Seven zombie technologies that just won't die
From beepers to COBOL, some tech keeps lurching forward, despite the smell of rot.
Source: Ho New/REUTERS
Don't be surprised if you find a host of undead corpses on your doorstep this Halloween. Zombies have been enjoying something of a renaissance of late, starring in acclaimed TV series and hit comedies and even literary fiction. Maybe we're just sick of what the Twilight books did to both vampires and werewolves; but maybe there's something about the imagery of someone ... or something ... that once had life and is still moving around, but has long ago had what made it vital snuffed out forever.
The world of technology is rife with zombies. Maybe it's because tech geeks are so obsessed with the new that we're quick to turn our back on the old -- even when they're useful or necessary. Many technologies shuffle forward through the decades, living a second life much longer than the first, unloved, prompting horror and disgust when we encounter them. Click onwards to scare yourself silly with zombie technology.
The first experiments in transmission of images by wire took place in the 1840s, but the fax machine as we know it didn't really enter our everyday life until the 1970s. But still, just imagine how advanced it must have seemed then! You could bypass the post office or the telegram services and send a document directly to anyone else in the world who had a phone line. Practically magic!
Nevertheless, it seemed like every technical advance in the decades since served only to make fax machines look shabby. Digital and color scanning technologies made grainy black and white fax sheets look ugly. When compared with one-click email, the process of faxing could be quite slow, especially if there were multiple pages involved. Faxes would either interfere with phone calls or require their own dedicated (and paid for) line. And of course the moving parts in a fax machine could jam up or simply stop working. No doubt millions of people assumed the fax machine was dead from the moment they first attached a Microsoft Word document to an email.
And yet here we are in 2011, and still virtually every office of any size in the world has a fax machine, with new ones still being pumped out by the thousands. FedEx Office stores can even get away with charging 50 cents a page for their use! What happened -- or what didn't? Well, you might say that fax machines survived for the same reasons the paperless office never arrived. Sure, it's easier to send an email with an attachment than it is to print something out and run it through a fax -- if you have the document on your computer. But there are plenty of occasions when all you have is the hard copy. Maybe that hard copy has handwritten notes all over it that someone needs to see. You could always scan it, but let's face it: digital scanners can be even more of a pain than fax machines, since they involve hardware and software, neither of which you work with regularly, interacting.
Or maybe you do have a digital copy of the document, but the file is so big that it gets rejected by the mail server of whoever you're trying to send it to. The truth is that, if file transfer gets tricky, it gets tricky really fast, and most people would rather just stick their documents into a fax machine and be done with it. To accommodate this need, many offices are now investing in "fax servers," which basically take incoming fax calls, convert the encoded image into a digital form rather than printing it onto a sheet of paper, and send it internally via email. This is of course just grafting a new front end on an archaic infrastructure -- something you're going to see more than once in this article.
The 10-digit, geographically-based phone number
Imagine if someone who was interested in futuristic technology went into a coma in 1966, only to wake up 45 years later in the modern day. "Rejoice!" you might say. "Remember the handheld communicators in the science-fiction movies of your era? Well, we have them now, and they're even smaller than you imagined! Almost everyone in the developed world carries them in their pocket, and you can talk to anyone, from anywhere, without wires!"
"That's amazing!" he'd reply. "Say, how'd they solve the problem of identifying the communicators? How do you tell your handheld device which other device you want to contact?"
"Oh," you reply, "you just give it your phone number."
"Wait, phone number? Like ... phone number phone number? Like, the same as on my phone? My phone hanging on the wall of my kitchen?"
The fact is that your futuristic handheld Star Trek-style communications device is still using an identification system that your grandmother used to make calls on her party line. In fact, thanks to the magic of phone number portability, your cell phone might be using the actual number your grandmother used back in the day.
And herein is a valuable lesson as to why zombie technologies persist in ways that technophiles find baffling. New technology often flops if it wipes the slate clean and only references itself, without integrating into people's existing lives. Imagine if the first mobile phone users were only able to talk to each other! Those first bulky DynaTACs were useful because they integrated with the existing communications network -- in this case, the system that had built up in stages over the previous century to route calls from wired telephones. In 2011, more and more people are untethering and going wireless-only; but even if someday the world goes wireless, all our technology will be so invested in this decades-old system that it will be difficult and pointless to change.
One other major advantage of the 10-digit phone system (and its equivalents outside of North America) is that it's a government-mandated standard. Several wireless communications providers do try to bypass it when it comes to text messages -- BlackBerry's BBM messaging service and Apple's new iMessage communicate via the Internet rather than the phone network, and you can use iMessage without a phone number at all. But these are closed, proprietary networks, and will never be able to replace telephone numbers for universal communications purposes.
Oh, and one last quirk of using a 10-digit number with your mobile phone: in North America, anyway, the number encodes information about where you live -- or at least when you got the phone. Young people are among the most mobile and among the most likely to use they're cell phone as their primary phone; many refuse to go through the hassle of changing their number when they move and are left with phone numbers from one or two cities ago. (Many other countries have nationwide area code equivalents dedicated solely to wireless numbers.)
