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Right tech, wrong time

January 27, 2019 at 1:51 a.m.

Lots of Arkansans yearned for, and might have received, tech gifts over the holidays. The range of such gifts roams from ultra smart HDTVs and smart speakers to wireless keyboards, wireless headphones, thermostats that learn the habits of everyone in a household, LED-illuminated bike helmets that light up when the bike's brakes are applied, electronic food scales, WiFi range extenders, robots that keep kids company or vacuum the floors, pet trackers, square cameras for Instagrammers, Fitbits, e-readers, and chargers to keep all this stuff up and running.

Black Friday sales aside, some of these miracle-working machines can be pretty pricey. That's why it's wise to remember that what's thought to be a must-have today might be gone tomorrow. And you can't even throw them out. There's often a charge to recycle electronics.

This is especially aggravating when there is a choice between competing devices and operating systems. It's not, for example, a good idea to give a dedicated Apple user a Samsung Galaxy X9 Plus smartphone. Both the iPhone and the Samsung Galaxy are highly regarded right now. But it's possible that one of them might outsmart the other and overpower the market, leaving the loser in the dust. Along with the owners of the loser.

Among the most egregious examples of this came around in the mid-1970s when Betamax, one of the earliest consumer-level video cassette recorders, was introduced by Sony. Everybody had one or wanted one--until the mid-1980s, when VHS (video home system) cassettes showed up. Since Betamax was still around, the home video crowd was faced with a choice between the two. Betamax had better picture quality, but a shorter recording time. VHS was cheaper and could handle the recording of a two-hour movie.

Huge arguments (like the political standoffs of today) surrounding the merits of one over the other threatened to tear apart friends and families.

And nobody wanted to invest in a system that was going to fade away. Or was too expensive (like high-quality record-style LaserDiscs, which showed up in the late 1970s but never really caught on because they couldn't be used for home recording).

Turns out that people weren't enamored of spending more for Betamax. VHS took over the market, and although Betamax recorders continued to be produced until 2002 (lucky for those who had spent a pile of money assembling a stellar collection of tapes), they eventually disappeared from the home-entertainment scene.

The Betamax crowd got the last laugh, though, when DVDs knocked VHS out of the ring in 2008.

The video battle was preceded by a music standoff between eight-track audio tapes, which started showing up in the mid-1960s (mostly to deliver prerecorded tunes to car stereos), and '70s-era cassette tapes. It's easy to see why cassettes took over. You can't rewind an eight-track. Jamming is inevitable. It makes clunky noises when switching channels (I knew exactly when to expect such clunking while constantly playing two beloved tapes in my yellow and black 1972 Opel Rallye: the soundtrack to A Clockwork Orange--Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, "I Want to Marry a Lighthouse Keeper" and "Singin' in the Rain" were my favorites--and Jethro Tull's Aqualung; there's no accounting for youthful taste, I guess). And cassettes made recording mix tapes super-easy (although most of us couldn't time them accurately enough to allow the last tune to finish).

Portable cassette players like Walk-man showed up in the late 1970s, allowing music fans to plug in cassettes and wander around listening to whatever they pleased. Sony sold around 200 million of them until they were discontinued in 2010, collateral damage in the public's abandonment of cassette tapes in favor of CDs and iPods.

As any audio purist can tell you, vinyl records got smacked around by CDs and digital streaming, but they've never gone away.

Unlike 3D TVs. I have a friend who was so enamored of these oddities that he bought two of them. This was a year or so after the release of James Cameron's film Avatar in 2009, which opened the floodgates to zillions of 3D movies in theaters. It was inevitable that consumers on the cutting edge of home media wanted 3D TVs in their living rooms.

The problem is that many had recently invested heavily in HDTVs (that's because over-the-air TV broadcasting switched from analog to digital) and those TVs weren't as inexpensive as they are now (my first flatscreen TV, which measured about 32 inches, cost around $1,500; now you can get a 55-inch smart 4K Ultra HDTV for under $300). They weren't likely to jump on the 3D train, especially since they required use of glasses, and not all glasses worked on all 3D TVs.

Throw in the need for a 3D-enabled Blu-ray disc player and 3D-enabled cable box, and you might as well go to the theater, buy a ticket, and watch every 3D movie that was ever released; the cost would probably be the same.

They don't make 3D TVs any more. I don't ask my friend what became of the two he had. As Iris DeMent sings in the theme song from the 2014 HBO drama The Leftovers: Let the mystery be.

Karen Martin is senior editor of Perspective.

[email protected]

Editorial on 01/27/2019

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