Monday, April 23, 2007

This is Hardware: Do Not Enter

The rise of truly mobile computing is a good thing, most would agree. Instead of lugging around heavy racks of gear and a bundle of cables, we might be able to do everything we need to with a laptop and wireless networking. But when you're dependent on a single piece of kit, there's a downside.

I've just been trying to get a friend's PowerBook working again, after it failed to power up and the battery had gone flat. It's fault is a typical one for any electronic gear - the PCB-mounting DC socket on the back panel had worked loose with repeated plugging and unplugging of the lead from the power supply. With traditional electronic equipment this would be a trivial matter of maintenance; you'd unplug from the mains, unscrew the cover, identify the loose component on the underside of the PCB and re-solder. You'd be back up and running in five minutes.

Laptops are a different story. I've had to fix them before, and it's not a job I look forward to. Firstly, all the screws have non-standard heads. This might be regarded as a sensible precaution, because - let's face it - some computer users have to be protected from themselves. But I am the kind of person who keeps the special Torx screwdriver required to remove them, so within a minute or two I've located and unscrewed all of them on this particular PowerBook.

However, the cover won't come away from the underside of the laptop to allow access to the power input module with the faulty socket. So I carefully prise the corners of the case to see what's holding it together. Is it a further hidden screw, or does the case clip together in a way that was only ever designed for assembly, not disassembly? It turns out to be both - once I've removed the keyboard, I find the hidden screw which runs in the opposite direction to all the others. I then carefully pop open the case, trying to avoid breaking the paper-thin strips that form the electrical contacts between screen and motherboard, keyboard and motherboard, and in several other places besides.

I finally get the case open enough to see the power module, a small PCB on its own, easily identified at the rear. There's the loose socket that caused the power problem - the solder connections are completely broken, but at least it's the kind of repair job that can be achieved by a steady hand. Then I see that the power board is riveted in place. There's no way it's going to come out without breaking the case. At this stage I give up, having spent about two hours in the repair attempt.

I hate to think what would happen if the fault had become apparent on the way to a conference or a critical meeting. I've had other kinds of electronic equipment fail on me before, but it wouldn't have taken more than a few minutes to plug in a spare. Even assuming you could get hold of a spare laptop in time, it could take quite a while to get it set up to the point where you were ready to get going. Of course, we all back up our laptops every day, and never ever lose any data.

The problem is that consumer electronics devices - which is what nearly all laptops are - are a fundamentally disposable, non-maintainable technology. It is possible to buy a 'ruggedized' laptop with a tough metal case, but the inside is still full of tiny, fragile parts, with boards designed under a microscope and soldered by robots with a precision that humans can't achieve. For all their utility on the road, one careless drop on the floor is enough to finish the average laptop - they are not meant to be repaired or tinkered with, let alone improved.

Contrast this to free software, where maintenance and improvement are positively encouraged. Having got used to source code access as a matter of course, merging patches and infinitely tweakable configuration files, could we ever go back to software that behaved as a sealed black box, with a sticker saying 'Do not enter'? On the hardware front, the signs are not good, as machines get ever smaller and proprietary chipsets continue to dominate fields including 3D graphics and wireless networking.

Next to the broken Apple laptop sits a Leak valve amplifier, a TL/12 Plus. This example dates from roughly 1958; similar amps were used in both BBC studio monitor systems and early hi-fi's (at least, by those that could afford them in austere post-war Britain). The Leak needs a new capacitor or two, but still sounds great. It's infinitely repairable, to the point that many Leak valve amps in use today have few original components. It's a stark contrast to the laptop which was made over forty years later.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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