Old Tech Never Fades Away; It Just Dies

The one thing certain about technology is that something better is always on the horizon. Some technologies, such as the landline telephone, evolve. Others, like the telex machine, just go away.

Adapting to a new technology is usually a struggle. Not only does it involve additional expense, but also users sometimes find it hard to adjust, no matter how much they may complain about the drawbacks of what they are currently using. This is a dilemma that chief technology officers face all the time. How do you ensure that the new systems you are buying won't be outdated within months of installation? Too often workers are forced to make do with the systems they have because companies can't justify capital expenditures to keep up with the pace of innovation.

And then there are those technologies are alive and kicking but some people wish were dead. Apple (AAPL) chief Steve Jobs has made no secret of the fact that he would like to see the untimely, bloody death of Adobe's (ADBE) Flash software. Facebook's chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, has reportedly announced the demise of e-mail. And outgoing Nokia (NOK) CEO, Anssi Vanjoki, recently told reporters that single-lens reflex cameras would soon be obsolete due to cell-phone cameras.

Some new technologies looks poised to replace an existing technology, until they don't. That's what happened with solid-state memory drives and hard-disk drives. Hard disks were older and less sexy—but were a lot cheaper. As a result, both technologies are still used.

Keeping Myths Alive

John Monroe, an analyst at Gartner who specializes in hard drives, comments that the myth that solid-state drives will destroy hard-disk drives persists because the media wants the story to be black and white, while investors see the dollar signs.

"The [solid-state drive] takeover scenarios continue to fade into a future," Monroe says, "and are real only in the realm of speculation."

This is the problem in attempting to predict the future. With a technological breakthrough, the future becomes tangible, even when the hard numbers aren't in yet. Gartner calls this the "peak of inflated expectations" in the "hype cycle" charts the firm releases every year on emerging technologies. After the peak comes the "trough of disillusionment," which is where we stand on solid-state drives.

"The real fact," says Monroe, "is that there is a widening spectrum of opportunity for both technologies in an increasing variety of form factors and markets."

Sure, solid-state technology is used to store data on phones, cameras, and MP3 players. It is used as the most reliable of enterprise servers. Essentially, solid-state drives have transformed the business without a full-fledged revolution.

The Smartphone Coup

For a truly dying technology, we have to differentiate between a violent coup and, say, a disorderly protest. One changes everything, while the other might get a law passed.

From the current vantage point, it appears the smartphone is one of the game-changers.

"These kinds of Swiss Army-knife things that today we call cell phones and tablets are going to put a lot of pressure on single-function boxes," says iSuppli analyst Jordan Selburn. "Anything that does only one function is at risk."

Indeed, smartphones could change the items we put in our pockets before work: keys, money, and credit cards. And many single-use devices that have revolutionized life in the last few decades are bound for the landfill due to smartphones: MP3 players, cameras, PDAs, dash-mounted GPS systems.

Looking ahead, more game-changers are in store, though when we look too far ahead it's hard to see beyond the peak of inflated expectations. Nearing those heights are technologies at least five years out, including 3D printing, mobile robots, and a wide variety of "human augmentation" techniques to help people function better. For the time being, we'll stay away from predictions on those fronts.

Click here to see 20 dying technologies.

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