Innovation and Obsolescence

Once a month I make an appearance on the Mayhem in the AM radio show in Lakeland, Florida as their “tech guy.” I’ve been talking about Black Friday deals and gift ideas the past two episodes, but today we received an interesting question from a caller. His question went something like this:

Do you think there will ever be another technology like the telephone that just becomes standard and stops changing every year?

Considering I was talking about holiday gadgets it took me slighty off guard. After the show was over and I got to thinking about it, I’m not sure any piece of technology, past or present, has stopped changing. Unless it’s dead.

When I was growing up we didn’t have an answering machine for the longest time. Our first was given to us, and was run on cassette tapes. A perfect match for the corded phone with extra long cord in the kitchen.

But even after receiving this state-of-the-art technology, I can remember walking through Radio Shack and seeing digital answering machines, andcordless phones. That was the future! And if you really had it going on, you’d get the dual-base cordless phone with answering machine included.

During high school we were then fortunate enough to own a cordless phone set and digital answering machine. The battery life was usually pretty bad and we quickly realized the pain of getting so many home messages (mostly solicitors anyway). But as far as landline phones go, they’ve stayed pretty much the same the past 10 years.

So has the landline phone reached its peak? Is it now a “standard” technology as the caller implied?

I don’t think so.

Instead something happened during my final years of high school to stunt the innovation of cordless phones.

The cellular phone.

A new technology appeared and every company knew that this, the mobile phone, was the future. The landline didn’t become a standard technology, it became obsolete.

Some objects have reached a peak of design and function that need no more improvement. The jump rope for example. There may be several models with different grips or rope material, but the overall design and function remains unchanged for decades. Rarely does this apply in the world of technology.

The building materials for cell phones and computers has changed, their chipsets and speeds, additional radios and sensors, all in smaller packaging; this innovation has followed the technology we as consumers want to buy.

The landline phone didn’t become a standard, it became obsolete.

Innovation ceased the moment a new product category was introduced that everyone wanted and companies could profit from. I believe we are even seeing this with desktop and laptop computers. Right now people are excited about their tablets and smartphones, coincidentally that is where we are seeing break-neck innovation and change.

That being said, and the kitchen toaster not withstanding, I don’t believe a technology category can ever stop changing and become “the standard.” These devices have two paths they can follow:

Innovation or Obsolesence.