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Electronic Design

Throwaway Electronics For A Throwaway Culture

I'm writing this on the 50th anniversary of the introduction of the color TV. A radio report noting the occasion recalled that the first RCA sets cost $1000 (nearly as much as a new car in 1954) and that buying one of the big mahogany wooden-cased CT-100s was a truly momentous event, if you happened to be rich enough to afford one.

I'm not quite old enough to remember the color TV's market debut. But as it took more than a decade for color TVs to reach the mainstream, I do remember the excitement as a kid in the 1960s of getting our first color set. What a big deal that was! And certainly, such a major investment deserved special care. When it broke, the TV repairman made house calls, coming to change tubes or even—gasp—bring the news of the need for a costly picture tube repair.

I wasn't thinking about it being color TV's 50th birthday the previous weekend when I took my 11-year-old son into Radio Shack. He had $100 in birthday and allowance cash burning a hole in his pocket. When he saw a 19-inch color TV on sale for just $110, he wanted to hit me up for the extra $10 and buy it as a monitor for his video games. I should be immune to any surprise related to the ever-plummeting price of consumer electronics, but the idea of my son buying a color TV with his pocket money was a bit of a shock.

And I wonder why my kids don't value their electronics like we used to! The price-driven consumer electronics market means that the TV repairman has gone the way of the milkman. We plan obsolescence because we prefer to buy things cheaper at Wal Mart, and when they break, to throw them away and buy the latest model—bigger and brighter if it's a TV, smaller and faster if it's a PC. If it's not broken, then it is soon too outdated to warrant sinking much money into. Why put any more moolah into expanding memory for your plodding PC when you can upgrade to a new one with 100 times the processing power for $399?

The National Public Radio report made the comparison of digital television being at the front end of the same sort of explosive growth curve that color TV was at just before the mass market conversion from black and white in the 1960s. Since the Federal Communications Commission has (controversially) mandated that by July 2007 all new televisions sold in the U.S. must be able to receive digital broadcasts, the changeover to digital is being driven by more than market demand.

Tsugio Makimoto, corporate advisor to Sony and the keynote speaker at a recent Semico Summit I attended, calls the current growth cycle "the second digital wave" for the semiconductor marketplace, driven not only by digital TV but also by the "digitization of consumer electronics," including digital cameras, phones, and video players.

Makimoto predicts that we are going to see dramatically shorter product lifecycles, enabled by field programmability in the semiconductor market. The traditional three- to five-year introduction/maturity/end of life curve, he says, will be replaced by a one-year cycle. No wonder you readers consistently say that time-to-market pressure keeps you up at night!

With ever-quicker product obsolescence, electronics become more of a disposable commodity—and all the more a major environmental concern, as outlined in this issue's cover story by Ron Schneiderman. By next year, according to a Carnegie Mellon study, 150 million PCs will be buried in U.S. landfills.

The rapid spread of electronics to developing countries further compounds the mounting disposal problem. According to Semico, the first 40 years of semiconductor growth were driven by about a billion users in the U.S., Europe, Japan, and the Asia Rim. In the next 10 years, the number of electronic consumers will double with a billion more users, mostly in Asia.

What can be done to keep from being buried by a global avalanche of tech trash? Among the solutions suggested by Schneiderman are lead-free and other greener product designs as well as refundable deposits to promote recycling.

And what about my kids' careless attitude about their electronic gear? Well, perhaps the trend to personalization and customization brings some hope. After all, it's one thing to lose a personal CD player. (My daughter got three of them as Christmas gifts from various relatives.) But it's quite another to lose your iPod with your personal digital library of music.

Sony is pioneering perhaps the ultimate customizable electronic device: the personal companion robot. Makimoto showed an astounding demo of Sony's QRIO robot, with its capabilities for face learning, sound localization, emotional response, and much more ( Maybe if my kids have an electronic device that knows their names, can run, jump, and play catch with them, and help them with their household chores, they'll want to take care of it and keep it around for a while. If Sony is right, we'll soon see!

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