When does technology become obsolete?

The concept of obsolescence is not as straightforward as it might appear.

Rich Brown Former Senior Editorial Director - Home and Wellness
Rich was the editorial lead for CNET's Home and Wellness sections, based in Louisville, Kentucky. Before moving to Louisville in 2013, Rich ran CNET's desktop computer review section for 10 years in New York City. He has worked as a tech journalist since 1994, covering everything from 3D printing to Z-Wave smart locks.
Expertise Smart home, Windows PCs, cooking (sometimes), woodworking tools (getting there...)
Rich Brown
3 min read

I was surprised by the comments regarding the definition of "obsolete" in my post last week on timing an iPad purchase.

"I fail to see any case for 'obsolescence' just because a new model of anything is released," commented "moonbeard."

The line between and obsolete and retro runs thin.
The line between and obsolete and retro runs thin. Sarah Tew/CNET

"Just because the iPad 3 comes out, the iPad 2 isn't 'obsolete' by my definition. Now a dial-up modem, that's obsolete. Windows 95, that's obsolete," wrote "Rick3904."

"The only Apple devices I would dare consider to be obsolete in the 'i' line are the original iPhone and the iPhone 3G, only because Apple does not support them with the latest iOS 5 operating system," said "USAFVet1."

Those are not the only commenters to take issue with the post, but others seemed to understand I meant "obsolete" as a near-term comparison. Regardless, I find it interesting that the term apparently carries so much weight.

In my earlier post, I suggested that an iPad 2 purchased this holiday could become obsolete relatively quickly given Apple's spring iPad release schedule. In that generation-to-generation comparison, however speculative, the term "obsolete" took on a certain value-driven ruthlessness. I can understand how that might seem hasty to those who like to consider technology in larger movements (or perhaps those who've recently purchased an iPad 2).

From that point of view, comparing 4-year-old smartphones and 16-year-old operating systems with their current-day counterparts, indeed, a 19-month-old tablet looks generally up-to-date.

Zoom out beyond the product level and we can talk in even broader terms. Standard-definition CRTs vs. HD LCDs and plasmas, POTS vs. cellular communication, vacuum tubes vs. transistors. The lines of obsolescence in those cases are clear: they're of historical significance, and they help us understand how we arrived at our current state of technological development.

I find it's useful to think of the word "obsolete" as an absolute descriptor with relative consequences. I will defend using it in my post, given that I made a clear near-term comparison. I could make the same points about Intel CPUs, HP printers, or any other product line with a steady release date schedule.

I could also have written the same thing about the iPhone 4 a few months prior to the presumed iPhone 4S announcement. Anything I might have written in that case, however, would refer to a smaller scale of obsolescence than that of the Palm Treo and Motorola Razr relative to the first-generation iPhone.

The discussion also becomes more complex when you introduce the concept of value. Despite the iPhone 4S, Apple still sells the iPhone 4 for half as much. Arguing obsolescence against such a steep price cut misses the point. Similarly, HP didn't sell out of $99 TouchPad tablets because they were the most technically advanced. To muddy things more, would you consider a $599 32GB iPad 2 obsolete next to a hypothetical $499 16GB iPad 3?

In closing, I submit that obsolescence can occur from product to product as well as from technology to technology, and that you must consider price as well before making a final judgement. I would also like to make it clear that I don't think you should throw out your iPad 2. Thoughts? I trust you'll share them.