Saturday, February 11, 2012

Master of Obsolete Things

I feel for Blackberry, I really do. Here was a company that was THE technology darling, whose devices all but defined contemporary business. For years, the mark of a connected, on-the-go successful individual was the little black box attached to their belt that was whipped out to check email, proving to all that said person was, well, a connected, on-the-go successful individual.

Then came the iPhone and Android and all phones smart and flat. And in the technological blink of an eye (or "i" if you prefer), Blackberry went from owning half the market to commanding less than 10%. All this makes them a candidate for what The New York Times calls "The Hall of Fallen Giants." There they are lining up to join such once king-of-the-hills as the Sony Walkman, the Polaroid Instant Camera and the Palm Pilot, every one of which I have in a drawer somewhere in my office.

However, my simpatico feelings for Blackberry don't come because I owned one and tossed it aside for shinier trinkets. In truth, those ubiquitous boxes were one technology I never flirted with, unlike, say, pagers. (Should I be asked, I can produce several models of that indispensable device in various sizes and flavors, all of which are useful today for absolutely nothing.) Rather, while I was never a giant like any of the aforementioned objects, there are any number of skills I used to pride myself on which are so obsolete now as to be considered useless at worst and quaint at best.

Any parent has had this revelation. Just when you figure out the best way to shampoo their hair without getting it in their eyes, or get the knack for paper mache, or get really, really good at Jenga, it's no longer necessary. There you sit on the floor with your blocks, looking for a 5-year-old to crush and there's none to be had. Oh well. Back you go to your books and your Time magazine and your PBS, nostalgic for a mastery which will never be tapped again, and wondering if it would be weird to have a dinner party and at some point in the evening challenge all comers to a game of Clue.

In the vein, there are (or more to the point, were) numerous adult competencies which I was good at, dammit, which are laughable now. I was very good at figuring out to squeeze the maximum amount of music onto a cassette tape. I was great at changing the ribbon on a typewriter. And when it came to being able to read a map and figure out how to get from point A to point B, no one was better. You remember maps, right? They're what existed before GPS turned us all into zombie drivers: "Turn left in 200 feet. Bing! Turn left now."

It's the same thing professionally. There's barely a piece of equipment that I learned on that's not more suitable today as a museum relic, or more likely, a boat anchor. Now a 13-year-old with an iPhone and a computer sitting in her bedroom has more capabilities than I did when I was one of four geeky guys sitting in a room with enough gear and blinking lights to make the casual observer think they were visiting NASA.

It was driven home the other day when we were setting up a job. Someone of a similarly advanced age was reminiscing on a break. He looked at me and said, "Boy, I remember the days when you were the go-to-guy for DOS!" That's DOS, as in Disk Operating System, one of the first personal computer languages. Did you hear that? I was the GO-TO-GUY! And today? Well, I'm still the go-to-guy for DOS. Unfortunately, that system hasn't been used since 1995. Or to paraphrase an old friend, I'm the expert of today fulfilling the needs of 10 years ago.

So, Blackberry, I know how you feel. Then again, maybe it's not too late. Many a company, person or product has been given up for dead, only to squeeze out new life which catapulted them back to success. The current deification of Steve Jobs and Apple is perhaps the most prominent example, but there are others. How about Detroit, Old Spice or Hawaii Five-O? A trio of things that under no other scenario could appear in the same sentence, all had good runs and saw their fortunes fade, only to reemerge. So it is possible. I just keep saying to myself two words, over and over: Betty White.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is getting to the point where he has forgotten more than he remembers. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

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