10 Major Tech Products That Have Lost Their Grip
As quickly as new technology gives rise to innovative new consumer products, it drives the last batch of once-exciting electronics into obsolescence. There are plenty of gadgets around your house that are on their way out, as tech that once formed the basis of thriving products is replaced by newer and better innovations.
Nothing has made that cycle more apparent than the rise of the smartphone, an ever-improving staple for consumers who are always connected to the internet, digital media, and all kind of communities, both real-life and virtual, via social media. Many single-use devices, like MP3 players and cameras, have been replaced by apps and services that users can access on their smartphones or tablets. Read on for 10 tech products that seemed innovative when they were introduced but are on their way out.
1. MP3 players
Sales of MP3 players — and the most iconic product in the category, Apple’s iPod — have been shrinking for years. Since reaching 54.8 million in 2008, iPod sales began an overall decline as the iPhone was introduced. Because the iPhone could handle all of the functions of the iPod and more, there was a dwindling need for a standalone music player, and that continues to hold true as smartphones give users access not only to a local library of MP3 files, but to a growing array of apps that grant access to a cloud-based library of practically any song they could want.
Even for users who haven’t replaced extensive libraries of MP3 files with Spotify playlists and instant access to any artist, album, or song via a growing array of streaming apps, smartphones offer an ever-increasing amount of memory to store media locally. While iPods and similar devices still have limited appeal for athletes, children who are too young to need a smartphone, or consumers who don’t want to upgrade to a smartphone, the days of carrying both a phone and an MP3 player are over.
2. E-book readers
With sales of e-book readers like Amazon’s Kindle and the Barnes and Noble Nook steadily falling, the days of single-function e-readers are numbered — and Mashable’s Todd Wasserman even pronounced e-readers “the next iPods.” Forrester projected that sales of e-book readers will fall to as low as 7 million in the U.S. by the end of 2017, compared to the industry’s high of 25 million units in 2012. E-book readers will only be bought by avid readers, and the Pew Research Center reports that fewer Americans are actually reading books in any format.
E-readers have not only nearly non-existent upgrade cycles to contend with, but are also considered a luxury — especially for consumers who already own a tablet — because of their nature as a single-function device. The Pew Research Internet Project reported in 2014 that half of American adults owned a tablet or an e-reader, with tablet ownership rising to 42 percent of American adults and e-book reader ownership hitting 32 percent.
But even those who owned e-book readers sometimes read on their smartphones, which are just as capable of serving as supplementary reading devices. Additionally, Pew’s researchers noted that few readers have abandoned print for an e-book reader. Among adults who reported reading at least one book in the past year, just 5% said that they read an e-book in the last year without also reading a print book.
3. Landline phones
MP3 players aren’t the only tech product that smartphones have rendered obsolete. More and more Americans are parting with their landline phones. Such phones hold a lot of nostalgia, but are increasingly regarded as unnecessary by those who have grown up answering all of their calls — and text messages and emails — with mobile phones.
The CDC reported (PDF) that two in five American homes — 41% — had no landline but had at least one mobile phone during the second half of 2013. Approximately 39.1% of all adults — or 93 million adults — lived in households with only mobile phones, and 47.1% of all children — nearly 35 million children — lived in households with only wireless phones. Among households with both landline and wireless phones, 33.6% received all or almost all calls on mobile phones, and about 44 million adults (18.3%) lived in mostly wireless households. As the reliability of wireless coverage improves, chances are good that the number of mobile-phone-only and wireless-mostly households will continue to grow.
4. Rental DVDs
Just as the wide availability of music streaming services has made loading thousands of songs onto your device’s local memory a thing of the past, streaming services have also made DVD rentals much less a necessity for countless people. The heyday of Netflix’s innovative DVD-by-mail service, for example, has passed. The company has stopped mailing DVDs on Saturdays, and dropped its signature “red envelope” branding as it shifts its focus to streaming. Surprisingly, plenty of people still use Netflix’s DVD service, an often-ignored operating that still has 5.3 million subscribers. That’s considerably fewer than the 20 million it had at its peak in 2010, but it does still generate hundreds of millions of dollars in annual profit.
But you’d be forgiven for assuming that nobody uses Netflix’s DVD service anymore, since most of your local DVD rental stores have likely closed up shop. Loyal customers like Netflix’s DVD offerings because the selection of DVDs is far greater than what Netflix offers in its online streaming library. However, an extensive selection isn’t the highest priority for the millions of customers who have chosen cloud-based options from Netflix, HBO, Amazon, and others instead of waiting for a DVD to arrive in the mail, or driving to a Redbox kiosk and hoping their desired movie is still in stock. And in many cases, customers who would have rented a DVD are increasingly willing to buy a digital copy instead.
5. Personal computers
While consumer demand for personal computers will likely never disappear completely, times have changed drastically since tablets burst onto the market. PC sales have been declining for years, and while customers are realizing that tablets, even work-focused ones like Apple’s new iPad Pro, often can’t replace their laptops, some analysts think that the PC industry might even see growth again.
But price is a very influential factor, and the maintenance, software licensing, and hardware costs typically associated with laptops make them significantly more expensive than tablets, and a growing number of businesses are opting to equip their workforces with tablets instead of PCs. As tablet and PC prices decline, it becomes more likely that general consumers and enterprise customers will own both computers and tablets. But the simple fact that some consumers can opt for a tablet instead of a PC demonstrates both the growing capabilities of the smaller devices and the increasingly app-centric nature of the tasks that users need to complete on a daily basis.
