End of the Retooling Decade?

Tim O’Reilly wrote a great post about the collapse of demand for consumer electronics and there he quotes the term “peak waste” – in an analogy to peak oil maybe we’ve reached the pinnacle of waste in our consumer culture. I absolutely agree that the “creative destruction”the process of transformation that accompanies radical innovation grew to unsustainable levels recently but here is my explanation of the radical innovation that our society went through over the last 10-15 years.

One of the biggest shifts of the last decade was the move from analog to digital media. The only digital media widely used only ten years ago was the CD. And the typical CD player fits more into the analog rather then digital era (most CDs still don’t support CD-Text). The rest of media was analog – TV, VHS, radio, phone, photographs…

Ever since the mid-nineties we saw the rapid development and adoption of new music formats (MP3, WMA, OGG, AAC, Apple Lossless), new video media and formats (DVD, BlueRay, HD-DVD, DivX, MP4), new interfaces (DVI, HDMI), move from analog to digital TV (HDTV, DVB-T, DVB-S) and digital radio (DAB, DVB-H). Along with these changes came the new business models of digital media distribution (iTunes Store, AmazonMP3, Netflix online), new music providers (Sirius, XM-Radio, Pandora, last.fm). We also saw the advance of digital communication (Bluetooth, GSM, UMTS, SMS, VoIP) and it led to the rise of new providers of communication services (Skype, Vonage). Photography underwent the same transition – from analog cameras to digital cameras and now to camera-phones and from photo albums to Flickr.

The move to digital era had a dramatic impact on the design of devices we use and so we saw some very rapid changes in the consumer electronic industry: move from VHS to Tivo, POTS to iPhone, analog TV to LCD screens and many, many others. The usecases for digital world were not clear when we started this retooling and it took ten years to discover how will users get access and consume digital media and the requirements for new set of standards and interoperability.

I expect that the once we finish this transition we will be able to design more interoperable and software upgradeable devices. These devices will hopefully last longer but I still can’t imagine handing down “my grandfather’s iPod”. The rate of innovation will not decrease, it will simply move to the social aspect enabled by this retooling. Once we assume that every person in the world has an access to a device that is always connected, has a microphone, camera and GPS chip we can change the ways our societies communicate. Fortunately it will require less physical waste…


  1. You are really looking for the term “Peak Credit”.

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