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Unplanned Obsolescence

Level 17

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As we head into the new year, people will once again start quoting a popular list describing the things kids starting college in 2020 will never personally experience. Examples of these are things like “They’re the first generation for whom a ‘phone’ has been primarily a video game, direction finder, electronic telegraph, and research library.” And “Electronic signatures have always been as legally binding as the pen-on-paper kind.” Or most horrifying, “Peanuts comic strips have always been repeats.”

That said, it’s also interesting to note the things fell into obsolescence over the last few decades. In this post, I’m going to list and categorize them, and add some of my personal thoughts about why they’ve fallen out of vogue, if not use.

It’s important to note many of these technologies can still be found “in the wild”—whether because some too-big-to-fail, mission-critical system depends on it (c.f. the New York Subway MetroCard system running on the OS/2 operating system—https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/zmp8gy/the-forgotten-operating-system-that-keeps-the-nyc-subway-s...); or because devotees of the technology keep using it even though newer, and ostensibly better, tech has supplanted it (such as laserdiscs and the Betamax tape format*).

Magnetic Storage

This includes everything from floppy disks (whether 10”, 8”, 5.25”, or 3.5”), video tapes (VHS or the doubly obsolete** Betamax), DAT, cassette tapes or their progenitor reel-to-reel, and so on.

The reason these technologies are gone is because they weren’t as good as what came after. Magnetic storage was slow, prone to corruption, and often delicate and/or difficult to work with. Once a superior technology was introduced, people abandoned these as fast as they could.

Disks for Storage

This category includes the previously-mentioned floppy disks, but extends to include CDs, DVDs, and the short-lived mini-disks. All have—by and large—fallen by the wayside.

The reason for this is less because these technologies were bad and/or hard to use, per se (floppies notwithstanding) but because what came after—flash drives, chip-based storage, SSD, and cloud storage, to name a few—were so much better.

Mobile Communications

Since the introduction of the original cordless phone in 1980, mobile tech has become both ubiquitous and been an engine of societal and technological change. But not everything invented has remained with us. Those cordless phones I mentioned are a good example, as are pagers and mobile phones that are JUST phones and nothing else.

It’s hard to tell how much of this is because the modern smartphone was superior to its predecessors, and how much was because the newest tech is so engaging—both in terms of the features it contains and the social cachet it brings.

Portable Entertainment

Once a juggernaut in the consumer electronics sector, the days of Walkman, Discman, and portable DVD players has largely ended.

In one of the best examples of the concept of “convergence,” smartphone features have encompassed and made obsolete the capabilities once performed by any and all those mobile entertainment systems.

School Tech

There was a range of systems which were staples in the classroom until relatively recently: if the screen in the classroom came down, students might turn their attention to information emanating from an overhead projector, a set of slides, a filmstrip, or even an actual film.

Smartboards, in-school media servers, and computer screen sharing all swooped in to make lessons far more dynamic, interactive, and (most importantly) simple for the teacher to prepare. And no wonder, since no teacher in their right mind would go back to the long hours drawing overhead cells in multiple marker colors, only to have that work destroyed by a wayward splash of coffee.

A Short List of More Tech We Don’t See (Much) Any More:

  • CRT displays
  • Typewriters
  • Fax machines (won’t die, but still)
  • Public phones
  • Folding maps
  • Answering machines

What other tech or modern conveniences of a bygone era do you miss—or at least notice is missing? Talk about it in the comments below.

* Ed. note: Betamax was far superior, especially for TV usage, until digital records became commercially acceptable from a budget perspective, thankyouverymuch. Plus, erasing them on the magnet thingy was fun.

** Ed. note: Rude.

30 Comments
Level 13

Oh man....I remember back when I first entered the game.  It was tape drives and CRT monitors everywhere!  I remember when I started writing training documentation on "newer" tech like bulky PDA's with tiny screens.  It's amazing to see how things have progressed, and I have only been in the game half as long as some folks.  The only constant is change!

Level 13

I don't necessarily *miss* them per se, because they could be a pain at times, but I have fond memories of riding around with my best friend in his '69 Firebird listening to 8 tracks.  We about wore out "Houses of the Holy" by Led Zep.  They were great because there was no rewinding, and you could jump from track to track.

One of the things you didn't mention that I miss a lot that seems to be a side effect of all the tech.  When I was younger none of the folks in the neighborhood had fences and all the back yards connected together.  All the neighbors knew each other and all the kids played together.  We spent endless hours playing kick the can, hide and seek, kick ball, football and a myriad of other games of our own invention.  Now even people going for walks have their heads buried in these tiny screens oblivious to everything around them.  I'm not a Luddite - I absolutely love that tech has done to improve things - but I'm not a fan of the loss of human interaction and so much screen time to the exclusion of actually doing things.

