I find myself again in the midst of updating my computers and digital devices, and it makes me ponder. We live in a time where this is commonplace with just about everything electronic. But it wasn't always that way.
In the earlier days of the digital age, when you bought something computerized, it was pretty much complete the way it was, and it stayed the same the whole time you owned it. Computers did not really have updates -- you brought it home and loaded 300 floppy disks, and that is how it stayed until you bought a new version. If you wanted new features, you went and bought a new thing. Sometimes, for businesses, software companies would occasionally ship a CD with updates.
Nowadays, digital things get produced that are not even really done yet -- the instructions will tell you that the first thing you need to do after you buy the product is update the firmware. And from then on, we are flooded with updates. They flow out constantly from the internet, under the threat that the ever-changing world will doom our computer if we do not keep up.
My phone is like that, snatching updates from the network at a frenzied pace, all the time. With some of my earlier phones, I remember having to use a software tool and cable to push updates to the phone. It was a complex procedure. And before that, of course, there were landline phones, which never needed an update.
In automobiles, we have had computers for about 40 years now. I used to be a mechanic, and we had a lot of discussion about PROM (Programmable Read Only Memory) and EPROM (Erasable Programmable Read Only Memory). With the PROM, if you needed to change something about the way the car functioned, you had to physically open up a little onboard computer and change the chip. Later, the EPROM made it so you could open the computer, remove a sticker covering a window on the chip, shine UV light at it to erase it, and then use a tool to reprogram it. Wow.
Another example is early GPS units. To update the maps, you would have to order a new chip, and then later, a CD. Now the map lives on the internet and is pulled in real time.
Updates are often a good thing. It is nice to get surprise new features on your hardware. Sometimes, though, the whole update process goes awry and turns your item into an expensive brick. I have had that happen. More often, you get stuck with a half-broken version until they update the update.
Your fishing tools, vehicles, work tools, kids’ toys, TVs -- everything seems to have an update for it now. It seems to be driven by the need to push things to market faster to gain market share, and hopefully also to alleviate the need to replace a whole item when it becomes obsolete.
On the other hand, if you are like me and you have a bunch of devices that sit in cases for months waiting for a job, and you have to get them out and update them all beforehand, it can sure be painful.
This column is a regular feature of the Tribune's monthly History page. Kevin Mitchell may be reached at the Becker County Museum by calling 847-2938.