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Damn the torpedoes!

Full Speed Ahead! Or aft, or something… 2/21Web Dev Weekly

I was watching a car commercial featuring a new GPS system and thought, “Yikes, how difficult is that firmware upgrade?” As we start to deploy computer systems in our cars, we are changing that which has been our best computer metaphor into a computer. Until the latest LCD screens and GPS systems invaded our cars’ dashboards and backseats, we could reasonably expect that, with proper care, our car would last five, 10 or more than 15 years. With GPS and other systems invading the automobile, these life spans seem very long compared with the traditional 18-month software upgrade cycle.

For the last 15 years, cars have used increasingly sophisticated computers to control various systems. But, until now, they have been solid-state devices developed over the automobile product development cycle, not software-based devices churned out by a software development house. Make no mistake, these new systems will not last as long as the car, and along with wreaking havoc with resale values, the maintenance of these systems will become very expensive.

I doubt very much that Daimler-Chrysler has any intention of letting someone download a compressed firmware upgrade for the GPS system into the car via an IR interface. More likely, the car will need to be brought to the dealer. The extrapolated cost of these upgrades will cause manufacturers to avoid minor system upgrades and only offer major revisions. This does not benefit consumers, as they will be forced to live with system bugs and fixes much longer than they would need to on their own computer systems.

While this scenario may, in the long run, revive the armchair mechanic of old, it does bring up a central tenet of computers and software. When do you upgrade? While on a recent business trip, a colleague forgot the modem’s dongle and was unable to check e-mail. He wondered whether or not to scrap the entire laptop in lieu of one with a built-in modem. I replied that I thought that was a little extreme, but if I had said yes, he would have gone right out and bought one. He had no idea of the specs of his current laptop (PII, 64MB RAM, 6GB HDD), nor did he care. His easiest solution was to start over.

Virtually the same question presents itself every day on the Web. Have you been to Toyota’s Canada Web site with a non-JavaScript browser? It basically says to come back when you get a browser that supports JavaScript. The site is impossible to navigate without one.

To combat this problem of incompatibilities, the Web Standards Project (WaSP) has launched a campaign to force everyone to upgrade their browsers to the IE 5, NS 6, Opera 5 level by urging Web sites to stop making their pages backwards compatible. Using the argument that maintaining backwards-compatibility is slowing Web progress, as well as generally wasting everyone’s time, the group’s campaign will doubtless push a few buttons.

What WaSP forgets is that there are a multitude of technical reasons that make this kind of forced upgrade an impossible nightmare. The global effort of simply acquiring the software upgrades could probably eradicate a few social ills or at the very least discover who killed JFK. Beyond the technical, there are very human reasons why this won’t happen, the foremost being the gut reaction, “Who are you to tell me what to do?”

Ill-conceived though it may be, WaSP has highlighted what many Web designers and webmasters quietly struggle with every day: how to deliver information in a digestible form. Some people prefer the Web in its plain-text form; others go for the most scrumptious Flash presentation imaginable. But upgrades will not be rushed. IT departments have deployment schedules and home users have their own priorities. In the meantime, we should continue to try to make our Web pages as palatable as possible.

However, if Chrysler wants to upgrade my laptop at the same time they are upgrading my GPS system, we may just be onto something.

Garth Gillespie is architect and chief technologist of ComputerUser.com.

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