The Latest Technology Isn't Always the Greatest

gameboy functional after surviving bombing in the Iraq War

By Devin Giannoni
Techtonic Software Developer

The list of modern software technologies and solutions is constantly and rapidly growing.  Buzzwords like Blockchain, Machine Learning, Augmented Reality, Internet of Things, and Quantum Computing dominate the blogosphere.  However, most software projects wouldn’t benefit from adopting these bleeding-edge technologies.  In fact, most projects can be solved using a much older toolbox of tried and true solutions that have been around for quite a while now.

There are companies that have successfully pushed the limit of modern tech, like Facebook creating their own in-house framework - React.  Other companies, however, have had immense success with older technologies, repurposed in a new and clever way.  Craigslist comes to mind, a company that pulls in over a billion dollars in revenue, by using one of the oldest technology stacks around - the LAMP stack (Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP).

The concept of using older technologies in a more clever and novel way isn’t new.  There are many examples of this not only in the software industry but in other industries as well.  Instead of inventing the rocket ship all over again, SpaceX has found a lot of success in simply making a rocket ship that’s reusable.  The military is notorious for its reconfiguring of the C-130 Hercules, which was designed in 1953 and is still in service to this day with capabilities ranging from combat, to transport, to science missions.

One of the most interesting examples of this technique is the Nintendo Gameboy.  When it was released it had two technologically superior competitors: the Sega Game Gear and the Atari Lynx.  The Game Gear and Lynx both sported full-color backlit screens, the capability to display 4096 colors, and more ergonomic designs.  The Gameboy, on the other hand, could only display four monochrome colors, could only be played under direct lighting, and was awkwardly shaped.  The Gameboy went on to outsell its competitors by an order of magnitude (Gameboy’s 118 million vs Game Gear’s 10 million vs Lynx’s 3 million).

The Gameboy was designed by Gunpei Yokoi, who coined the phrase “Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology.”  It was built with a processor designed in the 70’s - the Sharp LR35902.  This, however, didn’t prevent - and possibly drove it - to becoming one of the most successful consumer devices of the 20th century.

What the Gameboy lacked in horsepower, it made up for in durability, efficiency, and cost.  It fit into a front pocket.  The device could get wet and still work after being dried out (a frequent issue due to it being stored in those front pockets). One unit even survived being bombed in the Iraq war and is still running today - decades later.  With all of this, it cost only $90 at its release - close to half of its competitors.  More copies of Tetris were sold on the Gameboy than the much more graphically powerful Nintendo Entertainment System because the software was designed so well that it was indistinguishable from the console.

“Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology” - using older technology in a new and clever way - can and should be applied to the software industry.  Writing better code, and not newer code should be the focus of many projects.  One major area where the tech sector has embraced this is both the Mac and Windows Operating Systems.  Both of these Operating Systems have adopted the Unix/Linux technology that was built 20 and 30 years ago.  In Windows’ case, they had no choice since they have been left behind as the platform of choice for developers, outside of certain stacks.

Embracing this mentality should result in fewer job postings asking for five years of experience in frameworks and software stacks that have only existed for a few months. Clients looking to hire a dev team should resist the urge to Google the hottest technologies of 2020 and instead aim to hire those whose aim is to solve client challenges.  Change for the sake of change can be extremely unpopular with users - MS Office and Gmail redesigns can be difficult to digest and don't always have immediately appreciable gains.  Instead, tried and true designs should be embraced, and tweaked for our modern times, as the evidence clearly demonstrates there’s not always a great reason to reinvent the software world every few years, or even months.

The right tool isn't always the shiniest one; sometimes a tried and true old warhorse is the best solution to a problem. In situations where a solution needs to be spun up quickly or needs to be especially resilient - something well understood is often the best way to go.

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