Spending Money for the Best and Newest Isn't Always the Best Idea

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It's the holiday season, and if you're like me, you're being tempted by new toys. Who wouldn't want a shiny new Apple iPad, a Motorola Droid II or an Amazon Kindle DX e-reader? I do -- but I don't actually need any of those things. I can still get a lot of use out of my first-generation Apple iPod Touch; my prehistoric, dumb-as-dirt cell phone; and a pile of paperbacks I haven't read yet.

I recently wrote about Verizon's latest ultra-high-speed home broadband plan, which offers a monthly deal of 150Mbit/sec. down and 35Mbit/sec. up for $194.99 a month. For me, with three Internet-compatible TVs and a LAN with two dozen PCs and servers, that kind of money can be justified. I've paid more for less -- for example, having a fractional T1 with frame relay laid into my home office. For other people... not so much.

A friend of mine recently had a lot to say on this topic, and I'd like to share some of what she said: "I still own and use vinyl and VHS and cassettes, and a PC that has IDE cables and a floppy drive and a monitor that weighs more than a bowling ball. With my ever-shrinking, lower-middle-class income and my disdain for the must-have-new-toys, slavering, materialistic mentality of suburban America, I absolutely will never engage in this dance we do where the minute we buy things, they are already obsolete and their successor is on the way. We were raised by a generation of parents who would shriek to hear we need a new $200-to-$500 gadget every two years just to keep up. I haven't left my roots. I also didn't lose my shirt in the recession. I was already being frugal out of need."

She continued, "It is unconscionable that I am considering abandoning my project to convert my 300 VHS tapes to DVD because DVD is already considered a dying technology format. I have a computer with one thing wrong with it, and I likely will have to throw it all out as 95% of it is incompatible now with what I can get at Microcenter, as it is too old.

"We spend too much damned money too fast on shiny new stuff that is already technically crappy old stuff. It's geometrically progressing faster than the consumer gives a damn about or can afford."

She's right, of course. I make my living from riding the bleeding, leading edge of technology. That's fine for me, and for people who are willing to buy and use this level of technology. But, seriously, how many people, either at home or in their business, really need to have the newest toys?

I know I don't. For example, I have access to pretty much any software I want. So, while I run the latest versions of Linux and Windows, what do I run on my day-in/day-out work PCs? MEPIS 8, a 2009-vintage Linux, and XP SP3. On the XP box, when I'm not running OpenOffice for my office work, I use Office 2003.

Why? Because they're good enough and they work. It's not a matter of cost. Linux and open-source software are free, and I have a Microsoft TechNet subscription, so I have access to everything Microsoft turns out as fast as it becomes available. No, it's because while I like new toys as much as anyone, and more than many, I don't confuse what I want with what I need. Neither should you.

If your old technology, at home or the office, is still doing its job, then stick with it. Yes, there are times when you do need to adopt something new. For example, like it or not, if you're going to be adding new offices to your business later this decade, you're going to need to adopt IPv6 for your network. If you're going to be buying a lot of new PCs, you're going to be buying them with Windows 7 or Linux, or you're going to be switching to Macs.

But until you need to change, you probably don't have to change. In short, if what you have now is working well for you, stick with it. It will save you money both in the short and long run. It's not just, as my friend said, that technology is moving faster than consumers can give a damn about or afford; it's also true for businesses.

Use what you have, buy only what you need, and both your home and office IT budgets will be the better for it.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was cutting-edge and 300bit/sec. was a fast Internet connection -- and we liked it! He can be reached at sjvn@vna1.com .

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