Why won't they die? The tech we won't forget

If you were born, it's highly likely you'll die. Sorry about that. For consumer tech though, it's not quite so cut and dried. We explore the technology that just refuses to be killed off

If you were born, it's highly likely you'll die. Sorry about that. For consumer tech, it's not quite so cut and dried. There are some gadgets that just refuse to kick the shiny bucket, in the manner of Daniella Westbrook -- the chick whose nose fell off.

Dearest reader, we're about to explore the technologies that defy the wishes of Silicon Heaven's Grim Reaper, and delve into the more pressing matter of why they refuse his cold embrace. Why do real people -- not IT departments or tech professionals, but the chap in the street, who's paid tax on this money, why does he keep buying this obsolete junk? We'll start with something you'd be forgiven for thinking was a bizarre first choice.

Oh, cables. Populating the jungle behind our televisions and computers like malnourished sun-burned snakes, these lengths of twisted, plastic-insulated wire have produced their own spin-off industry as a result of their horrific untidiness: the cable tidier.

Their clutter, however, also spurred the growing adoption of wireless technologies. Wi-Fi replaced domestic Ethernet. Bluetooth attempted to replace USB for small-scale file transfers. Even mobile broadband is making inroads against wired broadband in some homes.

But for the most part, trying to get wireless technologies to function as high-bandwidth conduits for data is like trying to keep a lion alive by feeding it cheese. Despite the logistical problems cables can cause, we've found no suitable replacement for the most part, and no realistic replacement at all for transporting power.

And, by and large, we still use cables because nine times out of ten it's less hassle than configuring a wireless alternative.

The landline telephone has fought off redundancy since its inception towards the end of the 19th century. Triple-play services from cable providers -- ie, with a mobile contract included -- have had minimal impact, insane competition in the mobile market hasn't caused a sizeable dent, and VoIP products such as Skype act as little more than a complimentary service for most of its adopters.

Essentially, it's another case of cables ruling the roost. At least in the UK, our nationwide copper-based telephone infrastructure is both a conduit for fast broadband, free VoIP and video-on-demand services. And as long as that infrastructure can provide the other services we want, it'll keep on providing the service it was originally designed for, and cheaply.

For Rory, "It's the Mum hotline." "I only have a landline to get Internet access," says Rich. And for Jason, "Talking for hours on a mobile is still really expensive and unpleasant." So, it's safe to say, as long as you've got a mum or a computer, you're going to need a landline.

It doesn't make any money, and typically users of similar sites are fickle little creatures, jumping like fleas to the next cool social-networking platform that comes along. But Twitter has so far managed to retain its minions. Millions of them. None of whom pay for it, or click on the ads the company doesn't even use. And it's up against the Goliath of Facebook, which does.

So why hasn't Twitter fallen out of its nest and into the blades of the combine harvester of start-up failure? 50 million users and no business model doesn't exactly spell out sustainability. The reason is simply that when you're the hottest Web property since YouTube, investors are happy to pump dollars into your start-up, even if it isn't seen as trying to make money.

More of a problem is Facebook's mimicking of certain Twitter features: the real-time news feed , and more recently the addition of @ replies within it. Twitter might not be dead yet, but Facebook has, without question, got a shiny blade across its neck and it's not afraid to start sawing.

Cassettes didn't kill it, CDs didn't kill it, Super Audio CD didn't kill it, digital downloads didn't kill it. Vinyl is, without question, the hardiest of all home audio formats. Countless decades into its life and although obviously weakened by subsequent media, it never died. Millions around the world still buy vinyl and wax lyrical over its intrinsically sublime qualities -- qualities never suitably bettered.

This onion of reason is several layers deep. Most importantly, vinyl retains audio in its most raw form. There is no artificial limit to what sound frequencies can be stored on it. With CDs and MP3s there is, and even 'CD quality' fails to capture as many sound frequencies from the studio as vinyl.

For this reason, vinyl has remained the audiophile favourite. It's inconveniently cumbersome, open to physical degradation, limited in terms of the length of recordings it can hold, more costly to manufacture and distribute, and harder to get hold of. But its most defining feature -- the quality of its sound -- is the reason it still hasn't been killed. Because, according to the world's audiophiles, nothing to date has been able to fundamentally improve upon it.

The transistor is small, efficient, cheap and won't burn you like the glowing tubes on a valve-driven hi-fi amplifier. They're what help make modern amplifiers small, and your iPod nano the size of a posh tampon. Valve amps -- something you would've seen a hell of a lot more of in their 50s heyday -- continue today to be bought by audiophiles ( this writer included ). Companies such as Fatman have even attempted to push them back into the mainstream.

But why? Transistors are so much more convenient, affordable and efficient. For some, it's just down to a subjective preference of the sound quality they produce -- noted for delivering particularly natural-sounding vocals. And for others, there's an insistence that their analogue properties "just make them more musical" -- a similar argument presented by the paramours of vinyl.

Manufacturing costs of hi-fi valve amps have kept their prices high, and with the transistor as competition, their adoption is pitifully small -- but it's not given up the glass ghost just yet.

You'd think that in a world of 24Mbps Internet, where colour printers cost less than £40 and you can get free laptops with broadband subscriptions, fax machines would be as dead as jokes about the dodo. But no.

Essentially, the only reason fax is still around is because some companies refuse to send legal documents over the Internet. So why, then, if the fax machine as a concept can't be obliterated, haven't we made fax much better?

Still common (even here at Internet publisher CBS Interactive) is the crappy old 36.6Kbps fax, dirtying up the place like a not-quite-dead plague sufferer. And the only reason? Because that's what other people are still using.

Ask Microsoft what it'd like to be dead by now, and the answer would be Google. But ask it again and second on the list would be Windows XP -- the longevous Microsoft product that has become both a victim of its own success and a pain in the company's capacious arse. Succeeded by Windows Vista (or rather, failed by), it remained the netbook OS of choice, neatly sidestepping its scheduled trip behind the old shed for shotgun-to-the-face happy fun times.

And the reason is simple: XP is still a great operating system. While not as technically accomplished by today's standards as Windows 7 or Mac OS X, XP runs well on even budget computers, and in the era of netbook domination and no-one wanting to pay £150 for a bloated new OS, it continues to appeal.

Microsoft knows this only too well. So with Windows 7 it has developed the Starter Edition -- a version of its latest operating system it hopes will bang a large enough nail in XP's coffin to stop it from clambering out of its grave after grudgingly being buried alive.

Sonic -- older than some trees but younger than some buildings -- is the grandpa of hedgehogs. No matter how good our video games consoles get, somehow he manages to arise for sale on them all. The plague of the digital world, there's no proven method to vaccinate against him.

In fairness, Sonic is just one of many life-hogging bastions of retro fame. With the advancements of technology, new consoles are perfectly able to emulate those that came before it. And so, it's very easy (and lucrative) to simply re-release old games for each new platform. It's never going to stop.

We simply have to get used to the fact that we'll be buying Sonic, Golden Axe, Tetris, Streets of Rage, Final Fantasy and countless others (although not the peerless Road Rash for some reason -- damn you EA), for the rest of our hateful lives. Don't fight it -- it's a total waste of time. Sonic and his Green Hill Zone estate will never die, never cease to lead the march of the ouroboric army.

And they probably use fax machines there, too.

 

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