Getting by with pre-post-PC devices in a post-PC world

Even though many three and four-year old devices still work, they've reached obsolescence by virtue of the changing nature of computing. Here's a story every ZDNet reader can identify with. A late-night "please fix my computer" call from a friend.

Image: ThinkGeek

"We've tried everything and ..."

Sigh. You just know that when a phone conversation begins with, "We've just tried everything and..." that your day (or in this case, night) is about to change course. Despite my long cherished (and completely ineffective) "No, I will not fix your computer" T-shirt, when it comes to family (and some friends), I still wind up having to fix things.

Admit it. You do, too.

This is when it becomes clear things are changing. It was 10pm. I had changed out of my work pajama pants into my nighttime pajama pants and was getting ready for a nice evening of loafing around. But once the call came, I knew I'd have to pack up a pile of goodies and head out onto the road, in the rain, to try to save the day (er, night).

A power failure had taken down a cable modem and a router and despite efforts by both my friends and their rather technically inclined "call-before-David" helper friend, they couldn't get Wi-Fi to work.

In my kit bag, I had my MacBook Pro, my iPad, two spare routers (including the always trusty WRT54G I keep around for network diagnostic fiddling), both regular and cross-over Ethernet cables, a cable tester, and more).

Here's what I found when I got there:

  • They had a smart TV, a couple of Moto X Android phones, an iPad, and a Chromebook.
  • They had cable-company provided Internet phone service and that worked. The RJ-11 jack went into the back of the cable modem and could dial out.
  • They had a 2011-vintage router with Wi-Fi.
  • Before I had driven over, they were able to get a login prompt from the router if you used their Android phones and went to 192.168.1.1.

You astute techies out there will come to the same conclusions I did. Wi-Fi works (because it was possible to connect to the router's login screen over Wi-Fi). There was a working Internet connection to the outside world (because the IP phone could dial out).

By the time I arrived, the router could no longer be reached for a login prompt. It was now in that peculiar nether state known as, "We pressed all the buttons, including the reset button".

Switching my phone into hotspot mode, I went online and found the router's default login and password, and tried connecting over Wi-Fi. No joy.

As it turns out, this router was built during an in-between time in the evolution of computer history. It was built after the time when everyone had a friend who would set up computers (when routers were configured by a Web interface best represented by the classic Linksys config environment) and before the time when people actually lived in homes without at least one PC.

This router required you to run a CD-ROM, which, when loaded, would run a Windows or Mac program that would scan the world looking for valid, unconfigured routers.

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They didn't have a Windows machine. They were fully post-PC. As it turns out, their neighbor did have a Windows machine he bought for about $400 three or four months ago. He used it once, but did not recall its login password. He just uses his iPhone to use Facebook and tried to sell me the unused laptop for a few hundred bucks. I didn't bite. I didn't need to add another Windows machine to my collection.

I next went online and found the software for the router, which I downloaded (at least the CD-ROM was no longer necessary). On the other hand, the configuration software was from 2011 and the software dutifully did a version check. Anything earlier that OS X 10.7 (Lion) was supported. Anything later than 10.7 (like 10.8, 10.9, or the current 10.10 Yosemite) was not. The configuration program refused to run.

Because the router from 2011 was trying so hard to be easy for consumers to configure, it would not support configuring via Web browser, even with a hard-wired Ethernet connection. It wanted to run a super-helpful wizard on a PC or a Mac, and that was that.

It so very much wanted to make things easier for its users. So much so that by 2015, the router was unusable for those that didn't have PCs or Macs from that era. I went online and checked, and the router configuration software also refused to work on any OS after Windows 7.

I did have Parallels on my MacBook Pro, but not Windows 7. Before I went through the process of connecting into my server via VPN and grabbing a working image, I figured I'd do some more tests.

Using the trusty WRT54G, I was able to ascertain that the cable modem was not providing an IP address to the router. Something got zorched during the power failure. Did I mention they didn't have a UPS between the cable modem, the router, and the wall? The cable modem was just not talking to the router. I tested multiple Ethernet cables and even used my cable tester.

So, the cable modem itself was broken. No router would have worked.

For this story, the solution was simple. They called their cable provider, put me on the phone, and the next day a cable guy showed up with a new Wi-Fi-enabled cable modem and he hooked everything up for them, leaving the router out of the equation.

A story of generational change

But for pre-post-PC devices in a post-PC world, the story isn't quite as simple.

We all know we've gone through a generational change. Where there was once a time where anyone who needed to get online had to have a desktop OS-based computer, that's clearly no longer the case. More and more consumers have just their iOS or Android devices, and others have Chromebooks -- none of which behave like old-school Macs or PCs.

And yet the world is strewn with the not-so-old hardware of a previous generation. Yes, the router was from 2011, but it's not like they needed anything newer. They were perfectly capable of watching Netflix and posting to Facebook, and that's really all that mattered to them.

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They saw no need to buy a new router or have a PC (heck, the neighbor bought a Windows PC that he never, ever used).

There was a time when post-PC users still had some pre-post-PC computers lying around. I remember around 2012 or so talking to one company that was convinced that everyone would always have at least one PC, just because it was obviously what you needed to do.

In 2015, that's so far from the truth for many users. Hence, the decline in PC sales.

Because many consumers are firmly in a world where they don't touch PCs at home (and, for many, at work either), the world of supporting systems that makes the assumption that a PC is in the equation is beginning to deteriorate. Heck, even Skype is finally making a browser-only version.

The result is that we now have millions (perhaps billions) of computing devices that are just a few years old, work perfectly, and are obsolete -- not because they don't do their job -- but because they have simply been left behind, unwanted leftovers from an earlier paradigm of computing.

Fortunately, we don't have to get out your credit card and make big replacement purchases anymore. In addition to leaving a world that was dependent on PC-connectivity, we've also left a world dependent on big purchases. Almost all services are very happy to take a small amount from us every month, in a worldwide renting-as-a-service model that provides annuities rather than chunky sales to vendors and service providers.

My friends? They were very happy they didn't have to pay for a new router. Instead, they're paying $2.99 a month for Wi-Fi service. And yeah, even though that adds up to more than a router, they're comfortable with it.

And that's really the post-PC world in a nutshell: one call, problem solved, pay a little bit each month to keep it all working.

I made it back home to Camp David around 2am.

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz.