There are always generation gaps between people born in different eras, but nothing makes them so obvious as technology. New gadgets come into being and become obsolete within just a few years. Lots of items that seem like they didn't come out all that long ago to us adults have already evolved into unrecognizability to children who are old enough to use the latest high-tech gadgetry (which these days probably starts at 3).
At the time of this writing, 15-year-olds were born around 2000, 10-year-olds around 2005 and 5-year-olds around 2010. These kids were born during or shortly after some pretty major shifts in our tech, from hardcopy to cloud-based software, from difficult-to-access Internet to 24/7 connectivity, from pagers and cell phones to smartphones, and from desktops and laptops to mobile computing. A lot of devices have, in fact, been driven to extinction (or near extinction) by smartphone apps that replicated their functionality.
With that in mind, here are 10 bits of tech today's adults used as youngsters, or even just a few years ago, that now seem like barely decipherable ancient relics to today's always-wired children.
The original iPod, released in 2001, was a portable digital music player with a monochrome display. Kids today find many things about it baffling [source: Fine Brothers]. It required headphones to use since it didn't have built-in speakers, and it didn't have a touchscreen. You had to turn a physical scroll wheel to navigate through your songs. The original also didn't really do anything but let you store and play songs. And you couldn't even buy and load songs from the Internet from the device itself. You had to physically connect it to your computer via a cable to download new content. iTunes wasn't even introduced until 2003, so there was no easy single purchase point for your songs.
Like many outmoded devices, they were large and clunky by today's standards. They weren't as intuitive to navigate and didn't do nearly as much as newer mobile devices. The iPod has since morphed into the iPod Touch, which is a full-fledged mini tablet with wireless connectivity that can play music, movies, games and more. It's pretty much an iPhone without the phone, which is way more modern kids' speed. And pretty much all smartphones can carry a lot of digital music, making a dedicated MP3 player unnecessary for most people.
Using old-school computers took a lot of technical savvy, especially the early ones that booted you directly onto a command line and required connection to external storage devices and other components. They've gotten more user-friendly over the years, with more intuitive graphical user interfaces (GUIs). With the newest OSes, you don't have to do much (if any) configuration, which is making the background processes and setup of computers a bit of a mystery to modern kids. And more and more computing is done using mobile devices, which require even less tinkering in the background. According to a survey by educational nonprofit organization Project Tomorrow, in 2013, 64 percent of students primarily connected to the Internet through 3G/4G mobile devices and 23 percent through a smart TV or gaming console [source: Riedel].
Most people probably don't know command-line directives, but modern kids also find powering up old desktops kind of foreign, since you have to turn on the computer, monitor and all other external peripherals separately rather than hit one friendly power button. The younger generations also increasingly don't know how to do things like change WiFi and other configuration settings, troubleshoot computer issues and reinstall the OS (which might be necessary when the computer has contracted a virus). With most new smart mobile devices, you turn them on and they work, and you download apps from an app store and they just run. If something goes terribly wrong, you turn them off and back on, or jump out of the app and back in or hand them to a professional to fix, rather than doing the tinkering that was once par for the course with older computers.
Texting has been a common form of communication for years, beginning in earnest after cellular providers started allowing text messaging across competing networks around 2001. Smartphones with fully alphanumeric virtual keyboards have become all the rage, especially since the iPhone came out in 2007. But in the earlier texting days, people were doing a lot of it on flip phones and other similar cell phones, most of which had tiny displays and push-button number pads rather than touchscreen alphanumeric keyboards. You would have to use the number keys to type text, with each number or symbol representing multiple letters or other characters. You'd have to hit a number multiple times until your letter came up, and spaces and other special characters could usually be typed using the star or pound keys. This may be second nature to those of us who were around for the cell phone revolution, but to kids who grew up with virtual keyboards that show all the letters, this seems unintuitive, slow and hard to master.
Another technology that didn't make it unscathed through the digital revolution was the film camera. Digital cameras have technically been around for decades, but they first appeared in their current form in the mid-1990s as small point-and-shoot cameras with LCD view screens. They began to surpass film cameras in sales around 2003, and they took over the market almost entirely within just a few years. As a result, children today have grown up almost entirely with the instant gratification of digital cameras. When you show a child an old-school film camera, they're unlikely to know that it needs film, how to load or advance the film or how to get them to take a picture. And the lack of a preview screen baffles them, never mind the steps and expense necessary to get the film developed so you could actually see your photos.
Now that most smartphones have high-resolution cameras, they're cutting into the digital camera market, so the point-and-shoot camera in general may be a puzzlement to the kids of the near future.
Kids today also missed the heyday of the pager. Before cell phones became widely adopted, the pager (also sometimes called a beeper) was the other commercial choice for instant mobile communication. Popular in the 1990s, beepers allowed people to send the pager holder a phone number or other numeric message by placing a call to the pager's number then typing the message number. When the pager beeped, the owner knew to look at the tiny LCD screen to see the message and to find a phone to return the call. Starting in the late 1990s, pagers were supplanted by the cell phone, which gave users the ability to make calls or send text messages from just about anywhere. The now ubiquitous smartphone offers even more mobile communication options.
The few remaining pagers in action are now mainly used in industries like health care, where getting someone's immediate attention is important. So a few of today's kids who decide to become doctors may one day need to learn to use them. But even in health care settings, pagers being slowly replaced by smartphones.
Early home gaming consoles like the Atari 2600, Atari 7200, Colecovision and original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) read software from game cartridges — hard, boxy contraptions that contained a sort of internal motherboard with exposed metal connection points at the end that made a connection when they were inserted into the gaming device. When faced with an old gaming system, it takes even teenagers a moment to figure out how to insert the cartridges and power up the system. They also have trouble figuring out what to do when the game doesn't work right away, which often required removing and reinserting the cartridge, sometimes several times, to get the game going.
