Everything for Electronics
Nuts & Volts Magazine (January 2018)

Infrastructure Dependence

By Bryan Bergeron    View In Digital Edition  

Next time you’re on eBay, check out the ham radio transmitters and receivers on sale from the middle of the last century. Tube-type “vintage” gear from the likes of Collins, Drake, HeathKit, Hallicrafters, National, and even Realistic are readily available, affordable, and — most importantly — useable.

As long as you have power, you can have an HF (High Frequency) ham radio or shortwave listening station up and running in a matter of minutes. This is largely because there is little to nothing in the way of infrastructure, other than the ionosphere.

Today, just about everyone owns a microwave transceiver called a smartphone; at most, three or four years old. They’re great for streaming video, audio, and even communicating with someone on the other side of the globe.

However, unlike those vintage transmitters and receivers, when you buy or lease a smartphone, you’re getting less than 1% of the communications system.

The ionosphere isn’t involved in microwave communications, but there are cell towers and associated hardware and computer software. In 10 years, it’s safe to say that none of the smartphones in use today will be in service.

In the short term, the issue will be the accelerating rate of change in the feature set of the smartphone. In the longer term, the issue will include compatibility of the smartphone with the infrastructure.

Unfortunately, that’s the 99% of the system out of our control. As consumers, we’re powerless and completely dependent on the network providers.

Smartphones aren’t the only consumer products that could suffer sudden death because of planned or required changes in the supporting infrastructure.

At the top of my list is virtual instruments — oscilloscopes, frequency counters, signal generators, digital multimeters, and the like — that are partially defined in software and require a desktop/laptop/handheld computer for their operation.

I have a box full of hardware front ends to a variety of virtual instruments — all unusable because they’re no longer compatible with my current computer operating system or hardware interface (e.g., SCSI vs. USB).

I used to be a fan of virtual instruments, but today I’m happy that I never sold my Fluke DMM or my Tektronix digital scope.

The takeaway is to be mindful of what you’re buying in terms of infrastructure dependence. There’s power and potential cost savings when using an established infrastructure such as a PC/Windows environment.

However, there’s also a long-term cost of inevitable incompatibility with operating system upgrades and the inevitable hardware upgrades.

If you can afford it and you have room for it, go for independent devices — especially your core bench tools. Otherwise, plan to regularly upgrade or buy new virtual dependent devices.  NV