Why VGA ports, or “the curse of bigness.”

Not trying intentionally to hate on Gruber this week this much. But people harping about VGA ports makes me marginally more likely to blog with every jab.

Regarding the article: Apple is already abandoning its own only-a-decade-old proprietary adaptor for something better and smaller; PC notebooks still ship with huge 25-year-old VGA ports. Every time I bring this up, the VGA defenders argue that of course notebooks need to ship with VGA ports, added thickness be damned, because the world is full of VGA-only projectors. But the world is also full of Apple 30-pin dock connector cables and accessories. This is how progress is made.

First, I can’t believe VGA is 25 years old. That’s impressive.

Now, regarding the sentiment.

Say you are a consumer. You rarely hook up to a projector. If you do, then maybe it’s still worth it for you to buy an adapter (as I have personally done with my macbook). The uptake cost is about, say twenty bucks. It takes a second to install.

Say you’re a multinational firm. You use projectors a lot. It is very important to your IT department that uniformity be achieved in hardware usage to the greatest extent possible. You have many VGA projectors in your buildings scattered around the world. The uptake cost is multiplied across all of your employees’ hardware. Oh yeah, and that nominal cost in wages and foregone productivity in the few minutes it takes each employee to install and figure out how to use it? It’s still not huge, but it’s getting bigger. Hardware must also be distributed. Extra shipping weight — pile that cost on. Also, get ready to stock up on extra adapters because your employees WILL lose them. You could, of course, upgrade the projectors too but then you’re talking about real wage and time investment in having them installed in every conference room across the nation and/or world. The point is that when firms upgrade, they experience diseconomies of scale, unless they get a special trade discount for upgrading as an incentive to move forward that makes it cheaper than sticking with the old stuff. The very uniformity and tight integration that generates huge profits is deeply resistant to technological change.

Now, let’s say you’re a company selling enterprise hardware. Are you going to stop making VGA ports? Can you afford to throw in adapters and an extra discount for the trouble so that huge corporations will adopt your product? What do you expect IT reps from a multinational firm to say when you sell your product by saying VGA is 25 years old and makes laptops fat so it’s time to move forward?

The fact is that the marginal benefit of size reduction is withering away. We’re reaching an age where laptops are thin ENOUGH. Projectors are sharp ENOUGH. It’s no longer clear that there’s great benefit to be harnessed from slimming down another fraction of a pound or matter of inches. This will make individuals like Gruber increasingly frustrated because consumers can save up for that extra slimmer or sharper device. Corporations will not. The economics isn’t there.

Companies ideologically motivated by design, and small companies, are likely to ditch VGA first. In general, companies that are ideologically motivated by design ARE small companies. When you’re a huge firm, you are both a very valuable customer of enterprise-serving firms and also obsessed with margins. Every time you have to buy a new license or upgrade hardware across all of your operations you’re incurring massive costs for marginal or nonexistent productivity gain. Sharper projectors or sleeker laptops or Excel 2010 over 2003 have a sheen that belies their additional usefulness in most contexts. In fact, they often set back productivity because of tweaks that require additional learning and adaptation. It’s especially true of software but applies to hardware as well.

Gruber is right that VGA should die. Consumers should shirk it. Smart firms that want to remain competitive with consumers, those little firms of one, ought to ditch VGA. Don’t count on enterprise to, and don’t act like there is no compelling reason other than being a philistine to keep VGA. The bottom line is the BEST reason.


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