Ten technologies facing extinction

And the winner is…

Some surprises here.

Top 10 technologies in a death spiral

A look at some technologies that may soon be departed
Iain Thomson and Shaun Nichols in San Francisco
V3.co.uk, 07 Nov 2009

Earlier this week, people in Mexico and the US celebrated Dia De Muertos (Day of the Dead), a holiday in recognition of friends and loved ones that have recently departed.

So this week we have decided to investigate some technologies that have recently or will soon be leaving the technology mainstream. Unlike other recent lists, this was fairly easy to construct and there was limited, if occasionally spirited (no pun intended), debate about its order.

Some technologies did not make it onto the list. Dial-up connections were squeezed out because they are still used by the majority of the world to access the internet, and are still a last ditch method for those of us in the West.

Similarly dot-matrix printing also did not make it on here, because it is still widely used in certain key vertical markets. My garage still uses dot-matrix printers because the printing head will punch through three layers of paper at a time and they do not mind the noise because the lathe and buffing machines drown it out.

Still, with so many technologies falling by the wayside, we almost certainly overlooked a few so feel free to contribute additions in the comment section.

Honourable mention: Power Cables

Iain Thomson: Shaun was a little sceptical about this one, but I think the power cable is going the way of the dinosaurs thanks to growing interest in wireless power.

Palm Pre owners will already be familiar with the concept of wireless power. The Pre sits on a power block and recharges wirelessly with no need for a dedicated power supply. It’s a great little system in a lot of ways.

And who would really mourn the lack of power cables? Most computer users who go on the road have suffered from forgetting to pack power cables at the last minute and had to either buy a replacement or get the unit shipped to their destination. In the last year I have had to buy a power cable for an iPod (£10) and have a laptop power brick shipped to me ($100 in customs and shipping charges).

However, there are problems with wireless power. It is not terribly efficient for a start, but manufacturers are recognising that it is the wave of the future and are devising common standards so that the power brick could be a thing of the past.

Shaun Nichols: I’m still not completely sold on this one, but there is no doubting that cordless power systems are emerging in a big way, and for certain areas the switch can’t come soon enough.

Just about anyone who has ever owned a notebook computer can tell stories about people or pets walking past and tripping over a power cord, often with disastrous consequences.

There is also the convenience factor. Who has not had to wander around an office or public building searching for an outlet with which to recharge your phone? Wireless power systems can go a long way to relieving the pains of having to charge up electronic devices.

Honourable Mention: Disk-based storage

Shaun Nichols: One of the most popular new technologies in recent years has been the solid-state hard drive (SSD.) Once only offered in the highest of high-end computers and servers, the SSD is increasingly making its way into everyday consumer PCs and enterprise workstations.

SSDs have a number of advantages over disk-based storage. For starters, Flash memory is much faster, cutting down on start-up and seek times. Additionally, SSDs are becoming as reliable as the conventional drives. As a result, the market for the old platter-based hard drive is shrinking.

That does not mean that disk-based drives will disappear entirely. Despite falling prices, Flash memory is still far more expensive than platter storage. For large-scale storage systems, the conventional hard drive has a stable future.

Iain Thomson: Hmm, I am sceptical on this one. Disk storage has one major advantage over Flash – what gets written stays written, barring proximity to a major magnet. Call me a curmudgeon but I don’t trust Flash for long-term safe storage.

Nevertheless it cannot be denied that the SSD is the wave of the future. The advantages in speed and power savings are hard to argue with, certainly on desktop and laptop computers. I do not think datacentres are going to buy into Flash in a big way any time soon – the cost would be prohibitive – but storage manufacturers are already bringing out Flash/disk hybrids for use in servers.

But the disk system will survive for the foreseeable future in my opinion, because it provides data security, sometimes a little too much. I got into a conversation with a UK computer police expert about the safest way to wipe data from a disk drive and she said that the technology for retrieving data had now got to the point that the only way to be sure your data was irretrievable was to use a sledgehammer, petrol and matches.

10. The operating system

Shaun Nichols: No, the OS is not exactly disappearing any time soon, but it is becoming less relevant by the day. As web-based applications become more popular, the locally-stored operating system is becoming less of a factor.

This is also making the OS a much weaker selling point for new systems. While consumers used to be bound to one operating system or another because of the need to run specific applications, web apps are increasingly making that a moot point, much to the delight of the Mac and Linux crowds.

A shining example of this was the release of Windows 7. While Microsoft invested as much money and effort into hyping Windows 7 as any other version of the OS, the response from the general public was not too out of the ordinary.

