Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor


Technology for Writers: 
The Price of Obsolescence

By Mary Winter
© 2006,
Mary Winter

I'm kind of a technology geek, but I wasn't always this way.  Instead, I used to chant the mantra, "all I need is a word processor that can surf the internet."  Then, as technology changed and the publishing industry changed with it, I realized I needed more – much more.

For years, I carried around an old, clunky IBM Thinkpad 760EL laptop.  It ran Windows 98 and had Microsoft Word, AOL IM, and Outlook Express on it. I thought I was happy.  Then I discovered such things as web site development, jump (or pen) drives, and wireless internet.  Now, Old Faithful has become Old and Outdated.  I used to operate on dial-up at the painfully slow speed of 26.4 kbps.  Why? Because I couldn't justify the expense of high speed internet.  At least, not until it took me two hours a day to download and handle all my email.

The explosive growth in technology confuses even those of us in the IT industry.  For the average layperson it can be a twisting labyrinth from which there is no hope of escape.  However, every writer needs to make a concerted effort to understand technology and the impact it has on his or her writing.  Why?  Because working with obsolete technology has a high price.

The largest price obsolete technology extracts is in lost productivity.  Above I mentioned the time it took to read and download my email.  Those two hours could have been spent, and now are spent, writing -- not waiting for the email to filter into my mailbox.  With the advent of faster processors and high speed internet, computers and communications work at a much faster speed than ever before.  Slowness isn't the only aspect of older technology known for eating time.

Different versions of software require files to be converted between versions or even platforms.  The conversion time, whether it's saving a WordPerfect or Microsoft Word file into rich text format, or dealing with differing versions of the same software, isn't used productively.  Some file conversion is necessary in the publishing industry and can't be avoided, but it can be minimized.

As hardware ages, it needs to be replaced or upgraded.  I wanted to add a USB port to my old Windows 98 laptop so I could use a small jump drive and transfer much more data than I could using floppy disks. The drive is also less prone to corruption than a floppy disk.  Two hours and twenty dollars later, I learned that my laptop was too old to do what I wanted it to do.  Again, obsolescence rears its ugly head.

Countless wasted hours and much frustration have resulted from people just like me trying to force old, outdated equipment to do something new.  Browse the "Computers & Networking" category on Ebay.  You see not only complete and working computers for sale, but also pieces, parts, adapters, and more.  Sure, a large amount of it goes to people who want to build their own systems, or replace a component; however, much of it goes to people just like me using an outdated system.

As writers our time is best spent writing, not fighting with old equipment. 

One of the common objections to upgrading (I know, I used this one myself) was the high cost.  Options for internet access, the backbone of any good computer system, vary from dial-up providers such as AOL or Earthlink to cable or DSL high speed internet.  The price varies, with low-cost dial-up providers such as Netscape and PeoplePC providing service far below the cost of other carriers, and high speed connectivity costing as much as five times the price of these low-cost carriers. 

This monthly cost pales in comparison to the cost of purchasing a new computer system.  Individual hardware or software components may cost less.  However, for writers, whose already-tight budget includes promotion and other writing related costs, the cost of upgrading can be prohibitive.

But what about the cost of using out of date technology?  If you can and it doesn't impact your writing, then why not?  Many people have used older computer equipment without any problems.  If it doesn't affect you, then there's no reason why you can't continue as you always have.  But my own experience is that eventually the cost will catch up.  Instead of waiting for it to hit you, it's time to be proactive and determine exactly what your technology needs are and make plans to bring yourself to the level where you need to be.  And that’s the subject of my next article, performing a technology audit.

(This is the first of three articles.  The next will be in the March/April issue of Vision.)