December 23, 2008, 1:56 PM — The government says we've been in a recession for the past year. Experts say it'll be at least another year before it's over. And everybody says it's the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
Nice sound bite. What does that mean?
Who knows? We can be sure that this downturn will differ totally from the Depression, and also different from the many recessions we've suffered every decade or every other decade since the 30s. I'm not an economist or a historian, but it seems to me that this recession will be something unprecedented.
One reason is that that there was no Internet or mobile technology in the 1930s. That means individual people and companies have very low cost, high efficiency alternatives for doing a wide ranging of activities. That will accelerate the demise of those things fated to be replaced anyway.
Here are 10 things that I believe won't survive the recession.
1. Free tech support
The practice still employed by some companies of paying humans to answer phones and solve technical problems with hardware or software purchased for consumers will become a thing of the past. PCs, laptops and hardware peripherals, as well as application software -- these categories will be purchased like airline tickets, with price becoming the sole criteria for many buyers. In order to compete on price, companies who now offer real tech support will replace it with message boards (users helping users), wikis, wizards, software-based troubleshooting tools and other unsatisfying alternatives.
2. Wi-Fi you have to pay for
Everyone is going to share the cost of public Wi-Fi because the penny-pinching public will gravitate to places that offer "free" Wi-Fi. Companies that charge extra for Wi-Fi will see their iPhone, BlackBerry and netbook-toting customers - i.e., everybody -- taking business elsewhere. The only place you'll pay for Wi-Fi will be on an airplane.
3. Landline phones
Digital phone bundles for homes (where TV, home networking and landline phone service are offered in a total package) will keep the landline idea alive for a while, but as millions of households drop their cable TV services and as consumers look to cut all needless costs, the trend toward dropping landline service in favor of cell phone service only will accelerate until it's totally mainstream, and only grandma still has a landline phone.
4. Movie rental stores
The idea of retail stores where you drive there, pick a movie, stand in line and drive home with it will become a quaint relic of the new fin de siecle (look it up!). The new old way to get movies will be discs by mail, and the new, new way will be downloading.
5. Web 2.0 companies without a business plan
The era when Web-based companies could emerge and grow on venture capital, collecting eyeballs and members at a rapid clip and deferring the business plan until later are dead and gone. Yeah, I'm talking to you, Twitter . Sand Hill Road-style venture capital is shrinking toward nothing, and investors in general will be hard to come by. Those few remaining investors will want to see real, solid business plans before the first dollar is wired to any startup's bank.
6. Most companies in Silicon Valley
Tech company failures and mergers will leave the industry with a low two-digit percentage (maybe 25%) of the total number of companies now in existence. Like the automobile industry, which had more than 200 car makers in the 1920s and emerged from the Depression with just a few, Silicon Valley is in for some serious contraction. The difference is that the auto industry ended up with the Big Three, whereas the number of tech companies will grow dramatically again during the next boom.
7. Palm Inc.
Elevation Partners , which has among its principals U2 lead singer Bono , pumped a whopping $100 million into the failing Palm Inc. this week.
The idea is to give the company time to release its forthcoming Nova operating system, which will take the cell-phone world by storm and give Apple a run for its money. It would have been far more efficient, however, to just flush that money down the toilet. With the iPhone setting the handset interface agenda, Blackberry-maker RIM kicking butt in the businesses market, and Google stirring up trouble with its Android platform, this is no time for a clueless company like Palm to be introducing a new operating system. By this time next year, Palm will be gone. And so might Elevation Partners.
Yahoo is another company that can't seem to do anything right. Or, at least, can't compete with Google. Yahoo will be acquired by someone, and its brand will become an empty shell - used for some inane set of services but appreciated only by armchair historians (joining the ranks of Netscape, Napster and Commodore).
9. Half of all retail stores
Many retail stores are obsolete and will be replaced by online competitors. Entire malls will become ghost towns. By this time next year, most video game stores, book stores and toy stores - as well as many other categories - will simply vanish. Amazon.com will grow and grow.
10. Satellite Radio
I'm sorry, Howard Stern. It's over. The newly merged Sirius XM Radio simply cannot sustain its losses. The company is already deeply in debt and would need to dramatically increase subscribers over the next six months in order to meet its debt obligations. Unfortunately, new car sales, where a huge percentage of satellite radios are sold, are in the gutter and stand-alone subscriptions are way down.
Change is hard. But efficiency is good. While boom years gives us radical innovation and improve consumer choice, recessions help us focus on what's really important and accelerate the demise of technologies and companies that are already obsolete.
So say good-bye to these 10 things, and say hello (eventually) to a new economy, a new boom and a new way of doing things.