Iain Thomson: Oddly enough this was the most argued point in the entire list. Shaun makes a good case, but I still maintain that the operating system will be around for as long as there are computers.

That said, Shaun does have a point in that the operating system is becoming less and less important. What I hope we will see is a plethora of operating systems for individual devices and computers. This will not be great for developers, but it will put a considerable roadblock in the way of malware writers.

However, if certain common standards can be worked out developers will not be hampered too much and we will get a bit more security in the IT world. Unfortunately I suspect malware writers will adapt. They are like the flu virus, they just evolve and make life even more of a pain for all of us.

9. Landlines

Iain Thomson: Landlines are in many ways a 20th century hangover. Go to any developing nation and suggest they lay down copper cable all over their countries for phone or internet services and they will look at you like you are mad.

Wireless technology has the potential to reach a wider pool of people for less cost and with greater efficiency than landlines will ever be able to do. Yes, dedicated fibre links are very useful for high bandwidth needs but Wi-Fi, and increasingly WiMax, will remove the need for landline altogether for 90 per cent of the population.

Data cabling was a necessity in the early days of computing and is still required for most broadband connections today. When the move to mass home broadband in the West came it was natural to use the existing copper infrastructure as the conduit.

But technologies such as WiMax are rapidly making the need for dedicated wired connections redundant and with any luck landlines will be seen as a quaint anachronism in the future.

Shaun Nichols: Like many people my age, I do not have a landline telephone connection in my apartment. In fact, aside from the cable lines running into the living room and a few power cords, my whole dwelling is almost completely cordless.

It is not too crazy to suggest that the landline will completely disappear in the coming decades. And conventional cable might not be too far behind, with fibre-optic lines and wireless systems increasingly finding their way into the greater consumer market.

However, one question that may arise is that of interference. The 802.11n standard is built to automatically reduce its spectrum use when other wireless devices are detected, and as more and more people switch over, similar systems may have to be developed to prevent the vast array of wireless devices out there from interfering with one another.

8. The portable media player

Shaun Nichols: After less than a decade in the market, it seems that the portable media player as we know it is beginning to fade from general public consciousness.

It is not because the products did not have a market, or did not develop, or were just a fad. The problem for the dedicated media player is that it is being pushed out of the market by the smartphone. As handsets become more powerful and Flash memory becomes cheaper, more and more people are choosing to load their music onto their phones and leaving their portable players at home.

The most interesting example of this is Apple. While the iPhone has been wildly successful, the iPod remains a huge cash cow for the company. The increasing sales for the smartphone have to be a little bitter-sweet for the company, as each new iPhone sold increasingly suggests that an iPod will go unsold as a result.

Iain Thomson: Apple really made the media player industry. I used media players from the start and they were uniformly awful. Lousy menu systems, clunky sync software and stunningly poor design were the norm. Creative even brought out a 6GB media player that was the size of a CD player, was considerably heavier and had the battery life equivalent of a snowflake in a blast furnace.

It was the iPod that changed all that. As an avowed Apple sceptic I held off on getting one for a long time but I have to say it is my second most used bit of kit, after my laptop. It was easy enough for anyone to understand, looked fantastic and the initial few versions of iTunes were a joy to use – although that application went rapidly downhill.

But now Flash memory is so cheap that increasingly phones are the new media players. The first attempts, such as the Motorola RokR, were dire, but things have moved on and the dedicated media player will die out over time.

7. Tape storage

Iain Thomson: It is remarkable that tape has lasted as long as it has. The only reason that I can see is that it is very cheap.

Other than that tape has few real advantages. It is slow to write and retrieve when it comes to data, particularly when you take into account the time needed to physically shift over tapes from storage to the reader and back again. It is also relatively flimsy, as anyone from the age of the video or cassette knows only too well.

Tape is a relic from an earlier age when we had to make do with the technology that was available. This is no longer the case and tape should be consigned to the dustbin of history as soon as possible.

Shaun Nichols: Unlike most other areas of the technology world, the storage market does not progress at a break-neck speed that makes the latest and greatest innovations completely obsolete in less than 10 years.

In almost every way, a computer from the early 1980s bears little to no resemblance to modern systems and the technology it uses would be more or less useless today. However, there is one exception. The magnetic tape drives used for storage three decades ago are still in use today, though in far larger capacities.

Tape storage hits a sweet spot of sorts with the storage market. It is cheap and is well established. This makes it ideal for use in very large capacity back-up purposes. Until platter-based storage becomes equally cheap and dense, I suspect that tape storage will continue to have a market in the enterprise space.

