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All Contents © 2017The Kiplinger Washington Editors
By David Muhlbaum, Online Editor
John Miley, Reporter
| Updated March 2017
Evan Amos via Wikipedia
Ten years ago, thousands of Blockbuster Video stores occupied buildings like this all over the country, renting DVDs and selling popcorn. Today, all but a handful are closed. The company’s shares once traded for nearly $30. Now Blockbuster is gone, scooped up (and then erased) by the DISH Network in a bankruptcy auction.
Obsolescence isn’t always so quick or so complete, but emerging technologies and changing practices are sounding the death knell for many familiar items. Here are 10 for which you should say your goodbyes ... and, as a bonus, seven that have defied the odds and refuse to die.
Keys, at least in the sense of a piece of brass cut to a specific shape, are going away.
At the office, most of us already use a card with a chip embedded to get access. But for getting into your house (and your car), the technology that will kill off the key is your smart phone. Connecting either via Bluetooth or the Internet, your mobile device will be programmed to lock and unlock doors at home, at the office and elsewhere. The secure software can be used on any mobile device. So if your phone runs out of juice, you’ll be able to borrow someone else’s device and log in with a fingerprint or facial scan. Phone stolen? Simply log in and change the digital keys. Kwikset, a brand of Spectrum Brands (SPB), offers the Kevo, and lock veterans Yale have partnered with Nest, now owned by Alphabet (GOOGL), to create the Yale Linus.
For the car, a variety of "connected car" services such as Audi Connect and GM's OnStar already let you unlock and lock the car remotely and even start it with a phone app — but you still need your keyfob to drive off. Next up: Allowing you to drive without even the keyfob, just your phone. Volvo is testing this capability in a pilot program in Los Angeles.
Frustrating power outages that leave people with fridges full of ruined food are on their way out as our electrical grid becomes increasingly intelligent – and resilient.
Two factors are at work: slow, incremental “smart grid” improvements to the system that delivers electricity, and the rapidly expanding use of solar energy in homes and business.
The breakthrough product here is the home battery. Developed by electric-car maker Tesla (TSLA) and others, by 2020, batteries will be cheap enough to store surplus solar power during the day and discharge it overnight, helping to better balance electricity supply and demand – and run a home for up to days during a blackout. LED lighting and more efficient appliances are helping, too, by reducing load on the system, whether the grid is or a backup system is running.
Utilities are also deploying huge banks of batteries, from suppliers like AES (AES), in storm-prone areas to make sure the power stays on for everyone.
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Burger-flippers have targets on their backs as fast-food executives are eager to replace them with machines, particularly as minimum wages in a variety of states are set to rise to $15.
Diners will notice reduced staffing up front as outlets such as Panera (PNRA) turn to touch-screen kiosks for order placing. Behind the scenes in the kitchen, industry giants like Middleby Corp. (MIDD) and boutique startups like San Francisco's Momentum Machines are all hard at work for devices that will take on tasks like loading and unloading dishwashers, flipping burgers, and cooking french fries.
Humans won't be totally out of the picture — the machines will require supervision and maintenance, and dissatisfied customers will need appeasing. But jobs will plummet.
Every year it seems that an additional car model loses the manual transmission option. Even the Ford F-150 pickup truck can’t be purchased with a stick anymore.
The decline of the manual transmission (in the U.S.) has been decades in the making, but two factors are, ahem, accelerating its demise:
Number one: Automatics are getting more efficient, with up to 10 gear ratios, allowing engines to run at the lowest, most economical speeds. Many Mazdas and some BMWs, among others, now score better fuel mileage with an automatic than with a stick.
Number two: Among high-performance cars, such as Porsches, “automated” manual shifts are taking hold. They use electronics to control the clutch instead of your left foot. You can select the gears with paddles, or just let the computer take care of that, too. The result: The computer shifts faster than even the most talented clutch-and-stick driver, improving the cars' acceleration numbers. Plus, the costs on these are coming down, and they can now be found in less-expensive sporty cars, such as the Golf GTI.
Even the biggest of highway trucks are abandoning the clutch and stick for automatics, for fuel-efficiency gains and to attract drivers who won’t need to learn how to grind their way through 18-plus gears.
