Published April 15, 2009
Looking back at the 20th century, it's clear that even the biggest and baddest gadget sensations will one day fall victim to technological evolution.
As each year brings tinier, shinier toys, it's easy to forget that not too long ago typewriters were the professional alternative to freehand, Walkmen ruled the portable-music market and extra-long phone cords would let you speak to friends while standing 10 feet away from the wall-mounted base.
Each of those marvels was a wonder of its time. Now each is obsolete, a once-outstanding advancement made laughable when compared to the contact-lens camera or Japan's soon-to-be feasible moon-walking robot.
We don't even realize something's obsolete until we realize we haven't seen it in a while — a floppy disk stashed in the back of a desk drawer, or an unused videocassette propping up a table.
"These technologies are dying out because a more flexible way of doing things now exists to replace them," explains Mike Knuepfel, a recent Stanford graduate with a degree in product design. "Bulky CDs are replaced by MP3s and streaming files, newspapers can be read online, you need to carry film for cameras, and a house phone is another thing to worry about. People want to be mobile and flexible."
In no particular order, here are 10 technological dinosaurs that recently went extinct, or will be before you know it.
1. Landline phones: Walk into any college dorm room and ask to use a landline. You'll be met with blank stares. With cell-phone technology continually evolving, it seems that these days only a handful of people are still moving into a new house and having the landline turned on.
2. Floppy disks: Storing something on an external device? C'est possible? Considering the state of computer technology at the end of the 1970s, it's no wonder people were astounded by the usefulness of the 5 1/4-inch wide, 360-KB floppy disk.
A decade later, the disks had shrunk to 3 1/2 inches and their capacity multiplied to a whopping 1.44 MB — enough for a minute and a half of an MP3-file song. If you still have a few lying around, they make great coasters.
3. Wristwatches: Throwing on a fancy watch may make you look professional, but let's be honest. Cell phones and iPods tell you the time when you're out and about, and virtually every appliance in your home — from your refrigerator to your coffeemaker to your television and your DVD player — has a clock. No one wears a wristwatch anymore, unless he or she grew up with one.
4. VHS tape and VCRs: The Vertical Helical Scan — or Video Home System, depending on whom you ask — met a sad death in 2006 when retailers decided there was no room left on their shelves for the big, bulky cassettes. Digital video recorders gave you perfect-looking "time-shifted" TV shows, and DVDs let you skip the previews on rented movies.
Many people still keep VCRs around for when grandparents ask to see that old tape of little Bobby — who's now 22 and fresh out of college — shoving cake into his mouth on his first birthday. And you could always turn your VCR into a toaster.
5. Beepers: Annoying devices designed to beep any and every time anyone felt like reaching you, it wasn't sad at all to see these disappear when cell-phone plans dropped below $50 a month around the year 2000.
6. Film cameras: When Polaroid announced in February 2008 that it would stop selling its famous instant-developing film, people ran out to buy up the remaining stock in order to preserve this unique form of photography. Kodak and Fuji still make film, but they, like Polaroid, are counting on their digital-camera lines to keep them afloat.
7. Typewriters: Once one of the most powerful means of mass communication, the typewriter claimed a spot near the top of the technological food chain for more than 100 years.
Initially entirely manual, electric typewriters caught on after World War II, and the distinctive clickety-clack-whirr of dozens of IBM Selectrics going at once defined corporate life in the 1960s and '70s.
Typewriters did have drawbacks — smudged fingers, only two or three copies at a time and gallons of whiteout to correct mistakes. But today, all that remains is the illogical QWERTY keyboard, which was created to force the typist to go more slowly so the keys wouldn't jam up.
8. The Walkman, Discman and MiniDisc player: The multitasker's dream, the Sony Walkman portable cassette player changed the way the world listened to music in 1979, quickly becoming the hottest accessory of the early 1980s.
In 1984, Sony trumped itself with the introduction of the Discman, the CD version, which allowed for individual tracks instead of one never-ending, albeit varied, song.
Eight years later, a new format, the MiniDisc, essentially a tiny CD in a cartridge, caught on in Europe and Asia. But it fizzled in the U.S., where oblivious Yanks kept on listening to their Discmen until they were killed off by iPods in the early years of this decade.
9. Dial-up Internet access: It's hard to see why anyone would use a phone line to connect to the Internet when there are so many feasible alternatives.
But 9 percent of Internet users in a 2008 Pew Internet and American Life survey still get online that way, and 35 percent of those cite subscription costs — about $10/month compared to an average broadband monthly fee of $35 — as their primary reason for not switching.
America Online tried to nudge its holdouts into the fast lane in 2006 by jacking up dial-up rates, but in early 2009 Earthlink actually lowered its phone-modem fees to $8/month.
Dial-up may seem to belong with smoke signals and carrier pigeons on the communications scrap heap, but if all you're doing is checking your e-mail, it may make sense.
10. DVDs: What's that, you say? How can DVDs be obsolete? Facts don't lie — DVD sales fell off the proverbial cliff in the first three months of 2009, with some retailers reporting a 40 percent drop from the same period a year earlier.
Some of that could be attributed to the recession, but sales of video games, which cost two or three times as much, actually went up about 10 percent.
The fact is that with broadband Internet, you don't need a disc to watch a movie any more. Netflix and Blockbuster have recognized that by rapidly ramping up their online-download services.