Every office has Mesozoic Era technologies that don't fit the Digital Age. Some are near extinction, some should be, but others continue to thrive, for good reason.
Look around your modern office. If it’s like most offices, amid the hodgepodge of cutting-edge technology are quite a few dinosaurs that seem pulled from yesteryear. Those devices survive for a variety of reasons: sentimental value, the lack of something better to replace them, a shortage of money allocated to have them upgraded, or the fact that they simply do their jobs and don’t need to be removed.
But which of them do we really need? Which ones are on the endangered list, which should be, and which continue to survive regardless of new digital evolutions? Here’s a look at eight of them.
1. Fax machines
I got to thinking about this after reading Paul Venezia’s column in InfoWorld about why he hates fax machines.
Personally, I have nothing against fax machines. Venezia claims they are a nightmare from an IT perspective, but I disagree. We have a fax machine in the lab that receives product submission forms for when we do reviews. In the 10 years it’s been doing its job, it’s never jammed once. Other than putting in new paper and changing the ink cartridge (only once, I think), it’s a maintenance-free dinosaur that we have no intention of tossing out anytime soon.
Of course, people can e-mail us their product submission forms now. But guess what? When they do, we print the form out so the reviewer can refer to it while testing. So the fax machine actually saves a step.
It’s true there are ways to get around not having a fax machine in your office, but those are workarounds for what is essentially a simple and elegant way to transport paper documents from one place to another. All you need is a phone line. No Internet, switches, routers, hubs, traffic-filtering appliances or (gasp!) IT people are needed. So in the dinosaur IT wars, I declare the fax machine a survivor, at least for now.
Species outlook: Still thriving despite recent overhunting.
2. Disk drives
Some technologies have disappeared on their own, like those big floppy disks that used to be standard on every IBM PC. But those technologies have been replaced by something better that does the same function. Big floppies evolved into the little hard-cased disks. And those pretty much became today’s key drives with a couple steps such as Zip drives in between. Nobody would argue that they need a 5.25-inch floppy anymore because other storage technology has replaced and improved on it.
And those modern flash memory drives can have their own intelligence built in, as the LOK-IT drive showed when we reviewed it, making data in transport highly secure in a way that no floppy disk of any size could ever hope to achieve.
Species outlook: Extinct.
3. CRT monitors
Now, there are some technologies that have no business in the office anymore yet somehow keep hanging around.
The biggest example I still see are CRT monitors. Graphic designers used to argue that they needed those power-hungry, 300-pound giants because of their ability to display true colors, but LCDs and now LEDs (really a type of LCD) can achieve the same level of color accuracy.
And the prices are the same now. No agency or company has an excuse not to upgrade to LCDs.
In fact, I have a personal beef with CRTs. A few years ago I was starting to get a lot of eyestrain, to the point where I was being fitted for glasses with a very low focusing-like prescription. However, my doctor suggested I upgrade from CRT monitors to LCDs. I did that at home and at work. Within about a week my eyestrain problems were gone. It must have been all that CRT flickering.
So please, people, do yourself and your agency’s workers a favor and kick those CRTs to the curb. The money you save on your cooling and power bills alone will make up any cost difference, and besides, in many cases LCDs are actually cheaper than CRTs now. So you really have to work to stick to your old tech. The CRT dinosaur needs to be extinct. If you see one, please put it out of its misery.
Species outlook: Going extinct (and good riddance).
4. Non-smart phones
One technology group that is kind of on the bubble is the cell phone that is not a smart phone. Much to the surprise of many people who know me as the uber-tech geek, I happen to carry one of these.
Although I see the advantages of being able to check e-mail while sitting in my car or whatever (but not while driving, thank you), I also see that the same people who have to buy the latest phone gadget don’t really use them to their full potential. They purchase a $499 phone or tablet, impress their friends, and then spend all their time watching YouTube videos and playing Angry Birds. Oh, and they use their phones like phones.
My phone gets calls and that’s it. If you need to reach me to tell me something important, you can. I don’t feel the need to incorporate a smart phone or tablet into my box of tools. I’ve used them and even had a few on very long term (yearlong) loans for testing. And I’ve found that, for the most part, they just get in the way, unless I’m using them like a phone.
