Friday Fives: What the Top Five Obsolete Products Can Teach Us

He told the people, “Be careful to guard yourselves from every kind of greed. Life is not about having a lot of material possessions.” Luke 12:15

“Stop storing up treasures for yourselves on earth, where moths and rust destroy and thieves break in and steal. Instead, store up treasures for yourselves in heaven, where moths and rust don’t destroy and thieves don’t break in and steal. Your heart will be where your treasure is. Matthew 6:19-21


We all have it. We actually love some of our stuff.

But as toys and gadgets are born, ostensibly to help our efficiency, communication, and comfort, so are the same things dying all the time, becoming obsolete. Taking a look at the top five products that have gone the way of of the floppy disc and the full service gas station can provide helpful perspective on the stuff we have now and how unimportant it is, relative to what really matters.

What’s the bumper sticker say? The most important things in life aren’t things.

Not only will it all become dust at some point, some of it is already dust. The lesson? Let’s not fall in love with our stuff.

And that’s the point of this Friday Fives: The top five products that have become obsolete in the 21st century.

#5 PDAs

Remember the good old days? When we were all excited about our PDA’s and all they could do? Apple Computer, which introduced the Newton MessagePad in 1993, was one of the first companies to offer PDAs. Shortly thereafter, several other manufacturers offered similar products. Perhaps the Palm Pilot from Palm was most popular. Now, the PDA is the horse and buggy of hand-held technology with the advent of touchscreen smartphones and tablets. Palm was purchased by HP in 2010 on its way to oblivion.

Technology geeks now chuckle at the memory of the PDA. I wonder how long it will take us to have the same reaction to the iPhone.


#4 Record Stores/Video Stores

This will seem hard to believe for some, but there was a time – 10 years ago – when you got in your car and went to the store to buy videos or music.

Invented in 1999, Napster was the first perhaps to chip away at that concept.  That introduced the concept of the MP3 – and, therefore, the portable MP3 player – to the nation. 2001 gave us the IPod and iTunes. And the music store was on life support.

Same is true for the video tape rental. We even the store more money if we returned the tape after their deadline! “Return?” “Tape?” “Deadline?” Yep, that was when a company called Blockbuster led the way in the fresh technology.

Now, Netflix and Redbox have changed the video world. Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy protection on September 23, 2010. In 2011, the company and its remaining 1,700 stores were bought by Dish Network, which immediately closed 200 branches, then 800 more in the following year.  Now, of the $8 billion dollars that consumers will spend to rent movies this year, only 29 percent will be spent in video stores, according to Screen Digest.

(Is there any doubt in your mind that we will, one day, laugh at the thought that we once drove to the parking lot of a convenience store to rent our DVD’s from a vending machine?)


#3 The CD

It was once so new and shiny and… digital! The Music CD is now following cassette tapes, 8 tracks, and vinyl (the latter of which has, admittedly, undergone a little revival).

It was introduced commercially in 1982, with Billy Joel’s 52nd Street becoming the first music CD to go on sale. Now sales are down 50% from their peak year – 2007, when 200 billion were sold worldwide. CD sales decline every year now.

I’ll let NPR tell the rest of the story.

The CD was supposed to have the last word when it came to convenience and sound quality. And for a while, it did. The CD dominated record sales for more than two decades — from the late 1980s until just last year, when sales of digital tracks finally surpassed those of physical albums. It’s a cycle that has played out many times in the history of the music industry, with remarkable consistency. Sam Brylawski, the former head of the recorded sound division at the Library of Congress, says, “If you look at the last 110, 115 years, the major formats all have about 20 to 30 years of primacy.” He says one of the biggest factors driving this cycle is a desire on the part of manufacturers to sell new players every generation or so. “The real money — the real profits — for companies have been in the sales of hardware. That is to say, machines that play back recordings.” Brylawski says that’s true for Apple’s iPod, the must-have MP3 player that drove the demand for digital music tracks beginning in the early years of the 21st century. And it was just as true at the very beginning of music industry for one of the pioneers of sound recording: Thomas Edison.


#2 The Tape

We still talk about “taping” TV shows don’t we? But that’s history talking.

The DVD was invented in 1995 and introduced in the US in 1997. By 2005, the Washington Post was writing,  “VHS — the beloved videotape format that bravely won the war against Betamax and charmed millions of Americans by allowing them to enjoy mindless Hollywood entertainment without leaving their homes — has died at the age of 29. It passed away peacefully after a long illness caused by chronic technological insignificance and a lack of director’s commentary tracks.”

DVD players were outselling VCR’s as long ago as 2002. (We were all so much younger then.)

Other forms of tape died as well. Most answering machines still used tape and camcorders all used tape at the turn of the century. And, while there are still some video cameras that use tape, it is certainly a dying technology.


Before I get to number 1, here are some obsolete honorable mentions: Answering machines with funny tape-recorded messages, Bench seats in cars, Business cards, Cell phones with antennas, Checkbooks, Classified ads in newspapers, Dial-up Internet, Dictionaries (printed), Encyclopedias (printed), Fax machines, Film and developing photos, Maps (printed), Pagers and beepers, Pay phones, Paying for long-distance phone service, Phone books, Yellow pages and address books.

#1 Landline Phones

No, they are not completely dead yet, but is there any doubt in your mind landlines will be a virtual memory in 10 years? With wireless penetration in the U.S. at 90%, many are now ditching their landlines. (I dumped mine three years ago when my wife and I realized that 3/4 of every incoming call was a telemarketer.)

In 2014, Time Magazine wrote the obituary:

41% of American homes are now wireless-only

It’s not just Millennials anymore—a growing number of older American adults are getting rid of their landlines and going cellphone-only. 41 percent of U.S. households were wireless-only by of the end of 2013, according to new data from the National Center for Health Statistics.

Young adults are unsurprisingly the cohort the most likely to live in wireless-only homes, with 66 percent of people between 25 and 29 using cellphones exclusively. Americans between 30 and 34 were the next largest group of cord-cutters, with 60 percent of them living in wireless-only homes. 53% of people between 18 and 24 are now cellphone-only, while 48% of people aged 35 to 44 and 31% of people aged 45 to 64 have made the jump… …People who live at or below the poverty level are also more likely to forego landlines. Fifty-six percent of people in that group live in wireless-only households, while 46% of of people who live near the poverty level and 36% of non-poor people are cellphone-only.


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