Why your MP3 player is already out of date

After less than six months on the market, Sony's Walkman Bean is to be discontinued - a victim of the digital revolution and the fashion for ruthlessly upgrading. Oliver Duff reports
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The Independent Online

If it ain't broke, don't fix it. There was time when that phrase carried technological currency. You didn't buy a new television just because your 1960s wooden cabinet version had gathered a little dust.

Sony's Walkman Bean had the basic specs for success: it is well-designed, smaller (just 45g) and cheaper (£79-£99) than the celebrated iPod, and has up to 50 hours of battery life. But after less than six months on the market, Sony has announced that the Bean will be discontinued in April.

The reason behind this can be traced back 40 years to one Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel. He predicted that the number of transistors on a chip - and so its performance - would double roughly every two years. "Moore's law" is what drove the quick growth of computer processors in the 1990s. Now cameras, TVs and music players have also "gone digital", a similar theory applies.

The industry says that the quickening pace of technological change, and more importantly, the growing influence of fashion, means that most mobile phones and digital cameras are discontinued within nine months.

Televisions and DVD equipment fare a little better but current hardware will be rendered obsolete by the imminent arrival of "high definition" pictures, incompatible with any models older than two years.

"You do get exceptions, but six to nine months is about standard [shelf life] for the majority of mobiles," said Bryan Magrath, the operations and marketing director of Dixons.

In the past year, the company has phased out video recorders, portable cassette players, 35mm film cameras and, most recently, cathode ray tube televisions. "The rates of sale on these products slowed to such an extent that it is no longer viable to keep them in store," said Mr Magrath.

The reason behind this is obvious, really: the digital revolution. "A lot of products that had longer life cycles in the past were analogue and weren't running on the digital treadmill," he explained. "Once products start to have integrated circuits, they get into the relentless upgrading you see with computers."

There is a more fickle reason behind the quickening turnover of consumer electronics: fashion. "Our attitude to technology has changed from using something until it breaks beyond repair, to constantly replacing it because something cooler is in the market. I know people with five or six iPods who change their mobile every few months. That's not unusual,"said Tom Dunmore, editor-in-chief of the gadget magazine Stuff.

Until recently, old mobile phones were treated as obsolete kitchen drawer-fillers but they have enjoyed a resurgence as users tire of relentlessly-expanding functions and the nostalgia for 1980s "brick chic" grows.

Garry Evans runs RetroFones, a website selling second-hand phones. He reports that some mobile users prefer an older handset. Two classic favourites are the late Nineties Motorola StarTAC that became the blueprint for today's flip-top mobiles, and the Nokia 8110, famous for featuring in The Matrix.

"The problem with phones today is that they are so complicated they are more prone to breaking down," he said. "There are more things that could go wrong and I don't think they are manufactured to last.

"If your phone breaks down, it's cheaper to buy a new one than have your old one repaired."

Mr Magrath says that when Dixons purchases break: "We divide products into two categories. Pretty much anything under £150 probably isn't worth repairing."

Mobile phones

Modern mobile phone technology is said to date back to April 1973 when a Motorola employee, Dr Martin Cooper placed a gloating call to his rival Joel Engel, head of research at AT&T's Bell Labs, while walking the streets of New York talking on a Motorola DynaTAC. It weighed almost a kilogram and looked like a beige welly.

Bell Labs launched a trial commercial cellular network five years later in Chicago, but mobiles only began to proliferate in the mid-1980s with the introduction of the first generation of "cellular" phones. Initially, these were designed for installation in cars, but some were converted for use as "transportable" phones. They were the size of a briefcase and cost thousands of pounds.

In the 1990s came the second generation of digital phones. The larger "bricks" disappeared and tiny 100-200g devices became the norm.

When WAP internet technology was introduced in 2000, comparatively few users took advantage. The same was true of the third-generation (3-G) technology, meant to convert the handset into an entertainment centre.

The Motorola E1000, now retailing for free on most contracts, was one of the first 3-G phones on the market, but while it had the new technology, it was huge and had a comparatively short battery life. It will be relegated to the dustbin with the release of the company's 3D version of its super-slim V3 phone.

Digital cameras

The first camera dates back to ancient Greece, with the pinhole camera obscura. But while the camera - in its simplest form - worked, there was no way of preserving images. The first permanent photograph was made in 1826 by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce using a sliding wooden box camera made by Charles and Vincent Chevalier in Paris.

In 1889, Thomas Edison invented the first commercially successful camera. But amateur photography did not take off until 1923, when Eastman Kodak produced the first 16mm reversal safety film, and Bell & Howell introduced cameras and projectors with which to use it.

The first digital camera, developed in the 1970s, weighed 8lbs, was the size of a loaf of bread and captured black and white images on a digital cassette at a resolution of .01 megapixels. Steven Sasson, an engineer working for Eastman Kodak, is credited with the design.

