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 other familiar items.
Keys: 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: Ditching the keyfob entirely. Volvo says it plans to implement this in 2017.
Blackouts: 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.
Fast-Food Workers: 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.
The Clutch Pedal: 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, developed by firms such as Borg-Warner (BWA), ZF Friedrichshafen and Aisin, are getting more efficient, with up to nine 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: Shifting is faster than even for the most talented clutch-and-stick jockey, 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.
College Textbooks: 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 (PLO), McGraw-Hill and Scholastic (SCHL).
Dial-Up Internet: 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.
The Plow: 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.
Your Neighbor Mail Collection Box: 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.
Your Privacy: 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.
The Incandescent Light Bulb: 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 three-way bulbs (such as the 50/100/150 watt), heavy-duty and appliance bulbs, and some decorative bulbs.