Level 15

The old turntables and record albums are fad with the younger generation now. I however embrace having a tiny MP3 player that holds way more music that I could ever afford to buy and goes all day on a charge.

Back when I was doing desk-side support (which I now realize is longer ago than a freshman in collage's birth, thanks adatole ) one of my first steps beyond tier 1 support was swapping tapes for servers in the data center. Grab empty tapes from here, run around popping them out of tape drives all over the place, put them on the racks in the correct spot, while packing up the older tapes to move off site. Let me tell you, even then I knew that despite being the best answer for out backups, it wasn't going to be for long. Work like that was destined to be replaced with something better with less room for error.

Level 14

#1 perhaps my favorite trick of all the #2 pencil and rewinding my cartridge audio tape!!!!!

#2 the Filmstrips we had in classes as kids

#2.5 the old movies on reel

#3 the rotary phone

The first portable computer was a COMPAQ "luggable" I ever used is shown here  with the attached keyboard shown open and "portability version"

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MVP
MVP

Ah yes, the days of the tape ape's.  Nothing like running around with round tapes stacked up your arms past the elbows pulled for a job that is fixing to run.

MVP
MVP

dial up modems haven't died, if you use some standalone ATM's with "cell phone" access you can still hear a modem negotiate and connect.

portable communication while it has changed format is still RF (radio frequency) based.  Transmitter and receiver.

Part of the reason Fax doesn't die is that is an accepted transmission of a document for legal purposes, prescriptions, contracts, etc.

MVP
MVP

I saw a shirt the other day that had a slogan "When tech was cool". Below was a pic of a cassette tape, VHS tape and 5.25 floppy disk.

I started with selling XT's, 20mb hard drives and monochrome monitors and Dos 3.3.

I was super excited when the CD came out. Records were a pain the backside trying to record them onto a cassette tape. One skip and you had to start again. Making a mixed cassette tape took twice as long as the cassette went for. Making mixed CD's was so much easier.

Funnily enough, I'm still considered old school when it comes to music. I still buy CD's (and DVD's) regularly. I don't do music (or video other than YouTube) streaming at all. And I store my entire CD catalog (around 900 CD's) onto a single iPod Classic 160Gb. It goes everywhere I go. I'll be devastated when the time comes and I'll need to buy a phone with at least 120Gb storage.

Level 17

With all the nostalgia, I'm reminded of this quote (which will be the topic of a future TechnicallyReligious podcast, you can be certain.)

“Whatever you now find weird, ugly, uncomfortable and nasty about a new medium will surely become its signature. CD distortion, the jitteriness of digital video, the crap sound of 8-bit - all of these will be cherished and emulated as soon as they can be avoided. It’s the sound of failure: so much modern art is the sound of things going out of control, of a medium pushing to its limits and breaking apart. The distorted guitar sound is the sound of something too loud for the medium supposed to carry it. The blues singer with the cracked voice is the sound of an emotional cry too powerful for the throat that releases it. The excitement of grainy film, of bleached-out black and white, is the excitement of witnessing events too momentous for the medium assigned to record them.”

― Brian Eno, A Year With Swollen Appendices

I wonder if some of our attachment (even if it's emotional and not technical) to old tech has a basis there.

That said, I will never miss hearing the Iomega "click of death".

The Compaq above was a beast!  I replace the hard drive in one once and you would not believe the number of screws hold that together.  Everything was shock mounted. 

Paul

MVP
MVP

Nice read, thanks a lot.

Level 14

Luggable.... durable and a a pain to fix or carry.... What's not to love?

Level 9

I miss the noise the monitor made when you hit the degauss and the wonderful modem sound. Eeeeeh errrr weeee bong.

Level 15

I will tell you and I am pretty unpopular for this, but I miss my Microsoft Zune, my Samsung windows Phones, and WIndows activations that were 111-111111-11111111.

Level 12

How about printers?  In my early IT days I was a tape wrangler and a printer "manager".

The giant high-speed printers that used the holed green-and-white sheets, the band of metal letters that had to be carefully aligned after regularly cleaning the ink out of the O's and A's and other such characters.  Then you'd go through the stack of printouts, breaking them out between print jobs so the programmers could pick them up.

Dry-ink-tank printers that spewed black ink everywhere when you tried to change it, ink that would never come out of your clothes, and which found its way into every crevice of the printer.

Daisy wheel printers connected by parallel cables.  Whappity whappity whappity!

Mimeographs and ditto machines with their special two-sheet paper for making a form to be copied.

