different computer in the place where the Amiga’s processor sits.

Or you can keep your chips and upgrade your motherboad, getting more connectors and modular extension capabilities on daughterboards.

Celebration of doing more with less. Go to an Amiga user group or watch one online and you will see people talking about what they can do with their old Amigas, and how they get the most out of their ancient computers. The demo scene also celebrates squeezing great music and visuals out of limited hardware.

Yes, there is new kit, like the X5000, but in these communities having the latest device is no more (or, in fairness, less) of a virtue signal than in continuing to use your 1985 Amiga 1000.

Co-opting external resources. Got a PC, or Mac? You can run your Amiga stuff on it in a fully-licensed way. If it is a G4 or G5 PPC Mac you can even run your post-Amiga OS natively. And go the other way, too: run your PC and Mac applications on an Amiga, with emulation. This may seem like a bit of a trivial point, of course one computer can emulate another. It is a question not of possibility, but of degree: it has been claimed that the FPGA reimplementations of the Amiga chipset represent the fastest classic Macintosh available.

Lack of predatory capital. All of the things described above are possible because there is nobody making it impossible. Since the collapse of Commodore Business Machines and their sale to Escom (which itself subsequently collapsed), there has been a complicated legal dance involving the ownership and licensing of the trademarks, software, and source code related to Commodore and Amiga.

None of which stops anyone who already owns a computer from using it for any purpose. With no signing checks in the ROM, you are free to use any operating software. There is no “app receipt validation” to stop you using packages that were not blessed by the mothership, either. No upgrade treadmill that says old computers cannot have new software. No concentration of seller power in a single app store that stops developers making packages for older computers.

Think about the computers you are using today, and whether you can still use them in twenty years. What would you need to change to make that happen? How do you produce that change?

And consider leaving a tip, so that when you are still using your computer in 2040 you can still read the latest De Programmatica Ipsum on it 🙂

Cover photo by Alex Motoc on Unsplash.

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Graham is a senior Research Software Engineer at Oxford University. He got hooked on making quality software in front of a NeXT TurboStation Color, and still has a lot to learn.