Backwards Compatible: Obsolescence is obsolete


Will Podlewski, Columnist

Cheesy movies are a dying art form. Every once in a while, though, one of these hidden gems comes along — this year, it was “Iron Sky.” I’ll spare you the plot details, but suffice it to say, Sarah Palin is president, and Nazis hidden on the dark side of the moon steal an iPhone analog from Earth to power their massive space battleship. But powering the “biggest war machine in human history” is the only situation where I think a quad-core processor in a smartphone is not completely overkill.

As the name suggests, quad-core processors use four processors linked together to effectively quadruple the computing punch behind a piece of technology. Quad-core processing power in your pocket has been popular in overseas markets for some time now, but it is only in the past few years that this feature has begun to crop up in the United States. Hailed as the next big market revolution when they first debuted about six months ago in phones like the HTC One X+ as premium improvements, quad-core processors have since passed from the public consciousness, now settled comfortably among the pixel-dense displays and gargantuan screens that define top-of-the-line devices.

But how did the quad-core processor slip so easily into the realm of the mundane? One needs only look as far as the law of diminishing returns for the answer. My phone of choice is the HTC Evo 3D, which sports a dual-core 1.2 GHz processor, and I push it all the time with graphically intensive games. But it never slows down. It never chugs. In fact, that processor is rated to run every single app in the Google Play store with power to spare. So why would I ever need a quad-core processor? Why would anyone?

I equate this draw to something being premium for the sake of being premium: There is little extra value added by a quad-core processor apart from simple bragging rights. It’s like a car commercial advertising the 0–60 mph rating of a minivan: You’ll never test out that feature, but it’s impressive nonetheless.

Phone manufacturers need to realize incremental improvements can only go so far before they become tiresome and useless. Case in point are the flexible glass displays Samsung showed off at CES (Consumer Electronics Show) 2013 earlier this month — they are novel but ultimately limited in their application to the market at large. Do you really need a curved glass display? Will it really change the game like touchscreens or multi-shot cameras did?

It seems to me the explosion of technological innovations in the mobile market that characterized the 2010s is beginning to peter out. One needs only look as far as such minor developments like curved glass displays and quad-core processors (and yes, the 3D camera on my HTC) to see that the tried-and-true practice of engineered obsolescence is becoming obsolete. If the tech world is ever going to wow us again, it needs to show us its best.