Did you know that a floppy disk is more than just a save icon? Can you understand how a pencil and a cassette tape are related? Does the term ‘VHS tracking’ fill you with dread? Then you’ll probably remember those technologies which seemed like magic at the time, but are now a distant memory that those under 20 can’t believe were actually real.
There are lots of products that at one point were so popular, we believed they would never fade into obscurity, but even something that seems irreplaceable can be pushed aside, just ask Blockbuster. In this feature, we look at some of those one-time favorites — and products that were set to become the next big thing — but are now only something we over-forties talk about in drunken conversations that start with, “Hey, do you remember…”
Whether you look upon this once-beloved tech with warm nostalgia or a combination of amusement and slight pity, it’s worth remembering that the miniature computer you call a smartphone can trace its origins to several items on this list, some of which it helped make obsolete.
Anyone who complains about games using ‘squeeze through a tight space’ or ‘brief elevator ride’ sequences whenever different areas load never had to play Monkey Island 2 on the Amiga. The point-and-click adventure came on 11 floppy disks that had to be swapped in and out constantly, making moving between locations an exercise in patience and dexterity.
Yes, floppy disks were once the standard format for computer software. There were several versions, including an eight-inch one (80 KB) that was first used in 1967 and the 5.25-incher (360KB for doubled-sided) that were popular in the early 1980s. But most people associate them with the more rigid 3.5-inch floppy, named after the flexible sheath on the inside that contained the data.
Later 3.5-inch floppies held 1.44MB. They also had a write-protect tab that had to be pulled down to make them writeable. Some lacked this tab, which meant sticking a piece of tape over the hole if you wanted to format and pirate something, which, let’s face it, everyone did, especially when they came free with game magazines.
Floppy’s limited storage was a pain for developers and users. Windows NT once became available on 22 disks, while Microsoft Office 97 came on 55 (!)… leading to its eventual replacement by other formats, though Sony was making floppies up until 2010. But it seems nobody told British Airways. The company was still using them for critical software updates in its Boeing 747s in 2020.
VHS Cassette Tapes
Ah, VHS tapes. Who could forget those low resolutions, tracking lines, and terrible audio? Yet the experience of going to Blockbuster on a Friday to check out the latest releases while taking in the distinctive smell of carpet cleaner and popcorn is a cherished childhood memory for some.
For many years, using magnetic tape encased inside little plastic boxes seemed like the best way to enjoy the cinema experience at home. It also allowed us to record TV programs, providing we set the timer on our VCR right. But like so many things, VHS tapes were slowly pushed aside by a better technology — namely, DVDs — despite an attempt at HD VHS in the late 1990s.
The rise of Netflix was the final nail in the coffin, but VHS tapes hung on for a while. In July 2016, the Funai Electric Company, the last remaining VCR manufacturer in Japan, created the final VCR player, pulling down the curtain on one of the most iconic tech products in history.
Betamax video cassette tapes arrived in 1975, about a year before VHS, had better image quality and a sturdier build. So how did VHS eventually crush its competing format? There were two main reasons: they were cheaper, longer, and more readily available.
Betamax tapes were developed by Sony and released in Japan in 1975. The company says the name comes from the Japanese word used to describe the way in which signals are recorded on the tape — beta — and the shape of the lowercase Greek letter beta, which resembles the course of the tape through the transport. The ‘max’ part simply refers to maximum, as in taking it to the max, maximum overdrive, Pepsi Max (?), etc.
Betamax actually offered several advantages over VHS, including improved resolution and sound, but thanks to being an open, royalty-free standard, several manufacturers produced VHS tapes and VCRs, keeping Betamax the more expensive option. They were also harder to repair. But VHS’ main advantage was that the tapes were simply longer: two hours rather than just one, initially, and even the later long-play versions couldn’t match VHS.
