Forced Obsolescence

by ralph

The other day I was toiling away, doing the thankless job of bringing my itemized camera insurance list up to date, when I couldn’t help but notice the huge difference in the rates of obsolescence between traditional camera hardware and computer stuff. It was especially true of large format gear where values stay fairly level for decades, or even go up, while the value of digital equipment can fall on its face in a few months. Parallel to that is the long term usefulness of a lot of camera hardware, again particularly the larger formats, and of course that’s what keeps its value up.

I got a notion about six years ago that 125mm would be an ideal focal length lens for either of my 4x5 cameras (it’s like a 35mm lens on a 35mm camera), but when I shopped around I found that there were very few lenses made in exactly that size. Finally I found an ancient Goerz Dagor that fit my desires exactly. The design has been famous for quality for generations, and the one that I found was so old it wasn’t even coated. It was probably made in the late 1930s and cost about $100 or $125 back then. I paid $300 in ’95 and lately when I checked it’s going price (in used equipment) it was still exactly $300. The beauty of view camera lenses is that any lens can fit any camera. If you’re looking for soft focus, for instance, you can find an 1880 rapid rectilinear lens and put it in your 1999 Wisner. There are almost no automatic features in newer designs that leave older stuff out in the cold. Of course the quality of new designs is better and lenses are faster, but little difference shows in the actual negatives. In fact in ‘95 I also got a couple brand new ultra wide angle lenses (75mm and 58mm) and they both cost around $1000. Lately the same ones go for $1200+ so the used value of my lenses will stay about the same.

Photographers have always been able to put the latest films into their trusty old camera without getting a message popping out saying something like “sorry, compatibility with this film is no longer supported by camera manufacturer”. Likewise 35mm and 120 roll film cameras going back to the ‘30s can still be used with current films. This may seem too obvious to even comment about, but it’s a good part of the reason that old hardware still has value. Of course instances of forced obsolescence do occur such as when odd sizes of roll or sheet films are dropped. The value of equipment that uses it goes down as a result (unless they become “collectables”).

The Mamiya RB67 camera and lenses that I got mostly in the late 1970s are now worth almost double their initial price,( though I have to admit that the values were a bit higher in the mid ‘90s). Another great but almost too obvious to mention virtue of these camera systems is that you have a long and leisurely period of time in which to build up a complete, large system.

Newer 35mm equipment shows much more change and innovation so desire for the “latest models” detracts somewhat more from the value of previous models. Even so the change is not huge. Though new prices are higher than they were in past years, the earlier equipment originally cost a lot less so its current low price does not really indicate a radical drop in value.

It’s when I got to the value of my computer that the vastly different change of values really hit me. It cost around $1400, with some instant upgrades, just 23 months ago. Recently I noticed that I could either get much more for my money today or get a near equivalent to it for around $700. All sorts of peripherals like printers, scanners, faxes and digital cameras show a similar trend of having more value for the dollar, or even fewer dollars, with more recent products. This might seem to be a blessing, even if you accept the quick and drastic loss of value of your used trade-in, but there’s definitely a dark side.

Lets start with the idea that you have limited cash but still want to build up a system for
d
igital photography. You’ll want to acquire the system piece by piece as the funds become available. Do you have plenty of time to accomplish this? No way! By the time you get to the printer or scanner you might find that it is no longer compatible with your aging windows 95 or 98 computer. When you try to upgrade your operating system to Windows XP for instance, you’re told that it demands too much in resources to be run in any computer that’s more than 2 years old. Or you may upgrade to a whole new computer after acquiring a lot of other hardware and find that it no longer “supports” the older pieces. You might also find that even though the makers of those peripherals at first seemed to fall all over themselves in their eagerness to furnish software patches to connect to a huge range of equipment, two years later your “aging” piece will get the same reception as a foundling dropped at the mayors door with the attached note saying, “take me Daddy”.

Earlier in the computer revolution strains were appearing already on the business side. Some early “adopters” with custom software running on mainframe computers, or with masses of records on reel to reel tape, found it difficult or impossible to bring their operations up to date. The older systems were referred to as “legacy” systems (or hardware). The term floated around for years but recently has been pounced on with sadistic glee by salesmen and manufacturers who are quick to dismiss your 2 year old “latest thing” as “legacy” equipment.

It isn’t just the big stuff that changes. Connections to the computer depend on a constantly shifting set of cabling standards. Do you use a Scuzzy (SCSI) connection, a USB or Serial port. How about SCSI-II, or Ultra Wide SCSI, or USB-II, or a real old Serial port? Try to upgrade something and you might find no way to connect other items in your system. If you try to get something new consider yourself lucky if you are able to install a computer card for a new port without causing a “fatal” computer malfunction. I’ve been trying to choose between a couple scanners and I find that the newer one needs an IEEE-1394 port that my 23 mo. old computer doesn’t have. Do I dare get it?

It isn’t just weaving disparate equipment together that can be problematical. Even items made by the same manufacturer or items made for designated other manufacturers equipment often balk and crash. I have a bit of OCR software (which reads printed matter) that came with my HP scanner but when I try to use it a “fistfight” breaks out between the OCR and the scanner driver – and they crash.

Can you just play a game of “stop the world, I want to get off” by continuing to use your quite adequate system indefinitely? It may work for a while but little additions will have to be made, specs will change, plug-ins may be needed, and what if you finally get around to that larger printer you’ve been putting off. Also, newer software is increasingly demanding of computer speed and memory. When Photoshop first came out it required about 20Mb of hard drive and a lot less to run it. Early windows, both the operating system and programs like Word, were similar in size. In recent years they grew beyond 100Mb, then 200Mb and now I hear that the complete Windows office version of XP is around a Gigabyte. This “bloatware” virtually requires continual upgrades or else you’ll come crashing to a stop. What’s rather galling is that much of the bloat is in annoying or unnecessary features like intrusive animated critters or paper clips that think they know what you’re trying to do, and usually screw everything up (found in MS Word and similar programs).The creation of bloatware is driven by the manufacturers need to keep coming up with new products to sell. While much of this seems to be Microsoft’s game plan they are not alone. Apple’s dropping of the ubiquitous, and still very useful “floppy drive” from their newest Macs looks like another case of forced obsolescence.

When CDs and the CD-ROM drive appeared it became quickly evident that they
were
a revolution in low cost data storage as important as the invention of sliced bread. It became even more apparent when the cost of CD “burners” slid rapidly down to a couple hundred bucks or less, and the cost of CD blanks dropped below $1, down occasionally to as low as 20 cents. It’s not surprising that bins full of CD blanks are as common as potatoes in the supermarket. CDs were also seen as a possible archival storage of both images and data (this is now in doubt). So does it seem believable that DVDs are seen as likely to render CDs obsolete because of their 7 times greater data storage? (And that’s in the face of the fact that there is still no DVD standard – 3 or more are still fighting it out). What will happen to your “archival” CDs in a few years when ubiquitous DVDs quietly drop backward compatibility with CDs?

So what’s the best way to get into digital photography? Get most of your key items in a narrow time frame with money back assurances that each item of hardware or software will work in the system. You’ll definitely be bringing some items back, until you find the ones that work.

Whew! I think I’ll pretend I’m Ansel Adams and hide under my focusing cloth while see how the world looks upside down in my view camera.