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Editorial: You Want Cheap Hardware?. You got it!  Dr. John
   A class-action lawsuit against Toshiba was settled in October for over 2 billion dollars, without going to trial.  Similar lawsuits have been filed against Hewlett Packard, Compaq, Packard Bell and eMachines.  What are these lawsuits about, and why should you care?  Well here is the subtitle on a recent ZDNet article:

"Toshiba's recent $2B settlement of a suit over a floppy disk controller bug has the PC industry sweating. Products are riddled with glitches, flaws and imperfections."

  The simple fact of the matter is that PC hardware has been getting cheaper and cheaper due to demand at the low-cost end of the spectrum, and this "cheapification" is having repercussions on overall hardware quality.  Rather than going into details about the suit, I'll just summarize, but you can read the whole article at the link above.

  Basis for the lawsuit: NEC came up with one of the first floppy disk controller chips for motherboards back in the early 1980s.  This chip had a serious bug that could lead the controller to erase data on the floppy disk accidentally.  NEC eventually fixed the bug, but Toshiba had reversed engineered the original NEC chip design for it's floppy disk controller in the mid 1980's.  Toshiba continued to produce the flawed controller chip to be incorporated onto motherboards throughout the 1980's.  

Side note:  This particular computer flaw is not a perfect example of what I am talking about, since it occurred back when computers were astronomically expensive, and it did not cause many actual problems that were reported to computer companies.  In fact, this particular case is a better example of Lawyers getting a tip on a product flaw, and going after the company like sharks for chum. These Lawyers made almost $150 million on the deal.  But I digress.

  The point of that article, and my editorial, is that the constant pressure to make less and less expensive computers is adversely affecting hardware quality (which was already low compared with other "appliances").  The problems with Compaq Presario 5800s freezing and having very poor performance has been well publicized over the last few weeks.  In part, this was due to Compaq using the lowest-cost hard drives they could possibly get.  Since Windows 98SE is a real resource hog, data is often cached to the hard drive, making drive performance very important.

  How many computer crashes have you had recently?  Is it due to fast-and-dirty programming by Microsoft?, or poor driver programming? or maybe it's one of those "errata" (bugs) in one of your hardware components?  There are just oodles of reasons why a computer might crash nowadays.  In fact, the three categories of problems listed above (OS bugs, driver bugs and hardware "errata") act together to produce virtually all computer hangs and glitches.

  As computer hardware continues to drop in price, expect many more rushed-to-market components to have bugs and flaws.  This will even affect more expensive components and systems, because hardware is cobbled together quickly from electronic parts produced by many different manufacturers, increasing the chance that at least one part will have problems.  The life-cycle of a new computer part, like a video card, is so short now, that by the time the newest version of a card is in stores, the company is already hyping the next version, which is only one or two months from release.

  With the market forces the way they are now, this trend will continue for some time.  Eventually, the computer industry will mature, and product cycles will become more realistic.  Computers will inevitably become more like TVs and toasters, and the quality will be regulated to some degree, like other appliances, automobiles, etc.  So the Toshiba law suit, and others like it, may be the looked back upon as the start of quality-regulation in the PC industry.

                        Dr. John

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