Some price-leader economy models, such as the Nissan Versa and Ford Fiesta, will list manuals on their cheapest configurations (though few will actually sell), and a segment of enthusiast cars, such as the Ford Mustang and Mazda Miata MX-5, will continue to offer the traditional three-pedal arrangement for some years to come. “It will be reserved for the ‘driver’s vehicle,’” says Ivan Drury, an analyst for Edmunds.com. But finding one will be a challenge — those holdout drivers had better be prepared to special-order their clutch cars.
By the end of this decade, digital formats for tablets and e-readers will displace physical books for assigned reading on college campuses, The Kiplinger Letter is forecasting. K–12 schools won’t be far behind, though they’ll mostly stick with larger computers as their platform of choice.
Digital texts figure to yield more bang for the buck than today’s textbooks. Interactive software will test younger pupils’ mastery of basic skills such as arithmetic and create customized lesson plans based on their responses. Older students will be able to take digital notes and even simulate chemistry experiments when bricks-and-mortar labs aren’t handy.
This is a mixed bag for publishers. They’ll sell more digital licenses of semester- or yearlong usage of electronic textbooks as their customers can’t turn to the used-book marketplace anymore. On the other hand, schools are seeking free online, open-source databases of information and collaborating with other institutions and districts to develop their own content on digital models, cutting out traditional educational publishers such as Pearson (PSO), McGraw-Hill and Scholastic (SCHL).
If you want to hear the once-familiar beeps and whirs of a computer going online through a modem, you will soon need to do that either in a museum or in some very, very remote location.
According to a study from the Pew Foundation, only 3% of U.S. households went online via a dial-up connection in 2013. Thirteen years before that, only 3% had broadband (Today, 70% have home broadband). Massive federal spending on broadband initiatives, passed during the last recession to encourage economic recovery, has helped considerably.
Some providers will continue to offer dial-up as an afterthought for those who can’t or don’t want to connect via cable or another broadband means. But a number of the bigger internet service providers, such as Verizon Online, have quit signing up new dial-up subscribers altogether.
Few things are as symbolic of farming as the moldboard plow, but the truth is, the practice of “turning the soil” is dying off.
Modern farmers have little use for it. It provides a deep tillage that turns up too much soil, encouraging erosion because the plow leaves no plant material on the surface to stop wind and rain water from carrying the soil away. It also requires a huge amount of diesel fuel to plow, compared with other tillage methods, cutting into farmers' profits. The final straw: It releases more carbon dioxide into the air than other tillage methods.
Deep plowing is winding down its days on small, poor farms that can't afford new machinery. Most U.S. cropland is now managed as "no-till" or minimum-till, relying on herbicides and implements such as seed drills that work the ground with very little disturbance. Even organic farmers have found ways to minimize tillage, using cover crops rather than herbicides to cut down on weeds. Firms like John Deere (DE) offer a range of sophisticated devices for these techniques.
The amount of mail people are sending is plummeting, down 57% from 2004 to 2015 for stamped first-class pieces. So, around the country, the U.S. Postal Service has been cutting back on those iconic blue collection boxes. The number has fallen by more than half since the mid 1980s. Since it costs time and fuel for mail carriers to stop by each one, the USPS monitors usage and pulls out boxes that don't see enough traffic.
Some boxes will find new homes in places with greater foot traffic, such as shopping centers, public transit stops and grocery stores. But on a quiet corner at the end of your street? Better dump all your holiday cards and summer-camp mail in them, or prepare to say goodbye.
If you are online, you had better assume that you already have no privacy and act accordingly. Every mouse click and keystroke is tracked, logged and potentially analyzed and eventually used by Web site product managers, marketers, hackers and others. To use most services, users have to opt-in to lengthy terms and conditions that allow their data to be crunched by all sorts of actors.
The list of tracking devices is set to boom, as sensors are added to appliances, lights, locks, HVAC systems and even trash cans. Other innovations: Using Wi-Fi signals, for instance, to track movements, from where you're driving or walking down to your heartbeat. Retailers will use the technology to track in minute detail how folks walk around a store and reach for products. Also, facial-recognition software that can change display advertising to personalize it to you (time for a mask?). Transcription software will be so good that many businesses will soon collect mountains of phone-conversation data to mine and analyze.