That said, I have to admit that non-smart phones are probably on the way to extinction. In fact, when my old, true blue Samsung model dies, I’ll probably upgrade to something a little more advanced. I don’t want to be like the lone columnist in a newspaper office banging away on an old school Royal typewriter, though that is a pretty cool image.
So the non-smart phone is probably going on the endangered list, confined to out-of-the-way places and curmudgeons like me for now, but for the most part, it’s probably not long for this world.
Species outlook: Endangered.
5. Desktop PCs
If anything is a sacred cow (or triceratops) in the office, it’s the desktop computer. They are as much a part of life as cube walls and office chairs. But are they actually on their way out?
We’ve looked at many desktop replacement schemes over the years, from thin clients to life in the cloud, and many of them show a lot of promise. But many also come with their own host of problems.
We are just figuring out how to reduce latency and provide robust security within the cloud. Thin clients were never able to do everything that desktops could. And laptops with docking stations don’t have the power of most desktops. Plus, when they are all suited up in a dock, they’re practically as large as a desktop anyway, at least in terms of footprint.
Desktops are evolving, though. Models like the Dell Vostro are doing all-in-one right, putting the entire computer inside the monitor. And systems like the Vostro kill off CRTs too, so you can kill two possibly endangered species off with one stone.
Still, the security blanket of a rectangular black box on your desk is hard to pass up. And new models like the ThinkCentre M91p come out all the time that are smaller, faster and cheaper than the desktops of yesteryear.
Throw in the fact that in a lot of workplaces, such as government agencies that deal with sensitive information, managers don’t want the computers to be portable, and we don’t think desktops are in any real danger. The look and feel of them might change slightly, but don’t go reselling the desktop real estate your computer is sitting on just yet.
Species outlook: Stable and evolving.
It’s hard to imagine a relatively new technology like e-mail being thought of as endangered, but that is just what some people are thinking. Instead, they want to replace good old e-mail with social media technology like Yammer, Jabber or Google+.
There is something to be said about creating a private space where workers can chat among themselves. But I’ve seen these systems implemented in places, some of them within government, and they don’t really improve efficiency any more than e-mail.
In fact, in a lot of cases, productivity drops. After all, it’s like Facebook, but for your workmates. It seems people do a lot more talking about work once these go online but less actual working. Every minute spent with social media is a minute away from actual work. And if someone really needs to contact someone else, there is e-mail or even the phone.
People said that e-mail was dead when AOL came out with instant messaging years ago. But e-mail is still around, and AOL, well, lets just say they are not doing quite as well. IM could not kill e-mail, and these new social media tools won’t either.
Species Outlook: Stable.
Since the 1980s we’ve heard tales of the paperless office, but we’ve never actually seen one. Especially in government, nothing gets done unless ink meets paper. Things need to be printed out, signed and approved to become law. There is simply no other way. Possession is the law in most cases, and we feel a lot better holding a signed contract between our fingers that guarantees our rights than a digital copy that represents the real thing.
Paper is comforting. It resists tampering. It’s real. And paper does not crash.
The thing is, Americans love technology, but there is a small part of us that does not trust the machine. We can never know what really goes on inside those little boxes we so love. A hundred years ago the stuff we do electronically would be considered a magic trick. A few years before that, it might get you burned at the stake.
And I’ve seen technology fail at the worst possible time. When I was covering Hurricane Katrina for GCN, I saw how vulnerable computers were when pressed. I even wrote a novel about how people needed to fall back on antiquated technology to survive the storm when everything else failed. Paper for the most part is incapable of failing you.
I am a big fan of recycling and reducing our use of paper as much as possible. But our dependence on the stuff seems to be growing. I don’t think we will get rid of it anytime soon.
Species outlook: Thriving.
I couldn’t resist adding our favorite real species to the list. After all, aren’t humans the cause of most problems in the workplace? They make mistakes. They get sick. They play Angry Birds when they should be working. If they were computers, they would have been kicked to the scrap heap a long time ago.
But humans have skills that no computer could ever hope to mimic. Despite human-seeming robots and computers such as IBM’s Watson that can win at game shows, we are in no danger of losing our dominance to them anytime soon. Computers aren’t creative. They couldn’t come up with a plan to destroy us if they wanted to, which they also can’t do. So for now, we will just have to live with ourselves, though I know quite a few IT managers who would happily replace some of their users with nice, reliable computers.
Species outlook: Thriving for now. And if we ever fall into decline, we’ve probably only got ourselves to blame.