After experiencing an enthusiastic reception as the cryptocurrency of the future, Bitcoin’s bubble has burst. Since virtual currencies — and Bitcoin in particular — burst into the tech community’s consciousness as a possible alternative to traditional, government-issued currencies, the community hasn’t stopped arguing about whether Bitcoin will become a viable, even mainstream way to pay for things. As a virtual currency, Bitcoin is built on computer-generated tokens and algorithms that ensure the anonymity of online transactions. As Edward Hadas reported for The New York Times back in 2013, the value of a Bitcoin rose from $13 to $900 in less than a year — hardly stable enough to become a global currency to pay wages, set prices of products, or to borrow in loans.
To Hadas, and to many other critics of Bitcoin, money is too closely related to economics, politics, and other societal forces to be managed by any institution other than a government. As Hadas notes, Bitcoin is problematic because “its value is uncertain, its legal status is unclear, and it could easily become valueless if users lose faith.” While the appeal of currencies like Bitcoin is their anonymity, their technological innovation, or their speculative potential, Hadas explains that its appeal is also political. Bitcoin appeals to consumers who are unhappy with the way that governments handle the state-sponsored monetary system. But governments would have to either lose control or give up control of currency before virtual currencies like Bitcoin can take off as anything more than a niche, speculative currency.
7. Point-and-shoot digital cameras
The widespread usage of smartphone cameras has pushed sales of point-and-shoot digital cameras into free fall. Digital cameras aren’t following the course charted by TVs, laptops, and smartphones. Each of these products gained traction first in developed markets and subsequently took off in emerging markets. But consumers in emerging markets aren’t buying digital cameras, because for the price of an entry-level digital camera, they can buy a mid-range smartphone that is considerably more convenient and full-featured than owning both a phone and a camera.
Continued demand for DSLRs and other high-end cameras demonstrates a key difference between consumers who buy cameras and those who don’t. Casual users who take photos primarily for social purposes often don’t need any more capability than what smartphones and their ever-increasing specifications offer. While photography enthusiasts, professional photographers, and others who need high-quality photos and fine control over their images still buy high-end cameras, chances are that the last photo that the average consumer took was shot on a smartphone, not on a point-and-shoot camera.
8. GPS units
Another item on the list of tech products made obsolete by smartphones are GPS units, like those sold by Garmin, a company that was once considered “the next Apple,” according to MIT Technology Review. In 2007, the company was the world’s top seller of GPS devices for car dashboards and boat cockpits — but then smartphones came along and effectively killed the mass appeal of the location-finding gadgets. As Technology Review explains, the smartphone has become the Swiss army knife of consumer electronics. Like the camera or the MP3 player, the GPS unit is another standalone device that consumers no longer need to purchase to obtain the key functions. For Garmin and others like it, that development is practically a death sentence.
As apps like Google Maps and Apple Maps compete for market share on consumers’ smartphones, the general consumer doesn’t consider a GPS unit a necessity anymore. Smartphones use GPS chips or cell towers to pinpoint users’ locations and quickly offer them directions, or information on the stores and attractions around them. GPS units will likely be relegated to a niche market of hikers, backpackers, and others who need reliable navigation systems in areas where wireless networks don’t typically offer reliable coverage. But for the average consumer, a regular smartphone is up to the task of providing directions to get to unfamiliar locations around town.
9. External hard drives
Like the PC, the hard drive will never go away completely. But it will become a much less popular product as consumers increasingly entrust cloud storage services with their files, from Dropbox to Apple’s iCloud, Google Drive to Microsoft’s OneDrive — as demonstrated by stagnating sales and innovation. The companies competing to provide cloud storage services to consumers are cutting their prices as they increase their storage limits, and while a gigabyte’s worth of storage on a hard drive cost more than $9,000 in 1993, it cost just 4 cents in 2013.
Aaron Levie, chief executive of cloud storage provider Box, famously noted that he envisioned a future where storage is “free and infinite.” For consumers looking for a place to stash their documents, photos, and videos, that’s great — especially as companies add more services, like Microsoft and Google’s office apps in the cloud, to attract customers. For consumers who are loath to trust their sensitive documents to cloud storage — and would prefer to store everything on an external hard drive sitting on their desk — companies like Box are marketing their services’ capability for extra security. Enterprise customers, especially, have demonstrated that they’re willing to pay for secure cloud storage. And while there will always be consumers who are unwilling to trust their sensitive documents to the cloud, the current capacity of the hard drives on the market has far outstripped most consumers’ needs.
10. Cash registers
It’s not just NFC mobile payments systems like Apple Pay that are rendering traditional cash registers and point-of-sale systems obsolete. Retailers are implementing a variety of different payment technologies that make the cash register look as outdated as it really is. As VentureBeat reported a few years ago, the average point-of-sale system is expensive to purchase, costly to maintain, inconvenient to manage — and not connected to the internet. The last major change to hit the payments industry was the introduction of credit cards and accompanying terminals in the 1950’s. A variety of e-commerce and digital payment solutions are readying the space for a major overhaul, and traditional cash registers will soon be a thing of the past.
One hardware solution on the rise is the dongle, a small piece of hardware like the Square card reader that plugs into a smartphone or a tablet to read credit and debit cards. Alternatively, some retailers use phones or tablets, which take up little space, and aren’t anchored to one location in the store. Many retailers plan to get rid of registers altogether, enabling customers to check out more quickly and conveniently. Consumers, in turn, are looking with more interest at digital wallets and mobile payments.