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Bill Virgin: High-tech today, relic tomorrow

They were displayed on shelves in the electronics/entertainment section of a local discount department store, tacked onto the end of a much longer CD rack, almost lost among the DVDs and big-screen TVs and other consumer paraphernalia of modern life.

The 12.5-inch-square flat plastic-wrapped boxes contained on those shelves would be immediately identifiable by anyone of a certain age. To those much younger those boxes might be recognizable only as an artifact they’d once read about or seen in the homes of their parents or grandparents.

It was a display of vinyl record albums.

The item for sale at the front of the rack was a special-edition re-release of Supertramp’s “Breakfast in America,” a hugely popular album (potentially archaic term) with multiple songs that got huge amounts of airplay on radio (potentially archaic communications medium) in the late 1970s and is still a mainstay of classic-rock formats.

The 12-inch vinyl record album is staging something of a comeback, albeit a very tiny one in comparison to other music media. Amazon.com has a section on its retailing website dedicated to new releases – and yes, there are quite a few – in LP form (archaic acronym meaning long-playing, in comparison to earlier record formats, and we’re really getting deep in the weeds here).

Vinyl records never went away completely. Collectors and true believers kept interest in them alive.

But the willingness of a mass-market retailer to devote display space to a medium that was fading three decades ago does prompt some thoughts about the weird twists and turns that technologies take from emergence to oblivion.

The phenomenon is worth studying, because it’s a far more permanent feature of our lives than many of the technologies and products themselves. Lots of the stuff we play or work with today, we view with a “can’t live without attitude,” and yet they might be gone in a decade.

This column is being written on a laptop computer, a device that we are told is already in the twilight of its life cycle, to be eventually subsumed by handheld smart phones and tablet-sized devices.

Once completed, this column will be sent to editors at the TNT via e-mail, a communications technique we are told is approaching obsolescence as text messages and Twitter blasts become the preferred methods of disseminating information.

And once edited, this column will be posted on the TNT’s website, a form of information display that some pundits contend has outlived its usefulness. It will also be read in a physical, printed product called a newspaper – and the number of times the obituary has been written for that communications relic we’d just as soon not count.

Such prognostications might raise a few eyebrows among readers who find the aforementioned current products and services just dandy for their requirements and interests.

They may be right to be skeptical, especially if the supposed replacements prove inadequate to the tasks they are assigned.

But technologies are sometimes generational – better than what came before, not as good as what’s ahead.

Sent a fax lately? Probably not as many as you did 10 years ago. In another 10 years, will many people bother dedicating a phone line to a fax machine, or will consumer-electronics manufacturers bother including fax technology in multipurpose printers?

Advocates of record albums argue that analog sound reproduction gives a much warmer feel to music than digitized CDs, and a much fuller experience than data-compressed MP3 files (not to mention all that space for art and text on the cover).

But those who lived in both the CD and record-album eras know why the former replaced the latter: The scratching, wearing, warping and dust-collecting tendencies of vinyl that diminished the quality of the music.

LPs may survive as a niche product for aficionados. Faxes may survive as a niche product for those who prefer them as a way to transmit documents. Laptop and desktop computers may survive as mainstream products for those who find them more suited to doing word processing, graphic design, spreadsheet accounting and other business tasks. What would you figure are the long-term prospects for film cameras? Digital cameras? CDs? Landline telephones? Cable TV?

These questions matters because each of us makes an investment of time and money in adopting new technologies. Just as decisions about financial investments produce payoffs and losses, so too will we be rewarded or punished for buying enduring or short-lived technology. Choose carefully, lest you end up with the next-generation equivalent of the 8-track tape (kids, ask your parents – or grandparents).

Bill Virgin’s column on business and economics appears Sunday in The News Tribune. He is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.

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