STARTUP

Everyone Loves Vintage Tech–and It’s Creating a Problem for Startups Everywhere

The craze for vintage Nintendos and retro phones says something’s wrong with today’s tech.

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BY Ryan Holmes - 07 Sep 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Remember when our vacuums didn't invade our privacy? Last month, it was revealed that iRobot, the makers of the Roomba, had plans in the works to sell floor layouts of users' homes, collected as the autonomous vacuums went about their cleaning duties.

Lost in the headlines was another interesting piece of news from a very different corner of the tech universe: Nintendo announced the release of a limited mini edition of its vintage Super Nintendo Entertainment System. Popular way back in the '90s, the video game console is expected to sell out as soon as it hits the shelves. When the company released a retro version of its original Nintendo system last year, nostalgic fans literally lined up to grab them.

I don't think these two stories are unrelated. In fact, I think they're intimately connected, in a way that has repercussions far beyond the world of vacuums and video games.

There's an enormous wave of tech nostalgia sweeping North America--and beyond--at the moment. We see it in hunger for retro gadgets (from Nintendos to the reborn Nokia 3310), in TV series and movies featuring old-school tech (Halt and Catch Fire, Stranger Things, Ready Player One, Black Mirror's retro San Junipero episode) and even in the vintage user interface on newer devices like Blackberry's KEYone.

Behind all of this, I think, is more than simple sentimentality. In an age when smart devices are outsmarting the best of us, there's a real hunger for machines that do what they say--and nothing more.

When tech was less intrusive

Roombas are hardly the only culprit when it comes to intrusive tech. Amazon Echo and Google Home, for all their usefulness at turning on lights and shuffling music, are already embroiled in controversies about how much they listen to and record.

Plenty of apps on our phones, of course, continuously track and map our movement via GPS. And it goes without saying that most every keystroke, tap, or mouse click we make on the Internet is tracked and scrutinized.

I'm not a Luddite. I know that this kind of data gathering lets us create increasingly sophisticated technology that can do amazing things. But, sometimes, it all gets just a little overwhelming. Every time we open a device now--or even vacuum a floor--we're being watched and analyzed.

And that's when tech nostalgia sets in. As far as I know, no vintage Nintendo ever tried to map out my bedroom. It's not hard to understand why that's comforting, on some level.

Keep it simple

There's another good reason for tech nostalgia: ease of use. Smartphones are a perfect example.

Arguably since the iPhone came out a decade ago, cell phones haven't truly evolved. Whether we're talking about the first-generation iPhone or the iPhone 7, you've still got a flat rectangle of glass and metal with a touchscreen, that connects to the Internet, takes pictures, places calls, texts and supports apps.

In the absence of revolutionary new technology, manufacturers have piled on endless bells and whistles to ensure that users trade out their phones every few years. Some of these are nice. Some are pointless. And some actually make our phones less usable.

I used to be able to plug in any old headphones with my iPhone. Now I need to use the official Lightning EarPods or buy, then link, a bluetooth pair--another device to keep track of, another battery to charge.

Compare this with, for example, the Nokia 3310. You'll probably remember this cute, pill-shaped phone from the early 2000s, when practically everyone had one. You could call, text, play Snake, and that was pretty much it. It was idiot-proof and more or less indestructible.

It's very telling that an updated model was relaunched this year (as in 2017), to huge fanfare. It's still a "dumbphone" with almost no features (though it now has a camera and color screen). And yet it was one of the hottest items at the Mobile World Congress--one of the industry's biggest events--in Barcelona this year

Lessons for companies

What--if anything--does this nostalgia mean for the future of technology, and for the companies making today's gadgets and software?

I think it's a wake-up call. Users feel put out. Our tech and devices are demanding more and more us--they cost more; they have to be constantly replaced or updated; they're harder to use; they vacuum up personal data 24-7, sometimes without even asking. And, yet, these same devices aren't always delivering more bang for the buck.

Of course, I might also be reading way too much into this tech nostalgia thing. It could just be that all us Gen Yers have grown up, finally have decent jobs and now have some extra money to blow. On that note, does anyone have an NES Classic they're looking to sell?