It took a few years, but VHS’ availability, price, and other advantages eventually saw it crush Betamax entirely in the late 1980s, yet Sony continued to produce recorders up until 2002, and the last Betamax cassette rolled off the production line in 2016 — the same year that the final VHS tape was made.
Of the many pieces of technology that cell phones made obsolete, pagers were one of the first. They were developed in the 50s and 60s but became widely popular in the 1980s and 1990s. As anyone who used to watch hospital-based TV shows at the time will tell you, they were immensely popular among medical professionals who needed to be contactable.
The radio devices could receive, display, and, in the case of two-way pagers, send alphanumeric or voice messages via radio waves. It’s hard to explain to today’s youth that there used to be a device that could, in its most basic form, do little more than beep or display a number that you were supposed to call. Pagers started to die out with the proliferation of cell phones with SMS capabilities and later smartphones.
They did manage to cling on for many years, though, with Japan’s last paging service shutting down on October 2019, and the UK’s national health service only phasing them out in 2021.
While most remember cassette tapes as a way of recording your favorite songs as they played on the radio to create a mixtape, they were also used to store software on computers such as the Apple II, ZX Spectrum, and Commodore 64. If you thought any modern game takes too long to load, try enduring more than 5 minutes (a lot more, in some cases) of squealing noises and flashing colors, only for it to crash half the time.
Like their VHS brothers, compact cassettes used magnetic tape to store their contents and were a piece of technology that defined the 1980s. They also led to another iconic piece of technology from the same era: the Sony Walkman, a portable music player that seems as far removed from today’s phones as a Ferrari does from the Flintmobile.
Those who were around at the time may remember arduous tasks like using a pencil to re-spool a cassette that had unraveled, hitting the play and record buttons at the same time to capture some music from the radio, and, like floppy disks, putting tape over the write-protect tabs if you didn’t have any blank ones.
Better sound quality saw CDs overtake cassette tape sales in the 1990s. Still, they hung on for a while thanks to car radios and until electronic skip protection made portable CD players a viable alternative to Walkmans. Thanks to their cheapness, music was released on cassette tape in India right up until 2009.
If ever there was technology that appeared set to become the next big thing but turned out to be an expensive fad, it was 3D TV. Everyone seemed to be buying TVs that promised an immersive experience that had to be seen to be believed. Most people loved 3D movies in the cinemas where they had been around for decades, so it would be just as popular in the home, right?… right?
Well, it did look that way initially. There were over 2 million 3D TVs sold in 2010, and that figure reached over 45 million by 2013. Dedicated 3D TV channels were appearing around the world, and more manufacturers were pumping out TV sets.
But 3D TV sales started to plummet just as they peaked. While the demonstration clips always looked awesome in the local retail outlets, there was little content to enjoy at home, despite the rise in 3D channels. Moreover, they didn’t always work well; sitting in the living room wearing cumbersome glasses wasn’t everyone’s idea of fun; and they could cause headaches and sore eyes, meaning most people limited their use to around two hours… all of which sounds a lot like virtual reality.
Samsung and LG abandoned 3D technology in 2016, while Sony and Panasonic dropped it from their 2017 TV models. The channels closed down, and people started selling their 3D TVs for 4K and HDR sets. Whether people ever really loved 3D TVs or if marketers gaslighted them into thinking they did remains an arguing point.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, virtually every office in the world had a fax machine. These devices allowed you to send a scanned image from one phone number to another using audio frequency tones via the telephone system.
Faxes were actually very useful in a time before email, scanners, but especially before the internet and smartphones became the new standard. Fax machines were prone to problems such as paper jams — or maybe it was just the crap ones I used — and they certainly wasted a lot of paper compared to digital alternatives.
Online communications rendered the fax machine obsolete as we entered the 21st century, but they continued to be used by the UK and Canadian health services as of 2018. Some say this was partly because they were considered safer, more secure, and more reliable than email, though researchers may disagree. Like other technology on this list, faxes were still being used in Japan up until recently.
