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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Fabric Future

We learned today that the Hancock's Fabrics store in Rogers is going to be closing later this year. Add that to the Wal-Mart fabric departments that are being phased out, and pretty soon it's going to start getting hard to buy fabric in NWA. Accordingly, the wife and I were out foraging for fabrics tonight after work, which got me thinking....

It would seem that sewing and fabric crafts, once the domain of do-it-yourself (DIY) homemakers, may be something of a dying art. It's not that people aren't still interested fabric-related activities, it's just that it's obviously hard to make a lot of money selling fabric. Once upon a time, when store-bought clothes were more the exception than the rule, you could save a lot of money by making your own clothes, but that really isn't the case anymore. Unless you have very specific or unusual needs, it's going to be very hard to compete with mass-produced clothing, even just for yourself. Making your own clothes may still worth doing, but not generally for cost savings.

Sound familiar, computer geeks? It should.

Sewing is one of the oldest and most mainstream DIY hobbies, and the fact that interest in it is waning should scare, or at least sadden, DIY computer enthusiasts, since it's symptomatic of a general societal decline in DIY interest and skills.

Once upon a time, sewing was a common skill among homemakers and people in general, because for a long time you couldn't even buy clothes unless you were rich. Even after clothing became readily available in stores, you could still save a lot of money by making your own clothes. As store-bought clothing became cheaper and more accessible, fewer people made their own clothes unless they had special needs or just enjoyed it. Finally, the cultural skills are beginning to atrophy and it's starting to become difficult to find the necessarily materials.

Once upon a time, system building was a common skill among computer users and technologists in general, because for a long time you couldn't even buy computers unless you were rich. Even after computers became readily available in stores, you could still save a lot of money by building your own computer. As store-bought computers became cheaper and more accessible, fewer people built their own computers unless they had special needs or just enjoyed it. How long until it starts becoming hard to buy components?

The same pattern repeats itself in pretty much every field that becomes mainstream and commoditized, so it's nothing new to computing, but it is kind of sad. The passing of an era, if you will.

I've built several of my own computers, and I've always enjoyed it. I like the research and planning that goes into the project, and I enjoy knowing and understanding exactly what's in my system from top to bottom. Plus, I've typically saved between $200 and $400 over comparable manufactured computers, which is nothing to sneeze at.

However, I doubt I'll build any of my future systems. As it stands now, I'd likely spend several hundred dollars more to do it myself than to buy from Dell or HP. (The fact that my next computer will almost certainly be a Mac is beside the point.) And I'm not alone. I work with a lot of computer geeks, and it's been a long time since any of them have built our own computer systems.

Also, consider this: there is no one running Mac OS X on a computer they built. That's obviously self-evident, since it only runs on Mac hardware from Apple, but when you phrase it that way, it becomes a little disturbing to thing that one of the fastest-growing segments of the market completely shuts out the DIY computer crowd.

Since this cycle seems to repeat itself so consistently, in clothing and cars and radio and electronics and computer hardware, how long will it be until software follows suit? Software has obviously moved well beyond the "you have to do it yourself" period, and for most applications the era of "saving money by making your own" has passed. Thanks to downloadable software, most people can easily find cheap software to meet most of their needs, and most users who write programs for their personal use do so because they have unmet needs or just enjoy it, so it seems like that's probably the period we're currently in.

Hopefully, thanks to the accessibility provided by the Internet, there won't ever be a lack of DIY software tools, but with trusted computing initiatives, the move toward locked-down platforms like cellphones, and the general public's ignorant unwillingness to insist on open platforms, we may start to see an environment where DIYers who want to write their own software won't have a place to do it.

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