And think of this: Most of us already carry around an always-on tracking device for which we usually pay good money — a smart phone. Your phone is loaded up with sensors and GPS data. Is it linked to a FitBit perhaps? Now it has your health data.
One reason not to fret: Encryption methods are getting better at walling off at least some aspects of our digital lives. But living the reclusive life of J.D. Salinger might soon become real fiction.
No, government energy cops are not coming for your bulbs. But the traditional incandescent lightbulb that traces its roots back to Thomas Edison is definitely on its way out. As of January 1, 2014, the manufacture and importation of 40- to 100-watt incandescent bulbs became illegal in the U.S., part of a much broader effort to get Americans to use less electricity.
Stores can still sell whatever inventory they have left, but once the hoarders have had their run, that’s it. And with incandescent bulbs burning for only about 1,000 hours each, eventually they’ll flicker out.
The lighting industry has moved forward with compact fluorescents, halogen bulbs, and most recently and successfully, bulbs that use light-emitting diodes (LEDs), and General Electric (GE) and Sylvania have found themselves sharing shelf space with newer firms like Cree (CREE) and Feit.
Soon, the only places you'll still see the telltale glow of a tungsten filament in a glass vacuum will be in heavy-duty and appliance bulbs, and some decorative items — and even for those, LEDs may ultimately take over..
Along with the pay phone and a cup of coffee, the parking meter was once one of the main reasons people carried around coins. The pay phone is gone, and a regular coffee now costs two bucks a cup, but meters are still standing on their stanchions, awaiting your quarters, in cities and towns across America.
New technologies are nibbling at the meter base: Many municipalities have installed machines (usually one per block) that let parkers buy a slip of paper to display on their windshield. Systems such as MobileNOW and Pango, which allow parkers to pay for parking by cell phone, are being enabled all over the country. Some experts see a future where the GPS in your car will link up with a municipal parking network, let you know where a spot is available nearby, and allow you to pay for it, all at once.
But don’t wave good-bye to Rita the meter maid yet; parking meters still have decades left on many streets and lots. For one thing, meter makers have introduced innovations of their own, such as new tops that accept credit cards, are powered by the sun and can relay through wireless connections to parking authorities how often spots are being used.
Plus, there’s a familiarity factor, says Casey Jones, a former chairman of the International Parking Institute. A city that has used meters in one place is likely to stick with that technology even when adding new metered spaces.
Courtesy Burger Records
In the beginning, there was the LP record. When the compact disc arrived, many forecast the LP’s demise. It never happened; there's still a vigorous niche market for vinyl, even in the era of streamed downloads.
In between those two technologies came the cassette. Remember those rattly little plastic boxes full of tape? They were designed for dictation but pressed into service to deliver music to millions, particularly during the 1980s, when they were the only way to take tunes with you, whether with a Walkman, boombox or in your car’s tape deck.
They’re still around, actually. And not just as a last-gasp way to hear music when borrowing Granny's Buick Century. New music is being released on cassettes, kept alive by punk rockers, lo-fi artists and their labels. Sale numbers are generally small — a few hundred here and there for many promoters, although Burger Records, a Fullerton, Calif.-based label, estimates that it has sold upward of 300,000 tapes over the last eight years.
Cassette culture today thrives on the medium’s low production cost—at least compared with vinyl records. And being able to hold music right in your hand can also be a revelation to younger generations, for whom music is something you get online. "It's just something great to walk away from a show with," says Matt Stuttler, a St. Louis musician, publisher and producer who puts out cassettes under the label Eat Tapes. "A stack of cassettes is a reminder of specific shows, and they're a whole lot cooler to look at than a few loose scraps of download cards."
You may have seen E85 fuel at the pump—it’s the one with the yellow nozzle. Perhaps you’ve been tempted by a price per gallon that’s lower, sometimes much lower, than unleaded. Maybe you’ve even bought some, if you owned one of the millions of cars in North America capable of running on “flex fuel.”
E85, a blend of mostly ethanol (a type of alcohol) with a just a splash of gasoline, is one of a number of efforts by farmers (and the federal government, among others) to get you burning more corn in your car. (Oil companies are opposed—it’s one of those classic Washington battles).
