% fortune -ae paul murphy

The Stereo Analogy

Sometime during the late 1940s or early 1950s it became important for anyone pretending to a leading edge lifestyle to seem to know quite a lot about sound systems. Personally, I don't know what a Shure ML44 is or was, but in that period many people - often the same people who later took pride in being unable to program their VCRs - avidly devoured audiophile and popular electronics magazines to give themselves the ability to speak knowledgeable about everything from microphone positioning to speaker line impedance.

Then sound systems got better - by the mid seventies you could buy off the shelf stuff that cost relatively little, came in compact formats, and sounded better than dear old dad's carefully tuned component collection.

By the eighties the whole social structure built around audiotech expertise was dead - - burnt down to its hobbyist core by cheaper, better, easier to use products that simply worked right out of the box.

MacOS X works out of the box - buy a Mac, plug it in, and use it. The new Macs have lost their speed, cost, and security advantages relative to the PC, but the bottom line is in the software, and that continues to work: buy it, plug it in, use it, duh - just like a seventies Sony Stereo.

And even the PC itself has achieved significant usability on most consumer tasks - not exactly top drawer, but in line with 70s consumer stereo products from companies like RCA, Telefunken, and Tandy.

Back in the 60s every little town or neighborhood had its TV and Stereo shop but the key business driver for Joe's Stereo wasn't the gear it sold, but its role in affirming and supporting the customer's ability to meet social expectations on the possession, use, and ability to talk about complex and unreliable gear.

That was great for the people working at Joe's then, but what happened when stereo became trivially easy to install and use was that the technology stopped being useful as a social differentiator - and Joe's went out of business.

In today's version, Joe's Computers sells Windows affirmation and social support - meaning that Microsoft's current problems in getting Vista accepted outside the hobbyist camp suggest that today's Joe's might be just about ready to go the way of its predecessors.

Paul Murphy wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 25-year veteran of the I.T. consulting industry, specializing in Unix and Unix-related management issues.