There's a strange little building in a shopping center in Parsippany, N.J., in which there is a telephone directory from June 1990 in plain view and a list of prices for vanished photograph formats on the inside wall.
This was a PhotoMat. Probably the only reason it's standing is that it's on a concrete island next to an auto parts store. It's probably not worth the money to tear it down.
Today, it seems a strange concept--hand your film off to somebody and wait a week or so until it comes back. And it came back not well developed since everything was processed for an average exposure.
The lesson here is not, "How quaint!" It is that technologies and distribution methods move so fast that much of what we use today could quickly go the way of the Photomat, the VCR, or the record player.
I can see the change at home. I rarely use my CD player. I play CDs primarily on my computer and in the car. At home, I use the computer to simultaneously listen to an opera, play a game of Internet checkers, periodically check Web sites, edit a document when the opponent takes a long time to make moves, and scan some documents on our multi-function printer. Oh yes, I also do work at home.
That leads me to other questions. If I have a digital camera and create most documents electronically, will I really need the scanner, except for capturing images of archived documents? Will I need a fax, except to capture a signature on a document, and then why can't I simply use an electronic stamp? What may happen with these devices is what has happened with VCRs--many of us keep them to play tapes that we have replaced with DVDs. But the VCR seems to get used less and less.
This has a lot of applicability to hand-held devices such as phones with text and video features, Blackberries with voice capability, and who knows what combinations.
It's hard to imagine all the competing devices and protocols surviving. How many people will need cell phones, pagers, PDAs, laptops, and any variety of multi-function devices? I suspect there will be one surviving device of some kind for most of us. I'm not sure what it will be.
Experts are already warning not to commit to long-term cell phone contracts as the new generation of devices loom. The lesson is to buy carefully. Otherwise, your handy-dandy hardware could end up with your reel-to-reel tape, your phonograph, or your Polaroid.
A couple of years ago, a friend told me his Sunday school class for junior high school students involved reading a story about a phonograph. None of the kids knew what a phonograph was.
It doesn't take long.
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