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Friday, February 18, 2011

Obsolescence: Can any technology escape?

In the ever-changing and rapidly growing world of technology, particularly in media and entertainment, the latest innovations are already making the breakthroughs of the past few decades (even the past few years) obsolete.  Growing up, I played Atari on a console TV, had about 12 channels to choose from, wrote letters to family and friends and put them in the mailbox, and listened to music on cassettes.  In today's tech-savvy world, we are spoiled by technologies that bring immediate results, like cell phones, instant messaging, and flat panel TV's with stunning clarity, known as High Definition, that are capable of streaming movies directly over wireless Internet.

When I purchased our first "flat-panel" TV (named for their thin profile), just shy of 6 years ago, only a few models were available and the price for a unit that had High Definition capability was $1000 more than standard definition.  The picture tube TV's we had been using for the past 20-30 years that preceded flat panels were still in stores with many available models, but now every unit sold in stores is a flat-panel model, and all of them are High Definition with varying levels of resolution.  Flat panel technology has not only improved drastically since it was first introduced, but it has also become more and more affordable over the years, making High Definition available for everyone to enjoy.  For example, in 2005 we paid $2400 for a 42" plasma TV with 480p resolution, called "enhanced definition".  Today, a 42" full HD plasma of equal or greater quality sells for around $700 and an LCD model with a 32" screen is less than half of that, around $325.

Gaming has drastically changed in a relatively short amount of time, as the Atari, which was popular in the early 80's, was replaced by the original Nintendo towards the middle to end of the 80's, an 8-bit gaming system with what were considered vastly impressive graphics at the time.  Once the Nintendo reached the height of its popularity, Sega introduced the Genesis around 1991, a 16-bit system that took graphics to another level.  Soon after, the two companies competed heavily for years with new models (Super Nintendo, Nintendo GameCube vs. Sega Genesis CD, Sega Dreamcast) until Sony took the gaming world by storm in March of 2000 with its Playstation, which boasted graphics with nearly photo-realistic graphics, particularly on sporting games.  Playing Madden NFL on a Playstation was the closest thing to watching a game on TV.  Shortly after Sony introduced the Playstation 2 to improve upon its initial model, Microsoft introduced the XBox, with similarly stunning graphics.  In 2006, Sony released the increasingly popular Playstation 3, which doubles as a Blu-Ray disc player, however the PS2 remains the best-selling game console of all time.  Nintendo then marked a significant comeback with the Wii, which introduced movement interaction with the use of a handheld Wii remote which picked up the user's movements and integrated them into the game for a unique experience.  Once this became the newest trend in gaming, XBox released the Kinect system which took the concept of the Wii a step further by eliminating the need for a handheld remote.

In the music world, before mp3's and iTunes, when a new album was being released by an artist you would purchase it at a music retailer.  When CD's were introduced, the sound quality and ease of track navigation made cassettes vanish almost instantly.  Although I don't think CD's will ever become obsolete, they're now becoming less used thanks to Internet downloading.  Today, you can download new music to a number of devices the moment it's available through iTunes or Amazon (or illegally for those who don't believe in supporting the artists whose music enhances your life).  Thanks to the Internet, artists can keep fans informed of progress on the next album to be released, rather than waiting for your favorite group's name to appear on the "Coming Soon" board at the store, which is what we all did in the days before digital music and the Internet.

For those familiar with computer technology, the frequent changes in standards for what is considered the "latest and greatest" occur so often that a computer you buy one day will be considered nearly obsolete just a year later.  New processors and components are released several times throughout the year that are significantly faster and of higher quality than earlier models as manufacturers scramble to keep up with the latest advances in gaming and media.  Along with personal computers came the Internet, which was widely popularized by AOL, which many users thought was "The Internet" rather than just a service provider.  Emails and online chatting gave users the ability to have conversations in real-time or through emails which could be passed within minutes, rather than through the postal service, now called "snail mail".  Now there are 100's of ISP's (Internet Service Provider) across the United States, all offering connection at different speeds and different prices to keep you connected on any budget.

The auto industry has certainly been paying attention as many of the today's greatest gadgets are being integrated in the latest models.  Bluetooth technology allows seamless integration of cell phones for hand free communication (not counting texting while driving).  Car stereo systems have hard drives that can store music permanently so you don't have to fumble through your CD's to change artists, and the best part is that all can be done by voice command.  Today's cars can park themselves, tell you how close you are to an object when driving in reverse, and with services like OnStar you're never alone in case of an emergency.  If that's not enough, thanks to phone applications, you can unlock, lock and start your car from your phone, as popularized in the commercial for the new Chevrolet Cruze.

Of course, the most obvious widespread example of today's technology is the cell phone (originally known as a "mobile phone").  They started as a bag with a very large antenna and a receiver with a cord attached just like what you'd have hanging on the wall at home.  That changed to a large brick-shaped unit that looked like something used in the Military.  From there, the trend was to make them as compact and trendy as possible, with fashionable accessories such as interchangeable faceplates and covers.  However, they were still just phones.  Then came instant messaging, which was already popular on personal computers, known as "chatting".  Today's variety of cellular phones boasts an incredible list of features such as video conferencing, email, Internet access, and with the introduction of "apps" users can play games and pull from an unlimited library of tools and utilities.

While we take advantage of these new advancements, many of the items we relied on before the Internet and cell phones are falling into obsolescence....Taken from an April 2010 New York Times article: Newspaper circulation has been in decline for many years, but the drop accelerated in 2007 and even more rapidly through the recession.  While the Internet is widely cited for the drop-off, the lower circulation figures have resulted in part from a conscious decision by publishers to focus on the most loyal and profitable readers, often raising prices and limiting discounts.
The newspaper isn't the only item that is slipping into obscurity. 
According to a recent article on, U.S. magazine sales at newsstands and other retailers fell at a faster pace in the second half of 2010 than they did in the first half.  Single-copy sales fell 7.3 percent to 32.7 million in the July-December period, compared with a year earlier.  Single-copy sales offer an important gauge of the industry's health. Many titles sell heavily discounted subscriptions, so full-price newsstand copies tend to be the better indication of a magazine's vitality.  Magazine sales dropped during the recession as readers saved extra cash. But the industry is also getting pressured by an increasing amount of free material to read on the Web including online versions of magazines and newspapers, and blogs.

The introduction of the iPad, Kindle, and similar "e-readers" found a market for people who love to read but don't like carrying around books and magazines.  Users can scan their favorite newspapers, magazines and books on a stylish, portable screen than can hold 1000's of publications.  The iPad is a larger version of the iPod, with music, Internet and e-reader technology all folded into one device.

Considering all of these incredible advancements, and how they've completely reinvented the earliest concepts of their kind, we can begin to wonder about the next generation of innovation that will make today's technology obsolete.

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