6. FireWire

Shaun Nichols: It is not always the bad technologies that fall by the wayside. FireWire was a solid system, but it never really got off the ground.

Originally, Apple developed the IEEE 1394 interface to be a high-speed serial connection to compliment the emerging USB specification. The idea was that USB would take over the low-bandwidth connections previously served through the serial port, while FireWire would replace the high-end peripheral market, which was at the time dominated by SCSI.

Then USB 2.0 came along and messed everything up for FireWire. Rather than adopt the new standard, most vendors and consumers opted instead to go with the USB interface. As a result, FireWire did not spread much beyond the high-end digital video market and the Macintosh models of the early and mid 2000s.

Iain Thomson: FireWire built itself a highly profitable sector in the digital video market but has been outpaced by USB and is finally being abandoned by its last allies.

The reasons for this are twofold. First, as Shaun has pointed out, the data capacity of USB 2.0 and now USB 3.0 first matched and has now surpassed that of FireWire. USB really came from behind at FireWire, but has caught up with admirable speed.

Second, IT standards are in many ways a numbers game. There are huge numbers of USB ports out there and they are the de facto standard for device connection. If you wanted FireWire, and you were not an Apple owner, then you had to order it as an extra in most cases and that additional cost was not something many people were willing to stomach.

5. Peripherals cables

Iain Thomson: When I survey the wreckage of my desk one thing is stands out. Among the half-drunk mugs of tea, crumpled press releases and semi-consumed lunch is a snake’s nest of cable. I can count eight sets alone, all of which knot themselves together when no one’s around. Doing without these will be a blessing when it happens. And happen it will, one day.

We thought the nightmare of cabling was going to be over long ago. When Bluetooth was first coming out the manufacturers promised that cable would shortly be a thing of the past. Instead the technology has only worked in the past few years because manufacturers stuck their own software into the stack and ruined compatibility.

Currently it is really only mice and keyboards that are wireless in any large-scale way, but once the standards are worked out we will be able to get much higher speed data communication between devices wirelessly. That day is sorely needed.

Shaun Nichols: As someone who uses a notebook as my primary work PC, I’m a huge fan of wireless peripheral devices. Even when working at a desk, cables can clutter things up and be a nuisance. When covering a convention or having to work in a crowded pressroom, they can be a major problem and even a safety hazard.

The emergence of Bluetooth has, thus far, been a bit of a disappointment in that sense. Though many vendors have been using it for wireless mice, keyboards and printers, there are still too many peripherals that are bound by cable.

However, with new devices come new threats. It used to be that you could protect your computer from outside attack by simply not attaching it to a modem or network. With Wi-Fi any system connected to a wireless network is subject to attack. While Bluetooth is not nearly as unsafe, it still raises a bit of a concern.

4. Handheld GPS

Shaun Nichols: Much like the portable media player, the handheld GPS system is a technology being killed by the smartphone.

As the smartphone becomes more powerful and new features are added, we are going to see more and more technologies being pushed out of the market. Fortunately for many of the vendors, the same companies that build many of those GPS handsets also make smartphones.

For the other vendors, there is still the auto market. One place where dedicated GPS hardware still thrives is in cars. Automakers are increasingly embedding GPS systems in their cars, and older models are being outfitted with the dashboard-mounted models.

Anyone who has ever been lost can understand why. GPS systems are one of the most useful and convenient technologies to emerge in the past decade.

Iain Thomson: For about a decade one of the hallmarks of a true geek is that they had a handheld GPS device. A certain journalist on ZDNet even used to give the location of his annual summer picnic via GPS coordinates, so that the geeks could find it while everyone else chased around Hampstead Heath trying to find the party.

But GPS is now a mature market and, like many technologies, is being subsumed into other devices. What got GPS so high on the list was the news that Google is to add GPS functions to Android 2.0. That is going to basically kill the handheld market stone dead and the smart money is already moving out of firms such as TomTom and Garmin, which have massive investments in the market.

And I would say Shaun is wrong on the car front. Given the choice of being charged for a GPS add-on by a car company or just plugging in your phone to the cigarette lighter (now there is a dying technology if ever there was one) it is a simple choice.

3. Floppy discs

Iain Thomson: You might think that floppy discs are dead already, but computer manufacturers are still being asked to put them in new systems.

I nearly spat my drink out when a Dell representative told me that a few years ago more than 10 per cent of PCs were still shipping with floppy drives, but apparently some companies like them. I suspect there are a few procurement staff who really have not moved out of the 1990s. Either that or canny salespeople are better at selling useless add-ons than we thought.

