Obsolescence Revisited

There’s a drawer in the hutch in our family room that contains eight different cell phones we’ve retired over the years. The plan is to donate them. But first I have to get around to recharging and reseting them to “factory restore”. The phones range in age from a much loved Nokia VGA candy bar to a entirely unmissed, unloved and happily retired  Windows Mobile phone.

Down in our basement are two old Windows XP towers that kind of work. Before I haul them off for recycling this month I need to strip their hard drives out. Lying on the floor next to them are two newer HP laptops with fried hard drives. What is it with Vista and fried hard drives? Hiding in a corner somewhere, is my very first desktop: An Epson Equity IIe. I wish I knew what happened to my first love: A Toshiba T1200 HD.

Where are you? The "luggable" Toshiba laptop. (Source: PC-Museum.com)

The genie is out of the bottle and we’re well on our way into the age of digital reading. eBooks, digital magazines, the merger, melding and colliding of how we used to read and how we got that content is already here. No, I don’t see any evidence that all bricks and mortar stores are going away. Nor do I think that print magazines are obsolete and will wind up like buggy whips and mens spats. But the world is very different. Sort of.

Is Flipboard or Editions the Reader’s Digest of the 21st Century? Does an eBook written by a “fan” and given away for free have the same value as the latest from Grisham or Picoult?

These musings started when I began cleaning out some drawers in my office last week. I came across an old CD of a “Sonic the Hedgehog” game that came with a long ago recycled Win95 machine that came home when the daughters were very young. We spent hours playing and mastering that game and kept at it right though updates to Win98 and 2000. When WinXP came along, we could no longer play the game. Even deeper in the drawer were a stack of 20 floppies that compiled the original “All in One” program, “Open Access IV”, that managed my business on the old Toshiba back in 1988. And below that, a cracked and brittle floppy drive from another much loved game, “D-Generation” from Mindscape.

One of the best computer games ever. Sonic CD (source: forums.macrumors.com)

Which got me thinking, of course. If all of these games and programs are long gone, what does this spell for digital books and magazines (and newspapers)? What happens when the iPad7 update is not backwards compatible? Will there be a time when app developers decide not to create something that works across platforms? What happens then if you’re on iOS, Android, Blackberry and whatever the latest incarnation of Windows Mobile  and the app you need isn’t available? What if a major e-retailer like Amazon went belly up and their cloud disappeared?

Interestingly enough, a few minutes on Google showed me what could be a slice of our future. You can still play the Sonic CD game and download it onto your computer. Moreover, it’s available on gaming platforms. Not surprisingly, I can also download the D-Generation game and make it work on my Mac via a handy little program called Boxer. If you ever struggled with with DOS commands or early versions of Win 3.1 or 95, you’ll appreciate the boxing gloves icon that loads onto your dock.

What am I getting at?

My original thought was that as we develop our technologies, a lot of things will be left behind. You could argue that there are many novels, newspapers, magazines and letters from earlier generations that have decayed into dust and are long gone. You’d be right. And much of what we’ve saved may never make it into digital libraries.

On the other hand, it took decades, perhaps hundreds of years for all that print to decay or simply get lost.

I learned in less than an hour that I can play some of the old games. Not everything gets lost or left behind. But there’s a lot of data from the ten years that I did manage to use on a DOS based “All in One” program (with a hell of a lot of ‘work arounds’) that, as far as I can tell, is lost, inaccessible, or at least, not easily accessed. How much more is gone, and gone for good?

Will this be the future of reading? Of viewing? Of listening?

The basic e-readers are pretty simple to use. But the goal of the manufacturer is to lock you into their store. How flexible is that? The newer tablets serve multiple purposes, which is cool. But it’s tech. It’s all about the tech.

At some point, that tech becomes obsolete. And then what?

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