Saturday, May 31, 2008

Moore's Law vs. the Marine Tax

For those few readers so far removed from the world of computers and technology that you are unfamiliar with Moore's Law:

Definition: “The complexity for minimum component costs has increased at a rate of roughly a factor of two per year” -- Gordon Moore, 1965.

Translation: “Moore's Law describes an important trend in the history of computer hardware: that the number of transistors that can be inexpensively placed on an integrated circuit is increasing exponentially, doubling approximately every two years.” -- Wikipedia, 2008

Believe it or not, this very old prediction has held consistently true for 33 years. Bottom line on computer hardware is that you would always be smarter to put off today what you can buy tomorrow. Unfortunately, by the same token, you might as well buy it today because even if you do buy it six months from now, you'll be better off waiting another six months. And it's always a safe bet to wait at least six weeks if Leo Laporte just bought it.

But let's consider the implications of Moore's Law in the context of the Marine Tax.

The marine environment is absolutely inimical to the survival of all things electrical. Actually, the marine environment appears to be inimical to the survival of everything except mold. Even if you don't chuck your power gadgets overboard, electronics do not do well with the fundamentals of boat life: moist air, salt, constant shaking, dirt, more salty air, more shaking, the occasional bolt of lightning, fish guts.

My Client's Laptop
My Client's Laptop
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
So purveyors of marine electronics often attempt to sell a product based on its marine hardiness. This hardiness is sold at a premium which varies from three to ten times the equivalent non-rough-and-ready variety. I've seen the innards of some of these hardened products, and you can understand both why they cost more and why they survive longer. Our SSB, for example, is essentially solid state dipped in amber. I think those chips will be around and functional when roaches, extremophiles and Cylons are the only thing left alive on the planet.

Now call me a product of the disposable culture, but I do not want my electronics to last into the next millennium. In fact, I don't want my electronics to last more than the 18 odd months until the next round of Moorsian improvements.

For example, as part of the prep for cruising, we read of boats investing in a ruggedized, “tough” laptop. Depending on the manufacturer, one will cost you between $3500 to $4000 with otherwise the same specs as a standard laptop of the day. First, set aside with me the basic folly of the phrase, “He paid $4000 for a laptop running Windows Vista.” While I'm an unabashed Mac Fan Girl, this might be a good idea since most marine software isn't ported to Mac or Linux. Yet. It's also true that a “toughy” is likely to last three times longer than my off-the-shelf MacBook whose life span on the boat can probably be measured with an egg timer.

Buy a Toughy?
Buy a Toughy?
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
But now let's play the Moore's Law game... for which I will engage in the gratuitous, inappropriate and incorrect use of a chart since I just got a copy of Numbers. We'll assume the toughy lasts three times as long as my delicately beautiful but clearly fragile Mac.

At the end of three years, for the same amount of money I have a three-year-old piece of crap running an old version of Vista or a brand new Mac with roughly twice the memory, twice the speed, and an upgraded OS. This math becomes even more absurd when considering a non-ruggedized Windows box which you can pick up at Fry's in the $450 range. You could purchase those by the six-pack and still come out ahead.

Is there any universe in which this makes sense?

Well, it turns out there is one. The universe of cruisers who plan to quite literally drop off the map into a world where ordering from the online Amazon or Apple stores and getting something shipped out is just not realistic. Those hardy adventurers need to go marine grade across the board.

If you're a whimpy coastal cruiser, however, doing the milk runs with s/v Don Quixote and routinely stopping in at towns whose names appear on your average 3rd grade Rand McNally atlas, you can rinse and repeat for virtually every piece of electronics on the boat. Need wireless? Browse war driving sites and grab a $100 USB amp. Marine sets start at $300, last three times as long and leave you stuck in 2008 wifi speeds. In five years, you can suck bits in the slow lane or grab a cheap new rig to put you on an express to Googlezon. Worried about reliability? Buy two!! Get hand helds to back up your expensive weather and GPS systems, personal trackers to back up your EPIRB, charting software to back up your fancy all in one unit on the helm.

Go ahead and pay the marine tax on some items; Anything that requires hauling the boat or climbing the mast screams “marine grade” to me. But for all those little electronic gadgets that make life both much more safe and much more entertaining, buy cheap and buy often.


Anonymous said...

So maybe my thoughts of going to WalMart and buying three of those cheap disposable "Remote Weather Stations" for our boat so I could just throw away the failed component and replace it with another cheap disposable component isn't so far off after all :)

Behan said...

you can have it both ways, I think- pretty sure our "toughy" was only about $1200. :-) having seen it do backflips on to solid ground and not even hiccup, i'm quite pleased!

Anonymous said...

Behan -- is it 'tough' or 'semi-tough?' The semis are typically hardened against dropping, but not against dust or more water than, say, a spilled soda on the keyboard...

Personally, I'd like to find some kind of portable device (be it PDA, ultra-portable sub-notebook, or notebook) that could take a dunking. If they can do it with GPS devices and VHF handhelds, they should be able to do it with some flavor of PC...

Cap'n Franko said...

Hey, 'static, have you ever actually dropped one of those protected devices overboard? Mine always fail after a soaking. Hell, they even fail after simply being out in the rainy Northwest environment for a coupla seasons.

I agree with Toast. Buy cheap; buy often.

Anonymous said...

have you ever actually dropped one of those protected devices overboard?

Only once, a floating VHF handheld - and it was in fresh water to boot, which also makes a difference...

Y'all are probably right - I can't quite get over my geeky need to believe that tech can surmount a well-defined problem with well-known and understood parameters :-)

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