Everything for Electronics
Nuts & Volts Magazine (July 2009)

The End Of The Wristwatch

By Bryan Bergeron    View In Digital Edition  

From Developing Perspectives

I appreciate the vintage sound of tube-type guitar amplifiers and the craftsmanship of the old RF wattmeters, with their precision machined, silver slugs. And I have a brass straight key — handmade in West Germany — on my desk. However, as a technology enthusiast, my focus is generally on the future — the next big thing in robotics, microprocessors, sensors, communications, and the like.

With rear blinders on, I often forget that in the wake of each new technological breakthrough is a heap of unwanted hardware and software destined for either landfills or third world countries where precious metals are extracted for resale. Not exactly green or even environmentally friendly. Technology adoption is commonly described as a phenomenon in which technology enthusiasts and visionaries first embrace a technology. Next are the early adopters, the early majority, late majority and, finally, the laggards. Odds are, if you’re reading Nuts & Volts, you’re somewhere between enthusiast and early adopter.

Given that rate of technological change is accelerating, the rate of technology abandonment must be accelerating, as well. Furthermore, just as technology adoption is described in terms of the behavioral qualities of the adopters, abandonment follows a predictable pattern. And modeling or at least understanding technology abandonment is important. Why? Because it can help you develop technologies and products that will inevitably displace current technologies.

Consider the wristwatch. When the mechanical technology advanced to the point that thin, lightweight pocket watches could be produced economically, the ergonomically superior strap-on watch soon displaced the pocket version. If you’re below the age of 25, you’re probably not wearing a wristwatch — or a pocket watch. Instead, you likely rely on your cell phone, iPod, laptop, or other mobile electronic device for the date and time. While wristwatches may linger for a few decades as jewelry — most people don’t wear a Rolex Presidential because of its accuracy — in a decade or two, the wristwatch will be yet another abandoned technology. Similarly, the increasingly diminutive cell phone, a relative newcomer to the scene, will likely be displaced by the Dick Tracy-styled wrist phone, for the same ergonomic reasons that the watch migrated from the pocket to the wrist.

Will every current technology follow this model of continual, incremental improvement followed by sudden transformation into a new technology? Of course not, but the model provides insight into what’s likely to happen. There are inevitably unforeseen twists and turns in the evolution of any technology, and interesting cul de sacs of activity that may linger long after the main thrust of a technology has been abandoned.

Consider Morse Code — once a mainstream mode of communications — now used primarily by radio amateurs. After investing years to become proficient at the straight key, one of my first major electronics projects was building a “typewriter” keyboard-based keyer, complete with hardwired ROM — an array of diodes — driven by linear ICs. I followed this project several years later with a CW reader that — using analog circuitry — converted the audible shorts and longs into character strings. Instead of abandoning the Morse Code — which remains my favorite mode of ham radio communications — and moving on to higher-bandwidth, computer based communications, I turned to new technologies to give the old technology new life. As a result of similar actions by tens of thousands of hams, Morse Code has survived longer than it would have from purely economic or practical reasons.

While nostalgia may keep some technologies around long after their practical value has waned, in business, economics deal a harsher blow. Like my old fashioned brass keyer, Morse Code has passed from practical technology to nostalgia. As technology enthusiasts, we bear some responsibility for hastily casting aside existing technologies as soon as a faster, smaller, more powerful, or simply more aesthetically appealing version appears on the market. As innovators, we owe it to ourselves to recognize when letting go of the old and embracing the new is the best course of action. NV