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This is the Modem World: There are no 'Classic Gadgets' and here's why


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Each week Joshua Fruhlinger contributes This is the Modem World, a column dedicated to exploring the culture of consumer technology.

She was parked on Palos Verdes Boulevard. I was chugging up the hill on my road bike, trying to get some much-needed exercise on an early Saturday morning. The cool mist was still rolling in from the Pacific Ocean, and combined with the early morning horizontal light, it created little beads of moisture on her white finish like a can of beer on a hot summer's day. I romanticize, yes, but she was a Lotus Esprit, my favorite car of all time, in perfect condition.

I'm not sure why the Esprit is my favorite, but it certainly has something to do with James Bond and a die-cast toy version I had in the '80s. Either way, I love the car, and it, to me, is a classic design. It broke design barriers in the '70s when other cars of the time -- ones that we consider classics -- were huge and angry. This one was sleek and futuristic; small, but big on the eyes. I drew it over and over again on school notebooks. I tried to improve the design by coming up with my own version called the Aerovette. But nothing was as perfect as the white 1977 Esprit.

Gadgets are a different thing entirely. It's hard to think of an old device that would cause me to slow down in the middle of a ride just for a gander. There are devices I've had in the past that make me nostalgic, but there isn't a single one that I'd love to go boot up and actually use again. If I could afford it, I'd own the heck out of a classic Lotus Esprit and suffer through the mechanical issues.

There was a time when I believed old electronics could be classics.

There was a time when I believed old electronics could be classics. One night when I lived in Brooklyn, on my way to the local pub, I spotted among someone's recyclables a stainless-steel-and-wood enclosed stereo receiver. Upon closer inspection, I realized it was a Yamaha C1000, a vintage unit that, in my mind at the time, was a classic that needed to be restored and paired with my recently acquired 1978 Yamaha turntable.

I did some research, found some old manuals and diagrams, popped it open and attempted to clean its circuits and knobs over the period of a couple weeks. A fun project for sure, but it only led to more headaches with bad capacitors, corroded amplifier modules and stuck buttons. I never got the C1000 working completely, and after the annoyance, I happily returned to my modern digital receiver.

It's still sitting in a storage unit in Brooklyn, and perhaps I'll return to it one day, but for now, I'm done with classic electronics. They're just not worth it. You don't get to drive them around; no one else knows why they're classics; and -- let's be real -- the reason we're into technology is because it moves forward and never looks back.

I'm sure some would argue with me on this. With facts, even. In May, someone in Germany bought an Apple One at auction for $671,400. Then, in July, another person bought one at auction for $387,750. With these two examples alone, one could argue that the Apple One is indeed an electronics classic or, at worst, a collectible.

I have even sung the wonders of the Palm V, the Apple //e and the Commodore VIC-20 in this very column. But if you were to ask me if I'd like to use one of those devices again, I'd quickly say "no." Maybe I'd be interested in poking at one for a few minutes, but I'd quickly long for my SSDs, WiFis, quad-cores and capacitive touchscreens.

But I'm open-minded and willing to Google for the cause. A search for "classic gadgets" landed me at a Pinterest page that was populated by camcorders like the Sony Mavica and RCA Color Video Camera CC-001. Sure, these devices are historically important in what they brought to electronics and form factor, but if you asked any videographer to use one today, he or she would laugh. Twice.

I say good riddance to old gadgets. Let them do what they do best: teach us what worked, what didn't and move on.

"The original iPod!" I can hear you say. Sure, it changed music consumption forever, but it lasted only a year or so until Apple realized that the spinning wheel was a really bad idea. It was the beginning of something good for sure, but it is by no means a classic. It was an off-ramp at best. Similarly, the Sony Walkman is an incredibly important device that changed both Sony and long airplane rides, but if you saw someone using one today, you'd maybe be intrigued and probably be amused.

"Osborne! Tandy 2000! TI99/4A! iMac! Clio! Nokia 6100!" Fine. You go use one instead of your current machine and then report back here using that device. We'll be waiting -- a long time.

I say good riddance to old gadgets. Let them do what they do best: teach us what worked, what didn't and move on. Leave them in the recycling pile. They're awfully fun to talk about, but are they truly classic? Or are they just nostalgic footnotes in a nerd's personal diary?

The Lotus Esprit is still a dazzler, and it can still hug a corner. And, yes, I want one. But the Apple //e? No way would I write this column on one of those if I didn't have to.

Joshua Fruhlinger is the former Editorial Director for Engadget and current contributor to both Engadget and the Wall Street Journal. You can find him on Twitter at @fruhlinger.

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