Although some handheld gaming systems use little cartridges, the last home cartridge console was the Nintendo 64, released in 1996. All others at that point had started to move to CD-like optical media. Having constantly connected high-speed Internet and growing up in the age of the mobile computing devices have also made downloading software second nature to kids, more so than fiddling with physical storage media.
It wasn't long ago that you absolutely had to buy hard copies of your software applications to get them onto your computer. Prepackaged software started in the 1970s and '80s on cassette tapes or floppy disks and eventually evolved into higher capacity CD-ROMs and DVD-ROMs. In a lot of cases, say if you wanted to play a game, the disk would have to be in the CD or DVD drive or you couldn't play. You'd also burn any data you needed to move from computer to computer onto CD-R/RW or DVD-R/RW disks. But now you're more likely to move data using little USB flash drives, or send it via the Internet. And lots of computing happens on pared down devices like netbooks, tablets or smartphones, which rely on downloads rather than software installation from physical media.
High-speed Internet in the home has become ubiquitous, and you've likely become accustomed to downloading your software from the cloud even on regular computers, so manufacturers are dispensing with these built-in drives on some of the more full-featured laptops. You can perform a number of tasks in the cloud that used to require dedicated software on our computers, including creating documents, storing and editing photos, and checking or sending email. Although kids might be familiar with putting game disks in a gaming console, even those are moving heavily toward downloads. And a lot of kids today do most of their computing on mobile devices that don't require insertion of any physical media.
Before the iPhone spurred the smartphone market with its 2007 debut, most people's cell phones were mainly used as phones, of all things. They slowly began to do things like hold music and run rudimentary apps, but for the most part, if you wanted to take digital notes or access a calendar or the like in the early 2000s, you needed another dedicated productivity device — the personal digital assistant (PDA). These were the predecessors to smartphones and included Palm Pilots, Windows Pocket PCs and Blackberries. Some required writing or navigating in a special touchpad area of the device with a stylus, and others had built-in keyboards. They ran apps like today's smartphones, but there weren't that many to choose from and you couldn't just download them on the fly. The earliest PDAs didn't even have wireless connectivity. To get data uploaded or downloaded, they had to be connected to a computer via a serial cable.
They were useful, but a far cry from today's wirelessly connected, app-loaded smartphones, which allow users to do many things that used to necessitate carrying multiple devices. Today's children have never known a world without the Internet, and the youngest have grown up surrounded by easily portable devices that can connect to the 'net to send and receive all their data. You could even say that our smartphones, and non-phone devices like tablets and the iPhone Touch, are next-gen PDAs.
With high-speed Internet common in most homes, hopping online is largely an instant and silent affair. But before many of today's kids were born, unconnected people had to take multiple steps get computers onto the Internet. It required dialing into your ISP (Internet Service Provider) using a phone number via an external (or later internal) dial-up modem. Older models even required placing a rotary phone headset onto a cradle on the modem. Connecting via a modem was noisy because it literally placed a phone call and sent analog signals over the phone lines. This would tie up the phone line, and the slow data-transfer method meant downloading and uploading took a while. Most kids today likely don't recognize the modem noise and don't know the torture of watching a picture draw itself onto the computer screen from the top down at a snail's pace.
Most mobile devices and WiFi-enabled modern computers detect any local WiFi networks automatically. You just have to choose the network you want to connect to (such as your home WiFi network), type your password and boom, you're off and running, able to simply open a browser and surf the Internet, or go to a built-in app store and download software and entertainment media. If your password is saved on your device, you may only have to do this once. And when smartphones don't have access to WiFi (or the WiFi is turned off), they simply connect by default to the carrier's cellular network, through which they can also send and receive Internet data.
Many adults today grew up with cassette tapes (among other older audio media), and younger adults grew up consuming their music on CDs. But today's children and teens were born in the age of digital music, which took off not long after the invention of the MP3 in the mid-1990s and the Napster music sharing site's 1999 debut. Now most people consume music through iTunes, Google Play and the Amazon Digital Music store, or online streaming services such as Pandora and Spotify. The CD sections of stores have shrunk considerably, and many kids have never even seen a cassette tape. Working with old cassette players is challenging for them: They have to figure out how to insert the tape on the right side to get to the song they want to hear, something you don't even have to think about with CDs or digital music, which allow you to jump right to the song you want to play. With tape, going from one song to another usually required fast forwarding or rewinding and often repeatedly stopping, hitting play and listening until you got to the right point on the tape. Heaven forbid the tape might jam and unspool and have to be wound back into the cassette.
Only having access to the songs on one tape in a cassette player at a given time is a far cry from the situation today, when hundreds or thousands of songs can be instantly accessed on a mobile device, with any other music available through the Internet.
The most super plugged-in know how difficult it is to break free of the biggest tech companies. HowStuffWorks looks at how hard it is and why.
Author's Note: 10 Technologies Kids Already Don't Know How to Use
There's nothing like researching kids' use of technology to realize how old you are. Some of the things on the list that I now use daily seem like they've been around forever, but when I think back, the iPhone really hasn't been with us for much of my life, and we haven't had high-speed WiFi and relatively inexpensive cellular data plans for very long. Those ushered in the age of the touchscreen tablet and constant connectivity, which disrupted and transformed just about all of our gadgets. Now just about everything has downloadable apps and we send all kinds of data to and through our phones, even health data from wearable devices. And I can't imagine life without video streaming. I love all this newfound computing capability, but it's fun to revisit some of the obsolete gadgets of my youth.
More Great Links
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