Zombie Tech That Refuses to Die

The technology today has little in common with the technology of 50 years ago (or 15-20 years ago, for that matter). And the technology that permeates society in 2030 may not even exist yet. The tech we all have, want, and covet is in constant flux. The first iPod wasn’t released until 2001, and yet they’re ubiquitous now, and we can’t remember life before them. Ditto smartphones, and tablet computers. The only constant about technology is that it’s always changing. What’s cutting-edge and innovative today is antiquated and obsolete tomorrow.

Tech rises. Tech falls. Tech disappears. That’s the typical lifecycle. But sometimes, things stick around long past their best-before date. There are products out there today that most of us probably thought were dead and buried long ago. And by all rights, they should have been dead.

And yet, like some electronic zombie, they just refuse to die. They may be fewer in number, and they may stick to the shadows, but they’re out there, lurking.

Even more baffling, though, is the tech that stages a comeback. Surviving is one thing. But thriving? Increasing in popularity? It’s inexplicable.

LP (long play) vinyl records were first introduced by Columbia Records in 1948. They quickly became the most popular format for purchasing and consuming music. But over time, they saw their market share replaced by cassettes, 8-tracks, CDs, and most recently, MP3s. Vinyl records never really went completely away, but they were almost DOA for a while. Now? LPs are cool again. Audiophiles claim they sound infinitely better than digital formats could ever hope for, and musicians both big and small have started releasing new material on the format again. There were 14 million LPs sold in 2014. It’s being called the “vinyl revival”.

So what other zombie tech is out there waiting to pounce, or at least surviving as the walking dead? More than you’d think.

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1. Betamax

Sony announced last month that they would be discontinuing the production of Betamax tapes in March 2016. If you’re like virtually everyone else in the world, you had no idea Betamax was still around (or, depending on your age, you might have no idea what the hell Betamax is at all).

Sony introduced Betamax players and tapes in 1975. It was the first method of recording television shows and watching them later, and at the time, it was a monumental development. Before Betamax, you had to be home to watch your favourite show. If not, you missed it forever (hard to imagine in the PVR and internet streaming world we live in now).

You could also rent Hollywood movies on tape and watch them at home for the first time, too. Sadly for Betamax, JVC introduced the rival format VHS (Video Home System) about a year later. The stage was set for the format wars.

In the first corner, Betamax, with its better picture and sound quality. In the other, VHS, with its cheaper price point and longer record times. The battle raged for a few years, but it quickly became apparent that VHS was the clear consumer favourite. Videotapes eventually gave way to digital formats like the short-lived laserdisc, DVDs, Blu-Ray, and the streaming options we love today (thank you, Netflix!). Sony stopped making Betamax machines in 2002...and most of us assumed that included the tapes, too. Not so. Is this really the end of Zombie Betamax? We shall see.

2. Dial-Up Internet

Before the days of high-speed wifi connections, there was only one way to get your online fix. Dial-up. It connected via your telephone line, was as slow as a sloth covered in molasses, and made a horrible, screeching sound while establishing your connection. But we loved it all the same. It gave us the world.

But no one would still use it today, right? That’s insane. It had a top speed of 56 kbit/s, whereas modern high-speed wifi can easily top 100 Mbps. That’s almost 1800 times faster!

And yet...2.1 million Americans still use AOL’s dial-up in 2015. The Pew Research Centre said 2% of Americans with the internet at home were still using it in 2013. Sheesh. The research suggests that most of them have no choice, as they live in rural areas without high-speed internet cables. Poor bastards.

3. Pay Phones

pay phone american psycho

Everyone has a mobile phone nowadays, smart or otherwise. Kids. Adults. Seniors. We’re connected and reachable wherever we are. There’s even a recognised fear called nomophobia for people afraid of being out of mobile phone contact. We take our phones with us everywhere...even to the bathroom (which is kinda gross).

And yet, in most major cities and many smaller towns, you’ll still see pay phones on sidewalks and in cafes and restaurants. The American Public Communication Council pegs the number at just under 500,000 in operation in the United States, but people use them to make 1.7 billion calls per year. Depending on the location, you’ll pay anywhere from ten to fifty cents to make a call.

One question, though. Just who exactly are these people using them?

4. Telegrams

telegram operator woman

Even stranger than pay phones still being used? Telegrams. You’ve seen them in movies. You dictate a short message (Baby boy born. Stop. Mother and child healthy. Stop. Love Charles.), it’s relayed to another telegraph office in the recipient’s city, and a paper message is hand delivered. Once upon a time, it was a relatively quick and affordable way to get messages to people across great distances. The technology peaked in 1929 with 200 million messages sent that year, but the advent and rise of the telephone, and then the internet, made it an obsolete medium.  

