In 2020, a more tragic year than most, we lost giants of the technology world. We lost Larry Tesler, PARC’s magician, later at Apple, who helped develop the computer commands that run our lives, like ‘search and replace’ and ‘copy and paste,’ and other concepts crucial for user-friendly software. We lost Russell Kirsch, creator of the pixel and the first digital photo. We lost Gideon Gartner, who pioneered rigorous research for companies buying computing technologies and left his name on his legacy consultancy. But we also lost important technologies.
Technologies, like animals and plants, have life cycles. Tech innovation is born, if it can sustain investment and interest it lives, and eventually it either disappears or gives way to a better method of solving the problem. I keep a very old cash register, telephone, typewriter, and adding machine in my office to remind me about the fleeting life of tech.
Due to the pandemic, 2020 saw the rise of technologies that might have foundered or that found a new life accelerating their development and acceptance. Videoconferencing finally hit its stride, not just for meetings, but webinars, conferences, parties, and weddings. Grocery delivery, which failed so spectacularly in the 1990s and had failed to catch on in many markets since then, has exploded and gone public. Online wellness apps have exploded.
But many technologies and tech services died in 2020, and we stand here to remember them.
Adobe ends support for its Flash Player today and will block content from running in Flash Player in two weeks. If you wanted to do anything fun on the internet in the 1990s and early 2000s, you needed the Abode Flash Player. It gave us a glimpse of what the medium could be. But Flash had technical problems and security issues and had been replaced by better, more efficient alternatives. According to PC World “Flash actually held on far longer than anyone expected, considering Apple co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs fired the first shot at Flash way back in 2010 with his famous open letter. Its decline started officially in 2017 when Adobe said it would kill support for Flash by the end of 2020. Browser makers also started to restrict Flash, and eventually blocked it entirely.” But Flash nostalgia fans keep heart because the Wayback Machine still emulates Flash animations in its software collection.
“What’s a Quibi?” is now a historical question and not a hot new trend. How quickly things change. It was a hot new trend during last year’s Super Bowl. According to Finance & Commerce, “ Quibi, short for “quick bites,” raised $1.75 billion from investors including major Hollywood players Disney, NBCUniversal and Viacom. But the service struggled to reach viewers, as short videos abound on the internet and the coronavirus pandemic kept many people at home. It announced it was shutting down in October, just months after its April launch.” As companies and governments fight over TikTok, even the well-funded, well-researched big players did not have the ability to play in the youth-driven short video market. Its owners expected Quibi to dominate the commute to work – which millions of us stopped doing just before its product release date. Couldn’t be worse timing.
If, as a tech company, you sell billions of dollars worth of clothes to consumers then it might make sense to charge those consumers $200 for a selfie camera that gives consumers fashion advice and proposes what they should buy to complete any outfit. However, the cost is relatively high, and apparently receiving personalized fashion advice from your clothing store both feels manipulative and gets old fast. For these reasons, among others, the Amazon Echo Look service ceased to work this year on July 24. However, the Amazon Shopping app still spins out fashion advice and can be accessed by calling for Alexa on other devices. By the way, Amazon also abandoned its Dash Wand product, a hand-held device with a built-in scanner to read barcodes for groceries you want to reorder.
Believe it or not, AT&T was still operating and selling a new DSL connection until October of this year. AT&T is not cutting off current subscribers, but won’t be taking on new subscribers, which could mean a total lack of wire-connected internet access in some rural areas. Google Fiber is still running strong, but its Google Fiber TV Service was dropped in February, except for existing customers – with no report on how long those customers can continue the service. Google claims that its customers don’t need traditional television.
Other notable services leaving us this year include Windows 7, for which Microsoft has stopped sending security updates; Google’s Daydream Virtual Reality platform for mobile phones, which is no longer supported; Slingbox decided to discontinue all products and services this year, and its products will gradually lose functionality as apps are phased out. Technology marches on, always crowing winners and casting losers into the ditch, leaving most to hover in between hoping to turn a profit next year. Thinking about the tech that disappeared this year gives us context for the lives of our current favorite products and services. Nothing lives forever.