Tech envy: It’s a jungle out there
This isn’t the sort of planned obsolescence perfected by Detroit so that your brand new sedan, perfectly fine under the hood, looks a tad tired in a couple of years.
No. This is tech’s brutal law of the jungle. Call it Sudden Obsolescence Syndrome.
There is one exception to the rule, though: The iCloud. Like Moore’s Law in semi-reverse, “The Cloud” will get bigger and cheaper every 18 months — even though Apple has set the bar quite high (or low, as the case may be) by making iCloud free.
But, as we bask in the glow of Apple’s annual WordWide Developer’s Conference, it’s a good time to reflect on the inevitable fate of the best, and best-intentioned, that tech has to offer.
“Things” are not just getting incrementally better, giving one a small dose of pre-buyer’s remorse. Things are becoming literally obsolete in what seems like the lifespan of a Mayfly. Things that captivated millions, and in retrospect had most of the right stuff (except maybe timing), suddenly flame out.
I’ve joined many a gadget bandwagon, sold lots of expiring stuff to make room for the next toy, and regret none of the seemingly odd and expensive choices I’ve made to support my habit.
Here is a decidedly personal list of tech classics that got our geek smoked.
Sony’s TC-55 cassette recorder (1972)
This redefined the tape recorder at a time when a) everyone had a casette recorder and b) they mostly looked something like this, or worse. Rumor had it John Lennon owned one. This was hot for about a year or so, as better recording and playback format killed the traditional cassette player. Sony would own the space for years to come with various incarnations of the Walkman. But they lost their way when mp3 players became all the rage.
The TRS-200 portable computer (1983)
This was my first portable computer, and it was a perfect mobile machine. It was part of a Radio Shack eco-system that included a brick mobile phone and a $50 peripheral which connected them — and also served as a charging stand, and speaker phone. This beauty was killed by MS-DOS and WinTel. But it’s ability to remotely upload text has not been improved upon one bit.
The Palm pilot(s) (90’s – early 00’s)
For years these were the only electronic PIMs anybody wanted and which every gadget geek had to have. Then wireless exploded, and suddenly nobody needed an address book that wasn’t connected to a phone. Palm came out with the Treo — adding that missing ingredient phone — which was a winner for years. But then came the iPhone. The Pre didn’t have a chance.
Metricom’s Ricochet wireless service (late 90’s, early 00’s)
This was the only way to travel in the early 00’s. With a Ricochet modem you could connect your laptop to the Internet — provided that you lived in one of only a handful of cities Metricom served. And there was another little problem: the service broke up if you were going faster than roughly 55 MPH because the towers you were bouncing to and from couldn’t keep up. Metricom expanded too quickly, and were going to lose the race against hotspots and connected devices anyway. But nothing got noticed like the slim, antennaed wireless modem you’d velcro to your IBM ThinkPad.
The Audrey (2000)
Not to pile on Palm, but this was another $400-ish overpriced and underpowered Internet appliance. But it anticipated the concept of doing specific Internet things in a bite-sized, a la carte way in rooms at home that were not yet bastions of Internet use. The Audrey was marketed as a kitchen appliance “Aimed at gadget-loving families and couples who are looking for a fast way to check the Web and send and receive e-mail.” It was also to be the first in a line of Internet appliances. It was dead in 7-1/2 months. I got one for peanuts when the fire sale began, mainly because it was named after the same person as my daughter (the name doesn’t appear on the device, but it’s huge on the manual) and because I dream of the day I’ll be able to hack into something interesting.
Nokia 770 (2005)
This portable Internet appliance was a little ahead of its time. At nearly $400, the price was only about 20% less that what Apple would charge five years later for a tablet that is 400% bigger and way more powerful. There weren’t many software add-ons for the N770 — they weren’t called apps yet — but you could tap into WiFi and tether it to your phone. Nokia even came out with a successor, N800 series. What killed it? Nobody could quite get the concept of an Internet device costing hundreds of dollars that couldn’t make calls. Now we call them the iPod touch and the iPad.
Born, 2007. Died, 2011. The Flip has become the poster child for Sudden Obsolescence Syndrome. Smartphones didn’t kill it. The lack of wireless connectivity didn’t kill it. Cisco killed it, and only because it became a distraction and they could afford to write off the $590 million they paid Pure Digital to acquire the company that made the device.
Talk about brutal.
Photo: A Nokia 77 (left) and an original Flip camcorder (right) on the keyboard of a TRS-200 laptop. Taken by the author.