Some old-and-busted technologies die gracefully of natural causes. Pagers, PDAs, floppy disks—they’re gone, and good riddance.
But other obsolete tech lingers on, even though better alternatives abound that are easier, cheaper, higher quality and much more efficient.
Here are 10 dumb technologies we should get rid of in 2010.
Special report: Looking back at 2009, ahead to 2010
1. Fax Machines
The fax machine was obsolete 15 years ago. When someone says “fax it to me,” I always feel like I’m being punk’d. A fax machine is nothing more than a printer, scanner and an obsolete analog mode that work together to waste time, money, paper and electricity.
Documents that are faxed usually start out in digital format. So, to send a digital document digitally, it must be converted into a paper format. You insert the document, and the fax machine scans it back into a digital format. It then uses an analog modem from 1993 to convert the digital image into sounds!
The modem plays the noise over the phone line. At the other end, another fax machine also has a modem, which listens to the sounds, and converts them yet again into a digital document, just before it prints it out on paper. Now the data in the document has to be converted somehow into a digital format—either scanned or typed in by hand.
The document almost always begins and ends in digital format. But during this epic journey, the document is digital four times, paper twice and sound once.
The mass delusion that perpetuates this obscenely inefficient technology is that paper “hard copy” is somehow more legitimate. In fact, gluing a copy of someone’s stolen signature to a document, then faxing it, is the easiest way mask a forgery because of the low quality of fax output.
People, let’s stop the madness. Just e-mail it.
2. ‘Cigar lighter receptacle’ plugs in cars
The idea of building cigar/cigarette lighters into car dashboards originated in the 1920s. The technology was perfected in the 1950s. Decades later, the automobile industry is still building these weird sockets into cars, but now usually without the actual lighter.
As electrical outlets, dashboard lighter ports are dangerous, unreliable, underpowered, inconvenient, unsightly and expensive. They require that you purchase a special plug and/or adapters, which add clutter to your car.
All cars should have standard household electrical outlets, with the converter built in. Or USB ports that can charge gadgets. Or both.
Almost nobody smokes in their cars. Almost everybody carries phones and gadgets that need power in the cars. Sheesh. How obsolete can you get?
The original idea with Internet addresses is that a prefix would identify the type of service provided. So, for example, www.apple.com identifies Apple’s “World-Wide Web” servers, and ftp.apple.com points to the company’s offerings available via the “File Transfer Protocol.”
Network administrators get to choose whether an address technically requires a “www.” But browsers fill it in for you even when you don’t type it.
That’s why saying “www” as part of an address, printing it on business cards or typing it into your browser address box is always unnecessary. We stopped using “http://” years ago, and it’s time to stop using “www” as well.
4. Business cards
Speaking of business cards, why do we still carry around 19th-century “calling cards”? When someone gives you a business card, they’re giving you a tedious data entry job, one that most people never complete.
There are several alternatives to business cards, all superior. If the meeting is arranged by e-mail, include contact information in the invitation and reply as e-mail signatures, attached vCards, links to contact Web pages or some other electronic form.
Besides, you should always learn in advance what you can about people you’re going to meet, and that’s a good time to enter their contact information. And if you just run into someone, and exchange contact information, it’s best to do it by e-mail or some other means on the spot, with cell phones.
Adding someone to your contacts should involve double clicking or, at most, copying and pasting—not data entry.
5. Movie rental stores
We’re now two revolutions away from the heyday of driving to Blockbuster, standing in line, renting a video and driving home. Movies are nothing more than digital files. You can download them, or get them on disk by mail. Driving? Standing in line? For an electronic file? Come on!
6. Home entertainment remotes
Just about every component to a home entertainment system comes with its own overly-complex remote control. The TV’s got one. So does the TiVo. The Blu-ray player has its own remote. Even the sound system has one. Some people have multiple TVs, disc players, stereos and other remotely controllable electronics, and end up with a dozen or more remotes in the house. Each one has to be programmed, refreshed with toxic batteries and kept track of (they tend to disappear).
Hardly anyone takes the time to properly manage, consolidate or program their remotes. Enough! It’s time to replace remote controls with mobile phone apps.
Mobile phones make superior remote controls because they have better user interfaces, rechargeable batteries and we tend not to lose them. Phone apps are more easily programmed and upgraded.
A few cool apps exist for iPhone and other devices, which control TiVos, and other devices. Apple makes a really simple app for controlling media on iTunes from an iPhone.
TV makers need to improve the functionality for controlling settings on the TV itself, then join the smart phone app revolution and build simple remote-control apps that can be universalized, so all devices can be controlled from single apps.
7. Landline phones
The number of people in the US who have ditched their home landline phones in favor of cell phones doubled between 2006 and 2009, according to a recently released federal report. Now, one-quarter of US households have no landline.
What are the other three-quarters waiting for? Landline phones are redundant, annoying and waste time (because chances are the person who answers isn’t the caller’s target). Landline phones either have no way to take messages, or they have some obsolete answering machine. It’s time to make the call and get rid of that landline.
8. Music CDs
Music CDs work fine. It’s just that they have no significant advantages over downloadable media, such as MP3 files. CDs are environmentally unfriendly, fragile and inconvenient to carry around.
We should move to an all-digital, file-based library, which can be searched, backed up and carried everywhere.
9. Satellite radio
Sirius XM programming is great stuff. But you don’t need rockets and orbiting satellites to deliver noise to radios. Sirius XM itself demonstrated this by offering its content on the Internet, and via an iPhone app.
There are some cases in which satellite has an advantage. For example, when you’re driving outside a mobile broadband coverage area and are listening to timely content, such as news. But most of us rarely venture into the wilds, and most Sirius XM content isn’t all that timely. Besides, you can’t listen if you travel outside North America, or into covered parking. Or near buildings. Or in tunnels that don’t have costly repeaters.
Since the whole satellite radio idea was dreamed up years ago, MP3-based music, podcasts, audio books and other sound content has been mainstreamed. Car audio equipment now has a jack for plugging in a media player or cell phone.
If you’re going to pay a costly subscription for something, pay for a mobile broadband data subscription, which can bring you the whole Internet, not just sound files.
Sirius XM should keep the programming and the content, but drop the satellite delivery and the subscription price, and continue to serve their audience via the Internet.
10. Redundant registration
Many Web sites offer some form of registration, which typically ask you to add your personal contact information and specify a username and password.
Why do some sites require me to enter my e-mail address or my password twice? They’re going to verify all this anyway. Why do I have to enter city, state and ZIP code, when the ZIP code already knows the city and state, and vice versa.
Bad, redundant and obsolete technologies make life needlessly complex, expensive, irritating and ugly. Let’s get rid of them.
[Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. Contact Mike at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow him on Twitter or his blog, The Raw Feed.]