Here’s the hitch: Running your car on E85 usually means a 15% to 30% mileage penalty, since ethanol produces less energy than petroleum gasoline. If the price discount isn’t bigger than the loss of fuel mileage, you’re probably spending more. The plummeting price of petroleum is making it harder and harder to find a discount that makes economic sense.
So why does E85 continue to sell? Enough folks like the up-front discount but aren’t doing the math. The National Association of Convenience Stores dug deep into the prospects for E85 in a study last year. Among their conclusions: “Consumers are focused on the absolute price differential, not the percent change, and that price discount need not be equal to the energy differential.”
Or, as one analyst of the renewable fuels market gently put it, "The consumer is a strange animal."
A penny for your thoughts isn’t much of a bargain these days. Not only is a penny worth less than ever thanks to inflation, but the cost of minting each Lincoln has been more than its face value for almost a decade.
Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other countries have deep-sixed their smallest coin, but the U.S. penny endures, as the U.S. Mint continues to churn out millions per year to replace the coins vanishing into change jars, vacuum cleaner bags and your car's floorboards.
Noted economists and the editorial pages of major national newspapers and journals continue to call for the penny’s retirement. But it has been years since anyone in Congress made a bid to kill the penny. One reason: While penny opponents are a diverse bunch, one group that’s deeply interested in its continuance is the zinc industry (a penny is actually 97.5% zinc and only 2.5% copper). And yes, Washington has a penny lobby, in the form of Americans for Common Cents (which is largely funded by zinc manufacturers).
But it's not just lobbyists. As an article in the Harvard Political Review put it, Americans' "general apathy and resistance to change" is also keeping the penny around.
Ask not for whom the fax machine whirrs—it whirrs for thee. With e-mail, file-sharing, cloud services, collaborative office applications and more, who’s still using fax machines?
Folks (such as lawyers and real estate agents) who want your actual signature, for starters. Then there are offices communicating with far-flung branches that don’t have broadband, as well as mom-and-pop businesses. Finally, there are “non-technical users,” which Ross Rubin, principal analyst at Reticle Research, defines as people for whom sticking a sheet of paper in the fax and dialing a phone number is easier than scanning that document and attaching it to an e-mail.
The Consumer Electronics Association stopped measuring the sales of stand-alone fax machines in 2013, but that year, it estimated that 456,000 of them sold at about $100 each. That spells tweet-tweedle-tweet sounds for some time to come. What will eventually do in the fax (which is now over 50 years old)? Rubin thinks the smartphone will finish the job that e-mail started, with apps that let you sign documents using the phone’s touch screen and your finger.
We now have credit cards, debit cards, prepaid cards, PayPal, ApplePay, Venmo, Bitcoin and who knows what else. But the woman ahead of you in the grocery store checkout line just pulled out her checkbook!
Electronic means have displaced checks as the primary alternative to cash, particularly among businesses paying consumers (automatic deposit for paychecks, for example.) But Americans cling to their checkbooks, more than in other developed nations.
Just as there are early adopters of new ways to pay, there are resisters. For businesses, the ability to delay payment for a day or two while the check is in the mail is an opportunity to make money on the interest—the “float.”
And for consumers? “Old habits die hard,” says Gareth Lodge, a senior analyst with Celent, a research consultancy. Plus, he notes, “some of the alternatives aren’t really alternatives. Can you imagine your grandmother using PayPal? Can you use Venmo to pay your utility provider? Can you use Bitcoins at Walgreens? All of them will take checks.”
The citizens band radio (CB) was one of the biggest fads of the 1970s, when millions of people around the country hopped onto the airwaves while driving to chat with truckers and others about road conditions (and traffic enforcement). Movies and TV shows such as “Smokey and the Bandit,” “BJ and the Bear” and “Convoy” glorified the medium.
The dilettantes faded away, of course, and a number of technologies have taken bites out of CB’s relevance: GPS navigation, big trucking companies’ satellite networks and, of course, the cell phone.
But you can still pick up a CB radio online (or better yet, at a truck stop) and join the chatter on channel 19. The technology is still popular with truckers, who face considerable cell phone dead zones as they travel across the country. And preppers—people who are making plans to survive a breakdown in society—are buying them along with batteries and freeze-dried food. Unlike a cell phone, the CB radio requires no towers or network that could go down if the you-know-what hits the fan.
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