Steve Wozniak, Apple Computer's co-founder and one of the key people behind the PC revolution, believes the seemingly unrelenting upgrade cycle is levelling off -- creating economic problems for some technology makers, but giving financial relief to buyers.
End users "pretty much have as much computer as they need, and they really don't need twice the speed anymore", Wozniak said. That wasn't the case 25 years ago, when he and Steve Jobs founded Apple. Within five years, the demand for processing power helped propel Apple into a $US500 million company.
Wozniak, along with nearly 40 other inventors, was in the US capital on Wednesday to commemorate the US Patent and Trademark Office's bicentennial.
According to Wozniak, the inefficiencies built into microtechnologies meant companies were building products with forced obsolescence. Although end users would have preferred devices that could last 10 years, 20 years or more, they often had to deal with products that wouldn't work after three. But that's changing, Wozniak said.
"You reach plateaus where technology can advance and make things less costly, but it can't necessarily change their essence. And I think we're at one of those plateaus now," he said. "We're sort of in a stable point. It's good for the end user."
Wozniak took part in a roundtable at the US Department of Commerce with fellow inventors, who talked about the future of technology and the need for government action.
White House associate director for technology Richard Russell, who led the discussion with Jim Rogan, the undersecretary of the patent and trademark office, said the US is committed to creating an environment that produces innovation. "Our job is to ensure that the table is set," Russell said.
About half of US economic growth since World War II has been generated directly through technology advances, he said, "and that has come through the ingenuity of Americans".
But some of the inventors on hand said the government must do more.
Donald Keck, who along with Peter Schultz and Robert Maurer, designed and produced the first optical fibre for use in telecommunications, said a lack of trained scientists in the country forces companies to compete with one another over a small number of highly trained individuals.
Robert Rines, who helped developed the technology behind high-resolution image-scanning radar and sonar, said many of the breakthrough inventions come from the "prodigious American community of independent inventors", not from large corporations and government.
But Rines said the patent office's efforts to work with independent inventors doesn't receive enough funding, and he urged his colleagues to lobby Congress for more help for the patent office.