Source: Just Nick.../Flickr
The history of gadgets would seem to flow from the single-purpose to the generalist. Consider the slow decline of the MP3 player, calculator, pocket watch, and standalone dumbphone: the functionality for all of these and more is easily replaced by any smartphone on the market. The humble pager would seem to be similarly marked for death. A beeper doesn't do much -- it'll let you know somebody's trying to get a hold of you, give you a callback number, and maybe offer a little space for a text message -- and everything that it does do could be replicated by just about any cell phone manufactured in the last ten years.
So why haven't they gone the way of the dodo? Well, it turns out that the group who first used the beeper, doctors, are still big fans, not least because many hospital complexes have poor cell phone reception, because in turn signals from cell towers can interfere with delicate hospital equipment. (Pagers generally receive signals via satellite rather than local cell networks.) Then there are various extra-specialized niches for them, like those pagers you get at restaurants that let you wander away but still get a signal when your table is ready. Sure, your cell phone could do that ... but do you want to give your phone number out every time you go to a restaurant?
As for the other group that famously loves pagers -- drug dealers -- they've long ago switched over to anonymous prepaid cell phones, if The Wire is any indication.
COBOL apps, mainframes, and screen scraping
There are plenty of bits of zombie technology in the stream of things I'm about to describe, so enjoy: often, businesses and organizations are running crucial processes not on shiny new computer equipment programmed with the latest object-oriented application frameworks, but on old mainframes running COBOL programs. And now it's years later, and it's hard to find someone who can really get at the guts of that business logic, and it's working fine, so why mess with it, but you need the modern computers that sit on your current employees' desks to interact with it, you know? Back in the day you could tell your workers to just walk down to the mainframe room and use the terminal, but now they expect to have everything handed to them right in their cubicle. But setting that up can be tricky, as this nicely anxious passage from Wikipedia explains:
As a concrete example of a classic screen scraper, consider a hypothetical legacy system dating from the 1960s -- the dawn of computerized data processing. Computer to user interfaces from that era were often simply text-based dumb terminals which were not much more than virtual teleprinters (such systems are still in use today, for various reasons). The desire to interface such a system to more modern systems is common. A robust solution will often require things no longer available, such as source code, system documentation, APIs, and/or programmers with experience in a 50-year-old computer system. In such cases, the only feasible solution may be to write a screen scraper which "pretends" to be a user at a terminal. The screen scraper might connect to the legacy system via Telnet, emulate the keystrokes needed to navigate the old user interface, process the resulting display output, extract the desired data, and pass it on to the modern system.
We suppose this is less zombie than Frankenstein's monster -- various parts hacked together to form a shambling whole, a ghastly imitation of the beautiful multi-system applications you learned about in your programming classes. And yet we're willing to bet that almost all of you have had to interact with one of these systems at some point, with no real end in sight. (Yes, there's even a terminal emulator for the iPad.)
Windows XP and Internet Explorer 6
Those of you who have never used a hacked-together front-end to a COBOL program are probably feeling pretty smug about your high-tech lifestyle right about now, but consider this: According to our analytics, there's a better than one in six chance that you're using a computer running Windows XP -- an operating system that just turned 10 years old -- to read these words. (Just for context, 10 years before Windows XP came out, the entire World Wide Web was restricted to a few NeXT servers at CERN, and the most popular Internet applications were Usenet and Gopher.) Heck, hundreds of you poor souls are using Internet Explorer 6, the browser that was released with XP, and one of the few products whose creator set up a website publicly calling for its death.
Why have XP and (to a lesser degree) IE6 survived repeated attempts on their lives? Well, the Vista fiasco was largely responsible for keeping Microsoft in an OS holding pattern; even though Windows 7 has been a success, there's always a hesitation when it comes to paying for something new when the thing you already have works just fine, thanks. IE6's survival has much more in common with the screen-scraping scenario from our last panel: There are still plenty of internal browser-based apps out there that were written with IE6's quirks in mind, which are still crucial for company operations but whose creators have long ago left, tying them like an anchor around your neck.
Radio may not seem like a zombie today, but cast your mind back to the 1950s, when television started to shift from luxury item to must-have piece of furniture -- a must-have piece of furniture, we might add, that in many cases displaced a console radio from its place of pride in the living room. "A television is everything a radio is, but better!" you would have thought. "Radio will be dead by 1960!"
But there were some more momentous changes happening around the same time that conspired to bring radio back from the brink of death. More and more Americans were moving to the suburbs and driving their cars to work instead of hopping on the streetcar; you can listen to radio while you cruise down the highway in a way that you can't watch TV. Meanwhile, pop music became a multimillion-dollar industry, and radio was for decades its preferred promotional vector. Thus, the format is well into its second life today, even though Little Orphan Annie has long been displaced by Justin Bieber singles and angry sports radio talk shows.
Just to add to radio's antiquarian fustiness: while TV went all digital in 2009 in the United States, radio is still broadcasting on the same analog channels it's used for decades. Thus, you can pull that classic wood-paneled radio out of the attic and listen to the latest Justin Bieber singles and angry sports talk shows in all their tinny, mono glory.
The freakin' HP TouchPad
Hey, remember when HP released its much heralded tablet and then cut $100 off its price and then just killed it altogether? Well, ha ha, now HP is apparently just going to run Windows 8 on it. Zombie tech, ladies and gentlemen! I mean, it doesn't get more zombie-riffic than that.
We're sure we're missing some stuff, though. What are your favorite bits of zombie technology?