Obsolete tech 1: Communications

Obsolete tech 1: Communications

Summary: There have been many technological inventions that have either failed or have been superseded by better innovations. Here we take a look at communications technologies that made it – and those that crashed and burned.


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  • Dial phone

    Initial rotary dial phones were used along with pulse-dialling technology to initiate calls. First introduced in 1904 it faded into obscurity as push-button dialling and touch-tone telephony was introduced in the 1960s.

    As telephone numbers grew in digit length, rotary dials made it difficult to accurately dial long and international numbers. Retro enthusiasts still cherish them. This is my home phone — with an updated ear and mouthpiece microphone.

    Image: Eileen Brown

  • Rabbit telepoint service

    Rabbit was a telephone service that was launched in the UK in 1992. If you had a specially designed home phone handset, you could make outgoing calls whenever you were within 100 metres of a Rabbit transmitter. Initially limited to the city of Manchester, 12,000 base stations were rolled out nationwide.

    The service lasted less than two years and failed due to the introduction of low-cost analog mobile phones that made and received calls.

    Image: Salford University

Topics: Hardware, After Hours

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  • Fine line

    There's a fine line between a smartphone and a PDA. I always thought the term smartphone was just a marketing angle so people would know your PDA has cellular ability.
    Buster Friendly
  • 10-4 Good Buddy

    If Rabbits deserve a mention, then so do CB radios, which were a huge fad in the U.S. in the 1970s. They still exist, but mobile phones pretty much make them obsolete.
    Robert Hahn
    • Good one

      Yea, I fondly remember driving around and chatting on the CB. After Smokey and the Bandit came out, you could never find a clear channel. There was a big gap between CBs and phones, so I think it was more about the novelty wearing off rather than becoming obsolete. I still hear a good bit of trucker chat on my scanner.
      Buster Friendly
  • I would disagree with a few of them

    Rotary phone... the beauty there is that you could short a couple wires together and simulate the "clicks" that the dial makes. You could (and still can because the phone system is still compatible) dial with just two wires. There is a huge lesson here for backwards compatibility because today's phone system still supports 1930's rotary dialing.

    Analog radio? Seriously? If you think everyone is subscribing to satellite radio, you must get more and join the primitive unwashed masses.

    Dial up (for internet). Still being used into remote areas, mostly for emails, as well as on satellite phones. As far as the "technology"... it is basically the same technology that a fax machine uses to send faxes. I'm sure you still use those, right?

    PDA? What is that, like a tablet that makes phone calls? I happen to have one in my pocket running Android 4.2.
    • Agree

      We had our rotary phone until the late 80s. At the garage I worked at, they had a dial lock on the phone, so that you couldn't make calls. Rapidly pressing the plunger to make the pulses worked and with practice you could reliably dial a number...

      Analog radio is still going strong. My family use radios in the kitchen and bathroom, as well as in the car.

      In many parts of the countryside dial-up is still the only option - although, here in Germany, it is slowly being replaced by LTE.
  • Must be European.

    Reason is that there, DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting) was what is supposed to replace what we in the US think of as AM and FM radio. The US equivalent is HD Radio, which is a parallel digital format being broadcast by some stations. The basic concept of HD radio is similar to the one used by SiriusXM, and both are actually digital, since they transmit digitally encoded audio, similar to streaming or MP3s. "Analog" is the audio encoding method, not the broadcasting method. The difference in AM and FM is one varies the strength of a fixed signal by the audio frequency, and the other varies the frequency of a carrier signal by the frequency of the audio. But both are analog, just like a tape or a record. The reason governments like digital services is because you transmit a set carrier, and then it is either a pulse or the absence of a pulse. It's data transmission, no different that sending a file via WiFi. Key is what is being sent and what is done with it in the end. Much narrower spectrum requirements. And analog radio is far from obsolete. Even outside the US, the effort to replace analog radio has been largely slow. And why do they want to - of course for the same reason that the US went with digital TV, to free up spectrum for mobile devices. But radio here is definitely not taking the bait. Besides, the sliver of spectrum used for either AM or FM is not that great compared to TV. And HD Radio or SiriusXM are niche right now.
    • DAB

      has pretty much failed. I don't know a single person who has a DAB radio.

      Most people still listen to analog over here, in Germany.
  • Some haven't quite left yet.

    "Analog radio"

    You can still buy them, they still come with cars, and yes, if you take the time to use them you'll still find plenty of stations. They may be out of style as far as "interesting to ZDNet" goes, but they're still in use and presumably still profitable.

    "Dial-up modem"

    Still out there, especially in remote areas.


    Didn't really relish the fact that most tech companies dropped it completely. In some cases, it would actually be nice to have a device that isn't so tied to a phone service.

    That being said - the iPod Touch is basically a PDA. I mean - how is the iPod Touch *not* a PDA? Sure, Apple markets it as a music player, but let's face it: You've got the entire App Store at your fingertips. It's a PDA.

    And you can buy many phones unlocked, which should work as a PDA as well.

    The biggest contention in the past was that it was practically impossible to get a phone without a data plan and lock yourself into a two year contract. But today, there's plenty of options for simply buying a phone outright without a data plan. It usually makes the phone cost more up front, but it's an option.
    • Apple, largest producer of PDAs ever.

      I call them the iPDA
  • Pulse Dialling?

    Both my old Red Pay phone (yep I have one!) and ancient Siemens 400 (similar to picture) still work. Shame I can't do pulse dialling since the AXE exchange upgrade (back in the 90's).

    Those ringers scare the pants of today's younger generation.... :)
    Scott W-ef9ad
  • Miss Phone Booth

    Children now days don't know how Superman changes his clothes ....
    • Miss Phone Booth

      Sure they do... Watch Christopher Reeve's Superman movie ... He looks at the non-enclosed pay phone, shakes his head and then quickly spins the revolving door to an office building coming out in Superman outfit.