If you were in education in the 1960s or the decades that followed, it’s certain that you will have experienced a lesson in which an overhead projector (OHP) was utilized. Essentially, an OHP projected an enlarged image onto a wall or a screen.
The way these worked was simple: a bright light shines through a transparent sheet and onto a mirror that diverts it toward the projected area. Anything written on the sheet appears on the wall/screen as an enlarged, easily readable (sometimes) image.
Their low cost made them a common sight inside classrooms. The transparent sheets could be purchased with teaching materials already printed on them, and teachers could amend these or create their own notes using non-permanent marker pens, making them a more attractive alternative to blackboards.
Overhead projectors started to lose their place in the classroom and office to the likes of dedicated laptop projectors, but they’ll always have a place in the heart of those who remember them being wheeled out and the familiar buzz of the light that often signaled a lesson involving little actual work.
For those of us around in the time before broadband, the idea of having an internet connection that was essentially always-on was confusing and frightening — a bit like the people who allegedly screamed upon seeing that Train Pulling into a Station film in 1896.
Yes, we were used to connecting our 56K dial-up modems anytime we wanted to access the internet, a process that for many involved AOL sign-in screen, a screaming noise, and a satisfying ping.
These devices turned data into audio signals before sending it through the telephone line. As archaic as it sounds, this meant nobody could use the phone landlines, which most people had back then, while you were online waiting 5 minutes for a website image to appear. Nostalgia aside, these were not good times if you enjoyed using the internet, especially as ISPs charged hourly rates for internet access.
Thankfully, broadband internet came along and changed the world, for better and for worse, not to mention people’s porn-viewing habits. Amazingly, however, 0.3% of Americans were still using dial-up in 2017.
Cathode Ray Tube TVs
Modern TVs might be all fancy with their invisible bezels and micron-wide thickness, but there was always something reassuring about having a television that weighed more than a collapsing star and could get just as hot.
CRT TVs were around for a very long time, having first been released in the 1920s, their origins can be traced to the late 19th century. They were still being made as late as 2015, with sales peaking in 2005 at 130 million units.
Many of these televisions, especially older models, came with the sort of problems that make adverts on smart TVs seem pretty trivial: ionizing radiation, toxins, hot as hell, electric shocks, to name just a few, not forgetting the fact they were limited to about 40 inches because of the size requirements of the cathode-ray tube. But they were pretty sturdy and often built to last.
The popularity of CRT TVs declined rapidly after peaking, with the advantages of LCD TVs making the newer technology a much more appealing prospect. These days, they’re only found in dumps, hoarders’ homes, and among retro console gamers looking for an authentic experience.
Other Tech That’s Still Clinging On…
Plenty of people still have wired landline phones, if only as a backup for when your mobile provider runs into issues and they can’t make cell calls. But with most of us preferring non-verbal communications these days, how much longer do landlines have left?
Games on Disc
If we’re talking PC gaming, boxed versions arguably went obsolete a while ago… try finding a PC with an optical drive these days. Disc-based games are still used on modern consoles, though there are disc-less versions of both the PS5 and XBSX, and more people prefer downloads these days. Don’t be surprised if games on disc become increasingly rare and the next generation of consoles skip them altogether.
Remember when DVDs replaced VHS and everyone thought the format was here to stay? Netflix, which started out renting DVDs, ended up being the scourge of those who had spent years building huge DVD collections that ended up selling in bulk for $5 on eBay or in second-hand stores. Yes, people are still buying DVDs in other parts of the world — around 300 million last year — but for most modern movie fans, it’s either stream it, download it, or get it on Blu-ray.
Aren’t MP3 Players already obsolete? A quick look on Amazon shows that smartphones haven’t killed them off entirely: some people just want a cheap(ish) device that plays digital music. But with budget phones getting cheaper and… smarter…, not to mention tech such as wireless in-ear headphones that store audio tracks, it’s hard to see MP3 players still being around in a few years.