Aris Silzars Display Technology Consulting


The Display Continuum

A World Full of “Features”…

I have a cell phone that came with a ninety-page instruction manual.  It has a built in camera and lots of sophisticated “features” for storing phone numbers, various shortcuts for dialing, text messaging, and of course taking photos.  Of the ninety-pages’ worth of instructions, I regularly use maybe three.  For me it’s a phone, not a camera or an Internet appliance.  I haven’t taken the time to enter other people’s phone numbers or acquired any special ring tones. 

I have a digital camera.  It is also chock-full of “features”.  When the first single-lens reflex 35mm film cameras were introduced, the world was an elegantly simple place.  All one had to remember was to set the f-stop, the shutter speed, and focus on the subject of interest.  Most of us could remember to do these three things so we could concentrate on the process of making beautiful images.  Then came automatic exposure, automatic focus, built-in flash, and zoom lenses.  Some of those capabilities were useful – especially for people who just wanted to point-and-shoot and didn’t know enough about light levels and shutter speeds to take adequately exposed family photos.  But now, my relatively modest digital camera has a one hundred fifty page user’s manual.  There are six pages devoted just to a listing of all the menu options.  I have to carry the manual with me because I cannot remember where in the multi-level menus some of the options are buried.  And even then I am using maybe one-third of all these wonderful “features”.  And here I thought I was a pretty sophisticated photographer!

I have a car that is in its seventh year of life.  It too has many “features”.  When purchasing this vehicle, I did not request these “features”.  They were considered standard equipment that according to the salesman had proven to be virtual necessities in these 2000-year models.  Many of these “features” are dependent on various electronic modules.  Well, I suppose it should be no surprise that the reliability of these modules can sometimes leave one a bit frustrated – as well as stranded somewhere other than at a repair facility.  It also seems that the car manufacturers have figured out that replacing these specialized “modules” can be a nice profit maker – perhaps even more lucrative than the sale of the original vehicle.  How can a part that is made from a two-inch aluminum cylinder with a simple semiconductor sensor mounted on a couple of wires across one end be worth $350?   That is an excellent question – it seems to me.

Last week, I was requested to do some tests on a new LCD flat-panel television.  I looked on the back where I needed to make a simple video connection.  I was greeted with an array of input possibilities.  There was a cable connection, VGA,  DVI, and HDMI sockets,  an optical input connector, a full complement of RGB input plugs, a single video input, and several audio inputs.  I understand that versatility is good, but aren’t we getting a bit carried away?

Given the complexity of these already existing products, surely we must be reaching the saturation point for adding more features to the devices that we already mostly don’t know how to use.  If you are seriously thinking that we are indeed approaching such an asymptote, you must have been -- or still are -- living on some other planet.  Having met the basic functionality requirements of just about every product that human creativity can envision, the trend is now to ever more complexity – namely more “features”.  Reliability and operational elegance have taken a backseat in this competition for the consumers’ attention. 

More “features” are the driving force for market place success: Cell phones that have ever more computational and text messaging capabilities than the ones we have just barely learned to use; Cameras that can process and modify photographs even before down loading to a computer or printer; Cars that can park with no driver assistance and have a myriad of ever more complex performance, sensory, and entertainment features; And computers that have operating systems so complex and bloated that no one can understand how they operate or how to select the features we truly need and want. 

No matter how much attention has been given to making each additional component reasonably reliable, when the complexity rises to this level, failures will occur.  Repairability will become an even more serious – and expensive --problem.  It already is a problem.  Component level repair is not possible with IC chips using hundreds of input/output connections wave-soldered onto boards full of other surface mounted components.  Not only that, most of these modules are custom made for a specific product.  Board-level repair then becomes the only viable path, but this depends on the future availability of these custom boards.  Once manufacturers decide to obsolete a board there is unlikely to be any other source of supply.  

We are most likely entering a new era where there will be no functioning products older than ten years.  In the year 2030 there will be no operating cars from the first decade of this century, no cameras that can still take pictures, and no old televisions that we can maintain (or restore) and enjoy.  We will still have cars, cameras, and electronic devices from the 20th century, but not from the 21st.  There will, of course, be some examples sitting in museums, but they will no longer be operational or maintainable.   We are entering the era of the “throw away” society.

Can this really happen?  Well, there is a rather nice historical example of a product that did not last as expected.  Some years ago, when color negative film was first introduced to the market most users did not realize that the film did not have acceptable archival capabilities.  Images made by amateurs and professionals alike began to fade within a few short years.  This problem was gradually solved, but in photography circles this time period is known as the “lost decade” because the photographs taken with color negative film during those early years have literally vanished.   (It’s a good thing that B&W film and color slide film were still in use).  Just think, someday -- in about 2035 -- you will think back wistfully on the car that you drove back in the year 2010.  You will only have your digital pictures to remind you of that time.  There will be no 25-year old cars on the road.  There will also be no 25-year old cameras, or phones, or anything else that depends on custom designed electronic modules – which is just about everything operational.  

Isn’t it a good thing that our houses and furniture are not equally dependent on such “features” – or is that time coming also?  Yikes, what a scary thought!  Now I’m really getting worried.

Are you prepared for this world of customized electronic modules and specialized software controlling most of what you do?   Let me know your plans for coping with this new era of products that have more “features” than you can possibly learn or remember how to use.  You can contact me directly from this site, by e-mail at, by telephone at 425-898-9117, or by fax at 425-898-1727.