The modern day magic provided by our mobile devices has undoubtedly improved the way we live – a simple swipe of the finger can open up a whole world of opportunities for communication, trade and discovery which aren’t constrained by geography or time.

Standing on the shoulders of giants

But these devices which have become so tightly woven into the fabric of our daily lives simply wouldn’t exist without the legacy of earlier tech pioneers – people such as Martin Cooper and Robert L Patrick who laid the foundations of both software and hardware so that we could build our brave new touchscreen world. It’s something which we tend to forget when chasing the glamour of the new.

So it is good to see that there has been a move towards assessing, appropriating and, if necessary, adapting ‘outdated’ technology to extract the best of past developments and forge them into something new and improved. 

For example, Google’s Project Ara is the internet giant’s attempt to reinvent the mobile phone based on the design principles of the DIY computer builds of the 1980s. It uses a modular system which allows users to swap components in and out to build their ideal phone, giving them access to higher processing speeds, longer battery life, better video cards and so on without the need to buy a whole new phone every couple of years. Based on the Android operating system, Ara is scheduled to have a limited market pilot this year, and businesses interested in developing modules are free to download a Module Developers Kit. Ultimately, Google is anticipating a ‘module marketplace’ with the potential to be as popular and active as today’s app stores.

Blasts from the past

When it comes to security, old-school software and hardware has a role to play precisely because of its obsolescence. For example, security for the US’ nuclear arsenal runs on floppy disks. It’s dated, it’s analogue – and that’s why it’s safe. Because the system cannot connect to the internet, it cannot be hacked, and the computers it runs on have strictly limited availability. The Russian Federal Guard Service has gone even further, ordering 20 manual typewriters in an effort to ensure the most sensitive information is paper-based only. Whether this will lead to a return to yet another old school piece of kit – the covert spy camera – remains to be seen, but there is a noticeable trend towards the past in the security business.

Finally, consumer appetite for all things retro is responsible for a revival in personal technology which first made an appearance at the back end of the 20th century.  From the new, improved Nokia 3310 (with added internet connection) to the reincarnation of the Sony Walkman as a highly-expensive music player for audiophiles only, it’s a clear message that sometimes a much-loved design lives beyond its original technical lifespan to fight another day with new components and a 21st-century spin. 

For those involved in the tech industry it’s a clear signal that, while the focus is rightly always on the future, there’s a great deal to be learned from the past. We might not need roads where we’re going, but it helps to have a map.

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