The Fast Track to Obsolete Tech

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To hope that everyone is going to continue to stare at a box on the wall is naïve. — Shonda Rhimes

I’m amused by the memes that go around about Millennials’ (and younger) responses to “ancient” technology. One of my favorites is kids trying to decode rotary phone dialing. Last week, someone tweeted that her nephew didn’t know what a busy signal was. Most people under 45 don’t get the reference to repetition being like a broken record, save for the niche set of vinyl lovers in the sub-40 crowd who may have experienced a skip or two.

What? Too Zune?

It works the other way, too. Older folks often can’t grasp the invisible sleight of hand at work with digital technology. When I got my first answering machine years ago, my grandmother kept saying my name, thinking I had picked up the phone when she heard my voice. Her phone just rang and rang if she wasn’t home.

Last month, I made a photo placemat for a friend’s 91-year-old mother with family photos I plucked from my friend’s Facebook albums. She was moved enough to write a very sweet thank-you note, and in it, marveled at how much time it must have taken me to cut and paste all the photos and then have the placemats laminated. I didn’t want to devalue the gesture by telling her that Shutterfly did the cropping and pasting, and all I did was drop photos into a template.

We go through generations fast in this industry, some speedier than others: cassette and 8-track players and tapes, laserdiscs, CDs, PDAs, VCRs, tube TVs, digital cameras, MP3 players, e-readers…. Pagers came and went and I never rode the train. I reviewed a T-Mobile Sidekick back in the day that was basically a dedicated handheld for email and AOL Instant Messenger and thought it was the coolest thing since the universal remote. The list goes on and on for the pricey CE products we loaded our holiday gift lists with 20 years ago that aren’t usable, let alone worth squat, today.

The style of tech changes faster than we think, too. Just like the contemporary cars we eye on the street today that look so cutting-edge, we don’t think about today’s tech one day looking old-school. It’s amazing to think people found space in their living rooms for a stereo rack system — and thought they looked hip. But not too far from now, that slick new iPhone 13 will look as dated as a 2002 Firebird.

Most changes in a CE product category are incremental: For years, seasonal cell phone changes were about battery life and size, with modest cosmetic changes around form factor — flip, clamshell, and bars. That was until Apple turned the iPhone phone into a micro computer, killing off the digital camera, MP3 player and calculator in the process.

Now, maybe foldable phones will make the slab phone extinct. The next generation could decide that the form factor of the iPhone 13 and Samsung Galaxy S21 are passe. If I weren’t so entrenched in the iOS ecosystem, I could see myself easily opting for the Samsung Fold3 and using the outer 6.2-inch display for texting and email and unfolding the 7.6-inch screen to watch baseball.

Even foldable phones could be antiquated on the high-speed tech timeline. Some futurists say we won’t even be using smartphones in a few years. Given how many hours a day I’m on my phone, that’s a little jolting.

Flat TVs and AV receivers got Wi-Fi chips to make them streaming-ready, but except for some aesthetic upgrades, they look pretty much the same as they did 20 years ago. Audio quality has always been super hi-res for those willing to pay for it. Now, TV resolution has reached a point of diminishing returns: Unless you have a 75-inch TV, can you really tell the difference between 4K and 8K resolution? We may be on the cusp of change there, too.

I had a peek into a new reality last week when listening to screenwriter and TV producer Shonda Rhimes talk at a virtual Brightcove conference about the future of TV. The only big change to the TV viewing experience in my lifetime has been seeing the TV go from a small tube inside a cabinet to a lightweight picture frame that can hang on a wall — light and thin enough to sit on a cabinet. Picture quality has improved vastly, but the one-way “lean-back” experience of letting TV entertain us is largely the same.

Rhimes put things in perspective when she talked about up-and-coming generations who won’t be satisfied just to sit back and let TV come to them. In their interactive world, they’ll want to participate. That reminded me of my own fascination with virtual reality content with an Oculus headset at the recent Van Gogh Experience in New York. With the technology there, soon kids will demand to interact with TV with VR, AR and in ways we can’t imagine yet.

When Rhimes re-upped her deal with Netflix in the summer, she baked in VR, gaming and live events — just because. “I don’t know what we’re going to do in virtual reality yet,” she said, but having the avenue and opportunity to create new types of TV experiences is “huge,” she said: “To hope that everyone is going to continue to stare at a box on the wall is naïve.”

I’m a big fan of Shonda Rhimes shows, so if she’s excited about putting VR, gaming and live events in her toolbox, I am, too. I’m looking forward to leaning in.

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