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‘Obsolete’ technologies that still have a place in the modern world

Over the years, tech has gained a reputation for rapid obsolescence. I have occasionally had friends tell me that they try not to spend too much money when purchasing a new PC or a new smartphone because it will be obsolete within six months. The idea of rapid obsolescence seems to be so pervasive that even The Onion had a bit of fun with it. But one question that I rarely hear anyone address is what it is that determines whether or not a piece of hardware is truly obsolete. Sure, the 1987, 20MB, full-height, IBM hard drive that I have stored in my attic is among the truly obsolete technologies. There isn’t even a way to attach it to any of the hardware manufactured in the last 20 years or so. Even if there was a way to connect it to a PC, its capacity (or lack thereof) would surely be an issue. After all, I occasionally receive email attachments that are larger than that hard drive’s total capacity.

On the other hand, the PC that I am working from right now is running an 8th generation Intel processor, has 64GB of RAM, and an internal all flash array. It’s a nice system for sure, but about eight months ago, Intel released its 9th generation CPU. So does that make my PC obsolete? Certainly it has become comparatively dated, but it is still useful (and relatively high end) nonetheless. While my PC might be an extreme example of “dated but still useful,” the concept applies to more than just PCs. It’s easy to fall into the trap of considering a technology to be completely obsolete just because the tech industry has attempted to replace it with something else. The world is filled with tech that many people would consider obsolete (possibly even extinct) but that is still serving a useful purpose.

Fax machines

One of the first examples to come to mind is the fax machine. There was a time when the fax machine reigned supreme, but fax was eventually replaced by email. Or was it?

Believe it or not, fax is still alive and well. It’s not used quite as ubiquitously as it once was, but there are certain industries that still depend heavily on fax. For example, law offices routinely fax documents such as court records to one another. Similarly, fax is also still very heavily used in the medical and health-care industries.

Of course back in the 1990s, most businesses relied on communal fax machines. Today, that approach would largely be frowned upon, especially in regulated industries. Using a communal fax machine risks exposing sensitive documents to anyone in the office who has physical access to the fax machine. Another problem is that fax is technically a form of electronic, written communication and may therefore be subject to some of the same retention requirements as email.

As such, the old communal fax machine has largely given way to network fax server applications such as GFI FaxMaker. Such applications allow inbound faxes to be routed to the recipient’s Inbox, where it can be read alongside email messages. Perhaps more importantly, faxes can be indexed (in case eDiscovery becomes necessary), and retained in a manner similar to that of email messages.

Dot matrix printers

Another example of a seemingly extinct technology that is actually alive and well is the dot matrix printer. For those who might not be old enough to remember dot matrix printers, they leverage a mechanical print head that works by pressing pixel like pins against an ink ribbon.

Dot matrix printers also used special paper. The sheets were all connected to one another, and a tractor feed would advance the paper through the printer. Once a print job completed, you would have to remove the tractor feed portion of the paper, and then separate the pages from one another.

Although dot matrix printers were once the most commonly used type of printer, they were also almost universally loathed. Dot matrix printers were loud, messy, the print quality wasn’t very good, and the printers were prone to jamming. Even so, there are still organizations that use dot matrix printers.

Dot matrix printers remain useful in organizations that need to make multiple copies of documents. Last week for example, I rented a car in Arizona. The rental car company used a dot matrix printer to print the rental contract onto carbon paper. The printer’s mechanical head is able to produce an image on all of the layers of carbon paper, whereas an ink jet or laser printer would not be able to. Once the contract was printed, I signed the contract and was given a copy, while the rental car company kept the other copies.

Smartphones

No, smartphones haven’t become obsolete, but they have caused a lot of other technologies to be thought of as obsolete. A modern smartphone can replace a wristwatch, a camera, a video camera, a media player, a PC, a television, a GPS device, and countless other items. Even so, this Swiss Army Knife approach to technology does not necessarily render the other items obsolete.

Consider video cameras, for example. Although my phone can record good quality video, I use GoPro cameras for most of the video that I record. It isn’t necessarily that the GoPro cameras do a better job. If anything, I like the fact that the camera on my phone doesn’t have a fish-eye lens like GoPro cameras do. Instead, I use GoPro cameras when using my phone would not be practical.

Last weekend, I took my nieces for a swim. I wouldn’t want to get my phone wet, but GoPros are waterproof. Similarly, I like using GoPro cameras onboard the Vomit Comet (the airplane that flies zero gravity parabolas), because the cameras can be securely mounted. It would not be realistic to expect to be able to mount a smartphone so securely. Never mind the fact that I can use several GoPro cameras at the same time to capture multiple camera angles.

Dumb technology

While there can no doubt be advantages to connecting our devices, a lack of connectivity does not necessarily render a device obsolete. In some cases, the simplicity (and security) of a dumb device might actually desirable.

Consider the watch that I am wearing right now. It tells time, and that’s about it. Sure, there are smartwatches with all sorts of additional features, but a dumb watch works fine if all you need is the time. Besides, I don’t have to worry about a hacker using a security flaw in my watch as an attack vector for gaining entry into my smartphone.

No absolutes about obsolete technologies

While it may be tempting to consider a device to be obsolete whenever something newer or more advanced is released, technological progression does not necessarily render previous generations of technology obsolete. My own experience has been that the latest, greatest consumer or office tech is almost always intended for mass-market use. However, there will always be niches that are served by older technology. Legal professionals, for example, depend heavily on fax because of their ability to transmit signed documents. For them, fax remains a viable (and much-needed) technology, even if much of the rest of the world has moved on.

Featured image: Pixabay

Brien Posey

Brien Posey is a freelance technology author and speaker with over two decades of IT experience. Prior to going freelance, Brien was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and healthcare facilities. He has also served as a network engineer for the United States Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition, Brien has worked as a network administrator for some of the largest insurance companies in America. To date, Brien has received Microsoft’s MVP award numerous times in categories including Windows Server, IIS, Exchange Server, and File Systems / Storage. You can visit Brien’s Website at: www.brienposey.com.

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