Back when Shaun was just a glint in the milkman’s eye whole desktop systems had floppy discs as the sole method of storage. Even the most ‘advanced’ 3.5in floppies can only hold 1.44MB – a laughably small amount by today’s standards.

However, there is one small problem. I suspect there are millions upon millions of floppies sitting in boxes of junk around the world and the amount of landfill needed to handle them all is going to be huge.

Shaun Nichols: As a Mac user, I’ve presumed that the floppy disc disappeared from the planet in the late 1990s shortly after the first iMac was shipped.

Joking aside, the floppy disk did hold on a lot longer than some PC vendors may have wished. Not long ago I was a college student working at an on-campus convenience store to make ends meet. Next to the cash register we kept a small rack with floppy disks. It is amazing how many nights we had where a frazzled student would run into the store and gratefully reach for one. Turns out that when you have spent the past five hours in the computer lab frantically typing up a term paper and you desperately need to save and transfer the document, the lowly floppy disc becomes the most important thing in the world.

Granted, USB thumb drives are a lot cheaper since I graduated, but I like to think that in that little snack shop that small rack of floppy discs is still there, waiting to save someone’s semester.

2. Compact Disc

Shaun Nichols: Really, the CD got a bit of a bum deal. The record album was the standard for several decades; the cassette tape had a good two decades. The CD had maybe 10 or 15 good years, only a bit better than the eight track.

The undoing of the compact disk was twofold. First, there was the emergence of the DVD, which took over much of the data storage and distribution market due to its increased capacity.

Then there was the emergence of the online music market. Just as the CD was settling in as the dominant medium for delivering music, the online services, both legitimate and otherwise, started popping up. When broadband costs dropped and high-bandwidth connections became commonplace, the writing was on the wall for the humble CD format.

Iain Thomson: I am not a huge fan of the CD format for a number of reasons and will be happy to see it go.

When CDs came out they were billed as high quality recording media that would last forever. Instead what we got was an expensive replacement for records that produced lower quality sound and turned out to have a depressingly short shelf life.

This latter part of the equation is most worrying from an IT standpoint. If you have information backed up onto CDs then you might want to put it on something more permanent. The format was described by one manufacturer as virtually indestructible on launch, but repeated tests have shown a sharp drop off in readability after a few short years. From my personal experience about 20 per cent of CDs I burnt at the turn of the century no longer work.

While the capacity of the DVD is ultimately what has done for the CD, in data storage terms that format suffers from similar problems and if you are storing mission critical data you will need one, or preferably two, sets of backups.

1. Desktop PC

Iain Thomson: The desktop PC is a dying breed for most people, but it has served us well.

They are still hanging on in the corporate sphere because they are cheap and get the job done. But laptops are not outselling them and I suspect our children will look on them with the same wonder as we do today at early vacuum cleaners the size of a truck.

Some PCs are still in demand. Really high-end gamers like them because they can get the ultra-fast graphics systems that shave seconds off reaction time, and can handle the massive cooling systems needed to get that kind of performance without setting fire to their bedrooms.

Some corporate verticals also like them, because they are solid and can be physically fastened down to protect the data that they contain. I know more than a few parents who like them too, so that the family computer can be installed in the living room where everyone can see what it being viewed.

The fact is that the laptops used to suffer a performance penalty over desktops, but this is no longer the case. You can now do pretty much anything you want with a high-end laptop, with the added bonus that you can take your computer with you.

Shaun Nichols: A part of me misses the day when a geek was judged by the size of his (or her) PC tower. It used to be that having a huge enclosure on top of your desk was something to brag about. During that time notebooks were reserved for road warriors and those who did not need much more than a word processor and a spreadsheet app.

However, since then the notebook has gone from being an underpowered, overpriced machine to the dominant form of personal computer. Everyone from home users to students to professionals now prefers the notebook over the desktop. As battery life improves and components get smaller, I suspect that this will only continue.

However, at least two groups will likely keep the desktop market alive for quite some time.

Gamers for one still scoff at notebooks for the most part. First, the screens are too small to deliver the size and resolution to get the most out of the latest titles. There are also the limitations of the small enclosure. Many high-end gaming and hobbyist systems require very large fan or liquid cooling systems that would not come close to fitting in a laptop.

Similarly, graphics professionals are not likely to switch over to notebooks any time soon. They also love the large, accurate monitors that are all but impossible to integrate into a notebook design.