Western Union (yup, the wire transfer people) was founded in 1856 as The Western Union Telegraph Co. They actually continued offering telegrams right up until 2006. Yeah, less than ten years ago. But that wasn’t the end of the humble telegram. iTelegram took up the reigns from Western Union and continues to provide telegram services to this day. For only $25 (plus 88 cents per word), you can send a telegram from New York City to Los Angeles. Want to send a telegram to rural China? They can do that, too. Virtually anywhere in the world.

But why would you want to?!

5. Photography Film

Does anyone other than professionals still use film in their camera? In addition to affordable, high quality point-and-click digital cameras, we all have decent (if not great) camera built right into our smartphones. Always with us, always ready to snap photographic evidence for the existence of Bigfoot, Nessie, or UFOs. The days of buying film, finishing the roll (usually 24 or 36 photos), dropping it off at a photo shop, and picking them up later are well past us, right?

Maybe not. Americans, for example, bought 35 million rolls of film as recently as 2012. That’s a lot of Kodak paper. The analog photo is not dead. Not yet.

6. Pagers & Beepers

Okay. This one is definitely dead. Pagers and beepers used to be the pinnacle of cool and connectedness. Someone could page you, day or night. Your pager would beep and display a phone number. You would get to the nearest phone and call the number. Wow! Technology is amazing. They reached a peak of 61 million in 1994. But mobile phones have made them obsolete and unnecessary.

Pew Research Centre says 92% of American adults own a cellphone, and 68% of those are smartphones, as of early 2015. Pagers have definitely gone the way of the dodo...right?

Nope. Still here. Still relatively popular. There are at least 2 million still in use in 2015. But why? Well, pagers and beepers are more reliable and affordable. Individuals that absolutely must be reachable at all times - like doctors and EMS personnel - favour them, even if only as a backup for the cellphone. Pagers work on a different network than mobile phones. It’s a more robust system, for lack of a better word, and there are examples of pagers still working after natural disasters have disrupted cell reception.

7. Cassette Tapes

Cassette tapes are a medium for recording and consuming audio files. As a method for consumers to buy music, it was introduced in the 60s and reached its greatest popularity in the mid-1980s. I fondly remember buying my first album on cassette (Bryan Adams’ “Reckless”, in case you were wondering) at the time. Making and presenting a mix tape was a rite of passage for every boy that liked a girl, and vice versa. You gave it an appropriate name, and the choice and order of songs said everything you wanted to say to that person, but couldn’t. A Sony Walkman (the yellow sports model was the best) allowed you to carry your tunes with you. Cassettes were awesome, and a big part of your childhood if you grew up in the 80s.

But the good times wouldn’t last forever. Tech waits for no man or thing. Cassettes saw their market share shrink with the arrival of digital CDs in the early 1990s. Soon, recording artists stopped releasing on the medium, and the mix tape disappeared from our lives (an MP3 or Spotify playlist is NOT the same thing).  

Or did it? The National Audio Company in the US sold 10 million blank tapes in 2015. Wait. What? That’s right. While not experiencing a true revival like its vinyl LP brethren, the gentle cassette still seems to have its fans.

8. Fax Machines

When they first hit the scene, fax machines were incredible. You could transmit text and simple images over telephone lines. The familiar consumer model was introduced by Xerox in 1964, and it gained widespread use in the 70s. By the mid to late 80s, every business had one. Contracts could be sent, signed, and returned in minutes rather than days. Take-out restaurants could fax their menu to customers. It was a marvelous time to be alive.

But then the internet ruined everything. Sending a relatively low-quality paper copy of something over telephone lines just couldn’t compete with email, scanners, and digital copies. The fax machine was obsolete, replaced, and junked.

Except no, it wasn’t. At least 700,000 NEW fax machines were sold in the US between 2011 and 2013. Someone is still using them. Turns out, fields that require and rely on signed documents either don’t have a choice or opt to go the analog route. Digital signatures are possible, but they’re not legally recognized everywhere in the world. That’s problematic for law firms and anyone else that works with signed contracts and documents.

The fax machine lives! It lives!

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Typewriters. CB Radios. Radio. These are just a few more examples of tech zombies still making the rounds, and proof-positive that “new and improved” is not always better. Sometimes, we should just leave well enough alone.

Any tech zombies you’d add to the list? Which example of surviving technology surprises you most? Leave your comments below...

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