It was my first year teaching computer applications in a new district. After half a year of complaining, I received a new computer for my office. It had everything I could possibly need. With it, I could send and receive email and access the World Wide Web. I could create and edit word processing, spreadsheet, database, and presentation documents. I could print to network printers. I could import pictures from a digital camera or a scanner (which I received the next year). What more could I possibly need?
That was 1995. The computer was a Power Macintosh 5200/75. It had 8 MB of RAM, a 75 mhz processor, and a 500 MB hard drive. History hasn’t been kind to this particular machine, and some consider it to be the worst Macintosh ever produced. Still, despite its shortcomings, it still did just about everything I needed it to.
For the last year or two, we’ve been buying new computers with 1,000 MB of RAM, a 2,200 mhz processor, and an 80,000 MB hard drive. Given the improvements in processor technology, that’s 100 times the computing power of that 12-year-old computer. What are we doing with all of this power? Sending and receiving email. Accessing the web. Using word processors and spreadsheets and presentation programs. We’re doing the same things.
Sure. I know. I can’t use Netscape 4 to surf the Web anymore. And if somebody emails me a word processing document, the likelihood that I’ll be able to open it in Word 6 on a Mac is pretty low. I’m pretty sure I can’t connect my usb scanner or digital camera to a computer that only had serial and SCSI ports. And Skype probably won’t run on Mac System 7. The technologies have moved on. But the tasks haven’t.
As we face another round of hardware upgrades, I have to wonder why. Do we really need Flash 9? What does MS Office 2007 offer that we didn’t have in Office 2003 or XP or 2000 or 97? Is there anything that we really need to do that isn’t available in the old version? What does this week’s version of Adobe Reader have that the free and rarely-annoying Foxit can’t handle? Did Internet Explorer really fix more things than it broke? Why in the world would anyone run Vista if they didn’t have to?
The computers we’re going to replace next year were wonderful when we installed them. They were fast and reliable and people were really excited about them. Nearly six years later, what has happened? We upgraded operating systems, installed a lot of security patches, and kept anti-virus software up-to-date. We tried not to needlessly upgrade productivity suites or other software, but some of those upgrades were unavoidable. Now, they’re slow. But we haven’t really gained any more functionality from them.
Sometimes I think it wouldn’t be such a bad thing to get off the tech roller coaster for a while. I was in a school recently where every piece of technology — every computer, printer, monitor, scanner — everything was a model that we have already discarded in our district. I didn’t see anything in the school that was less than eight years old. What are they doing with it? Email, word processing, presentations, some Web work. Maybe they’re on the right track.