Zombie Technologies Resist Disruption

Sometimes, the situation is not as dynamic as tech strategists would like to believe it is. My entry on inflection points and truly disruptive change struck the customary note of paranoia, cautioning those of us who project a growth rate and assume it will always be thus. Clipper ships, buggy whips, and telegrams are easy examples of technologies eclipsed by change. But we are also surrounded by stubbornly durable products that continue to hang around long past the point that any tech strategist would expect.

Why, for example, do FAX machines still exist? We can send PDFs around by mail, it's easy to sign and return documents completely digitally. Yet, my recent home refinance expected me to conduct the entire transaction by FAX. (I got them to accept an encrypted ZIP file full of PDFs instead.) A product manager in 1995 with a glimpse of today's mobile interconnected world would surely have predicted the death of the FAX machine by now, yet it's still a multibillion dollar (if declining) industry. The production equipment is fully-capitalized, R&D budgets are low, and demand still inexplicably exists. A generation of workers is comfortable with the equipment, and despite the hassles it is "good enough." Office equipment companies will ride this curve down the backside of the product life cycle curve as long as those thin commodity profit margins will sustain the business.

What other forms have persisted surprisingly beyond their sell-by date? Bicycle couriers? In-person equity trading floors? COBOL? The imperial system of measurement?