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Technology development is increasing rapidly, to the point where the concept of obsolescence has become obsolete. Adding weight to the joke about products becoming old-fashioned on the way home, today there are entire systems that become obsolete before they are even fielded.

It used to be that a technology would have its day in the sun before becoming superseded by something better. The telegraph gave way to the telephone (and the technologies behind telephony are still advancing at a frantic pace), Horses were supplanted by cars, and radio gave way to TV. Each technology had its time to provide value to a consumer before it became too antique to use.

In the last couple of decades, that succession has increased almost asymptotically. The CD as personal music platform was pushed aside by MP3s much more rapidly than CDs took over from the cassette tape. Computers shrink in size while increasing in capability. TV sets are getting wider and flatter and brighter and more colorful almost daily.

This rapid pace has claimed its share of smothered products, devices and technologies leapfrogged by better stuff before they could even come to the market. The DataPlay mini optical disk was backed by a number of people (including David Crosby) as the next-generation portable music system just a few years ago. They thought a 500-Mb disc the size of a quarter would become a best seller. A lot of people, myself included, thought they were right. That was before hard drives with over 20 Gigs of storage became cheap and plentiful.

The entire industry of pre-recorded portable music using removable (unless it is for the purpose of transferring memory or making it available to other devices) storage is following the consumer-film industry into oblivion.

The leapfrogging process occurs at all levels for every kind of reason. Digital Audio Tape was great technology well designed, and it was introduced early enough in the development of digital music to deliver real value. (It was only recently supplanted in professional circles by Minidisk recorders.) It failed to gain market share due to legal wrangles with the RIAA, and was easily pushed aside by recordable CD when it finally became available.

Entire industries can be affected. One reason that Asian and European cell phones are so cool is because both regions jumped into wireless technology with enthusiasm as it provided a way to expand and improve phone systems previously heavily regulated and slow to change. Both consumer and business leapt at the flexibility wireless communications provided. In addition, the New Europe includes many ex-Soviet countries with no infrastructure at all. The Estonian government runs a paperless office for that very reason (thanks, Vuo). Why lay wires and incorporate last-generation storage technology when you can start fresh with a modern information-management system?

Since the governments initially involved imposed industry standards, manufacturers had to fight for consumers by providing real value. This caused cell phone development to progress rapidly, with added features finding universal acceptance due to the existing standards ensuring compatibility. In America, the land-line systems were so good, consumers found no real reason to move to wireless technology. In addition, wireless providers were allowed to set up non-compatible parallel support infrastructures that stifle wireless development in the US to this very day.

This issue leads directly to the battle over the concept of property itself, as the value of a product will no longer lie within its intrinsic material value. Instead, a product’s value will be defined by its compatibility with the existing technology standards in its market. (That's why IP law is important. If anybody can steal your design and make it for a dime, where is the incentive to innovate?)

I was recently at a server farm in the Netherlands, and the entire facility had a data storage capacity of 30 terabytes (expandable to 50). In about 10 years you'll need 50 Tb in your offices just to manage a business serving the global marketplace. (And it will all fit in a box a meter square.) You can buy a 1Tb drive today for under $1,000.

What happens to infrastructure jobs when the infrastructure shrinks? What role remains for the middleman?

Every technology around us (and the jobs and infrastructure involved) is in flux, with multiple alternate advancements in development. From power generation to manufacturing, the new is pushing out the old in unprecedented fashion.

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