No nostalgia for these, just memories.  I'm very happy with laser and ink-jet printers!

Level 13

Boy do I have a lot of photo cameras laying around.

Level 14

As an old school main framer, I miss magnetic core RAM and a CPU that was spread across several circuit cards.

I have a high end DSLR and will get another, but I'm okay mostly skipping on standard cameras these days.  I'm more conflicted about "What can I get my daughter that isn't a smartphone to take pictures?" Where the only thing I can consider durable enough is the Nikon W300 (Nikon COOLPIX W300 Compact Digital Camera | Waterproof Camera for Underwater Shooting  )

I think there is still value to old cameras, but it is definitely headed towards being antiques to a degree. The kind of DSLR I have (Canon 70D) was even commonly used in professional movie production.

I actually loved watching a monitor degauss

Level 14

I miss the dial-back modem...

Level 15

NOVELL 4.11  Bring me a NLM file for petesake.  

MVP
MVP

Film cameras have their own feel and character for the images created.

I still have my first 35mm camera, an Argus C3.  Also in film an Olympus OM-1 and an Nikon N80.

The film cameras can shoot infrared with specific film and a filter not requiring the modification that a digital camera requires.

On the digital side the Nikon D200 and D700 fill most duties quite well.

The Nikons can all share lenses so it helps to keep the lens cost down..somewhat but not having to duplicate lenses.

The OM-1 is also great for astrophotography since the sensor won't overheat and being entirely mechanical battery power is not crucial.

Level 11

My father (of blessed memory; just observed his 28th yahrzeit last Friday) was a shutterbug, though he hated to be the subject of a photo himself. He died before digital photography was practical. He left behind several cameras, including multiple Polaroids dating back to the 1960s. I wound up with a couple: full outfits (multiple lenses, motor drive, flashes, and more) for both a Minolta Maxxum 7000i and a Maxxum 9000. I still have the 9000 outfit, though I have not used it in at least 15 years. My brother (also of blessed memory, unfortunately) left the 7000i on a seat while covering the Metro Conference mens' basketball tournament for his student newspaper at Virginia Tech and someone walked off with it. Using those was how I learned about macro lenses, needing to take close-up photos of parts for a composite materials class project.

My father was also the fellow that chose Betamax for our house. How did he act when Beta machines were going away? He stocked up on another 2-3 new-in-box Beta VCRs so we had a stock that would last us  a good long while.

Level 17

Zichrona Livracha - May their memories - both the ones they captured and the ones they embodied - be for a blessing.

MVP
MVP

Ahh, the memories . . .

One of the biggest issues for me (I'm cheap) is when I have to tote out a piece of equipment that is now obsolete and it cost many, many thousands of dollars and now is only fit for the scrap heap. My heart breaks a little. I just wish it could be re-purposed in some way. But, that's the price of progress.

Level 9

In my current workplace, we have a MICROFICHE scanner/machine in a storage area, along with boxes of old microfiche.  I've been here 4 years, and no one has asked to fire up that bad boy yet, but 2020 is a new decade, and anything can happen!

I'm not making this up...

Level 13

My first workplace had punch card readers still in use. I remember being pre-warned that a place I was going to for an interview (insurance company) was still using the obsolete paper tape reader. The person warning me told me that he laughed when he saw it and so didn't get offered the job. I didn't laugh and got the job offer.

Level 12

So you haven't had to scan those into electronic format?

We were starting to do that, about 30 years ago, at a former employer.  Hopefully you'll have the chance at that fun!

MVP
MVP

Back at Radioshack we had a microfiche printer....   It got a lot of use.

Level 12

thanks for the post

About the Author
In my sordid career, I have been an actor, bug exterminator and wild-animal remover (nothing crazy like pumas or wildebeasts. Just skunks and raccoons.), electrician, carpenter, stage-combat instructor, American Sign Language interpreter, and Sunday school teacher. Oh, and I work with computers. Since 1989 (when you got a free copy of Windows 286 on twelve 5¼” floppies when you bought a copy of Excel 1.0) I have worked as a classroom instructor, courseware designer, desktop support tech, server support engineer, and software distribution expert. Then about 14 years ago I got involved with systems monitoring. I've worked with a wide range of tools: Tivoli, Nagios, Patrol, ZenOss, OpenView, SiteScope, and of course SolarWinds. I've designed solutions for companies that were extremely modest (~10 systems) to those that were mind-bogglingly large (250,000 systems in 5,000 locations). During that time, I've had to chance to learn about monitoring all types of systems – routers, switches, load-balancers, and SAN fabric as well as windows, linux, and unix servers running on physical and virtual platforms.