Bacteria, insects, people, civilizations, galaxies – all are born, live and pass into eternity eventually. So it goes with technologies. Some, like wheels and levers, simply evolve in an impressive millennia-long cycle. Others, like jet packs, never seem to find the popularity we expect. And many, like 8-track tapes, shine brightly (or not so brightly) for a moment and fade into obscurity.
I like to dedicate a column to this topic each year to remind us how fleeting the spotlight can be. Obsolescence is built into all of our tech, just as limited existence is the essential nature of people.
For example, classic Blackberry devices will finally die this year. Remember the “Crackberry?” – a device so addictive and omnipresent that President Obama refused to part with his Blackberry despite the security risk. Blackberry had 80 Million users in 2012. Not so much anymore.
If you still have a Blackberry phone and it is not using Android software, the company will stop supporting your product today. CNN reports that “BlackBerry (BB) has been mostly out of the phone business since 2016, but over the years it continued to license its brand to phone manufacturers.” A 5G Blackberry Android-driven device from OnwardMotion is listed as “arriving in 2021,” so we shall see if it ever arrives. The original has passed away.
When Google/Alphabet hyped its “Moonshot” factory, one of the most publicized efforts was called Loon. The Loon project involved floating giant balloons above the earth to beam internet to areas where connectivity was most difficult to achieve. Loon was started in 2012, launched its first public tests in 2013, and in 2020 began commercial deployment in Africa through Telkom Kenya. Last year Alphabet shut the doors on Loon, unable to find a sustainable and cost-effective business model. Alphabet also closed its business called Makani, which provided wind power from giant kites. This is a bad year for business models dependent on floating objects in the air.
In 2012, Indian executives launched Hike as an Indian answer to Facebook’s WhatsApp, and Hike was valued at $1.4 billion by 2016 with nearly 70 million users. Unfortunately, where Chinese technologists successfully operate WeChat as a local WhatsApp alternative, Hike disappeared from circulation with no formal explanation. WhatsApp has now solidified its near monopoly in India.
Apple killed its original Homepod this year, unable to compete with Amazon Echo and Google nest, although you can still buy a Homepod mini. LG stopped making mobile phones this year. Microsoft killed Windows 10X and Minecraft Earth. Microsoft also killed Skype for business last year. I remember a Microsoft partner saying that when Microsoft wants to enter a new market, it chooses an ally, eliminates all the other blips on their radar screen until only the ally is left, and then kills that blip too. Skype may be a good example of this strategy as it has been pushed aside to make space for Microsoft Teams, soon to be dominating the world of corporate remote video calls (if not dominant there already).
All-in-all this is not a significant list considering the upheavals in the world over the past two years. Aside from Blackberry, which keeps limping on as a brand despite the death of its original proprietary operating system, no epoch-defining technology slid from this mortal coil in 2021. So where do we go from here?
The Metaverse was famously introduced into our lives last year. Will we see the first commercial glimpses of it in 2022? Mark Zuckerberg telegraphed his intended business direction when Facebook bought Oculus Rift, producer of immersive three-dimensional world-building technology. Zuckerberg clearly hoped to drive his herd into a more addictive, all-encompassing space as soon as possible. But now, with Facebook’s flagship products serving an aging and decreasing population, with regulators/Congress prepared to slap down any attempt to buy sexy social media rivals that appeal to younger audiences, and with a dismal company track record of developing its own social media successor products, opening the Metaverse becomes a dire urgency for Facebook. I expect we will see some access portals to this new world in the coming year.