Technology has come so far and so fast that anything currently on sale below four megapixels is of questionable worth because there are already camera phones - notably by Nokia and Sharp (for Vodafone) that take three-megapixel pictures. More are on the way, meaning that it is hardly worth paying a premium on such low-quality pictures. At the higher-spec end, once non-professional photographers move past nine megapixels - more than adequate to enlarge to A3 print size - it becomes overkill. Expected developments in digicam technology include such basics as moving the power button further from the capture button - so a rushed attempt to take a picture doesn't turn the camera off - and obtaining better quality in poor lighting, currently a big downer.

Music players

Developed in the 1870s by Thomas Edison, the gramophone, or phonograph, was the first device for listening to recorded music. Cylindrical tube-like records were used; the 10-inch disc was developed 30 years later in 1900 and record players became the most popular way of listening to music for almost 100 years.

In 1963, the Philips Corporation introduced the cassette recorder. They became widespread in living rooms and in cars, and reached the pinnacle of their performance by the mid-1980s. But in 1988, the advent of compact discs eclipsed both the cassette, and the record player. The MiniDisc had a brief heyday in 1996, but soon became obsolete as the MP3 player began to dominate the market.

The iPod digital music player, which has colonised the online music market, was introduced in 2001. Domination has been secured with the opening of the iTunes store (500m downloads by July 2005), smaller models (the Mini, the Nano and the Shuffle), a 60 gigabyte video iPod, and a new remote control iMac computer with easy access to music, photos and movies. Tens of millions of players have been sold. Most other MP3 players, like Sony's Bean, have struggled against such market dominance.

Computers

The personal computer has come a long way since the birth of the abacus some two millennia ago. Charles Babbage is credited with being the first person to design a fully programmable computer as early as 1837 - an "analytical engine" that would use punched cards and operate on steam power.

It wasn't really until the Second World War, when the military required fast, accurate retrieval of electronic data, that computers stepped out of the pages of science fiction and into reality. One notable achievement was the American ENIAC (1943) which used 18,000 vacuum tubes and 1,800 square feet of floorspace.

In the 1970s, technology moved on from very powerful single-purpose computers to cheaper systems for the consumer market. The Apple II, launched in 1977 from the modest surroundings of Steve Jobs' parents' garage, was many people's first foray into personal computing, and its popularity allowed the trio to create a team of computer designers and a production line.

Computing has become ever more affordable, although the Mac Mini (£359) will be left out in the cold when Apple moves all of its computers to Intel processors (the Mac Mini has a G4 processor, now two generations old).

Now that PC development has reached the boundaries of most people's expectations, ever-increasing processor sizes are only really useful for those who want 3D gaming - the next wave of machines will be "media centres" for the living room. The basic idea is a "computer in a telly" with only one cable - the power cable. It will have a wireless mouse, keyboard and internet capability - and a wide screen. One such machine is the Sony VA1, released next month.

Video recorders

The first professional videos were Quadraplex machines introduced by Ampex in the US in 1956. They became the industry standard for 20 years and had good picture quality, but they also had drawbacks: expense, an inability to freeze pictures and quick-wearing tape heads.

It was not until the 1970s that videotape moved into the mass market, with the arrival of the Japanese analogue systems: Sony's Beta (1975) and JVC's VHS (1976). VHS won that format battle due to its longer tape time (three hours, compared to 60 minutes) and was adopted as the industry standard for film releases for more than 20 years. But VHS finally succumbed to the disc-based DVD format after it was introduced in 1997, gradually overtaking VHS sales and rentals to the point where VHS is no longer sold and will before long become the concern of historical collectors.

DVD technology has developed to allow affordable recording. £399 buys a Sony DVD/HDD recorder, allowing you to not only record to DVDs, but also store your favourite films on an 80GB hard drive. The problem is that existing DVD technology is not all that it is cracked up to be: it will begin the journey to obsolescence when incompatible high-definition televisions start flying off the shelves. The real question is who will win the format war: Blu-Ray discs or HD DVDs (available later this year).

The profligacy of digital video formats on the internet means that standalone video players may in turn succumb to "media centre" computers in people's lounges.

Televisions

The small screen has come a long way since John Logie Baird gave the world's first public demonstration of a working television system in 1926. The squat model had a tiny little screen in the corner and a bulge at the back to cover the whirring discs of lenses that made it work.

In the past 80 years, the screen has become far bigger and of rather better quality than the 30 lines of scanned image he displayed, barely enough to reproduce a recognisable human face.

Baird's cumbersome set was quickly surpassed by the cathode ray tube (CRT) television, manufactured in the 1930s and used in almost all televisions for six decades until the invention of the LCD panel.

The turn of the millennium heralded the arrival of flat-screen plasma TVs working on similar principles to a fluorescent light, with gas injected between two panels to create ultraviolet rays and the red, green and blue phosphors which make up the image. Last month, Dixons announced it would no longer stock traditional CRT televisions.

For £1,200, Samsung sell a 42in flat-panel plasma television with a sharp, vibrant picture. The problem is that it will be obsolete after "high-definition" (HD) television arrives, offering twice the picture quality.

Couch potatoes with more cash may be interested to know JVC are releasing a gargantuan 70in HD TV in March, expected to retail for under £3,500. The only problem is they may have to sell the couch to get it in the living-room.

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