This week, I got two technology devices. They cost the same amount of money. One was 55 years old and I got it after a fierce online auction…the other was about 55 hours new, and I had preordered it online.
Both gadgets set out to change the way people consume and manage their media. They employed similar marketing pitches along the lines of, “It’s advanced. It’s magical. It will change your life.” One was a rare 1955 Zenith Flash-Matic remote control. The other was the “magical” Apple iPad.
Since you’ve probably heard more than you want to know about the iPad, let me tell you a little about this technology relic: The Flash-Matic remote control.
Introduced by Zenith in 1955, it was the first technology of its kind to offer wireless, cordless remote control of a television set. By zapping each corner of the set with a beam of light from the trusty green gun, viewers could change the channel, adjust the volume, and turn the set on or off, all without getting up. When it was originally sold in 1955 the Flash-Matic cost $399.95 and came bundled with a compatible Zenith television set; that is the equivalent of more than $3,000 in today’s dollars. I bought it on eBay for $501.
Flash-Matic tuning wasn’t necessarily the most effective way of controlling the set. Viewers often couldn’t remember which corner did what, and a ray of sunlight could inadvertently change the channel. Still, it highlighted and played to a consumer need: the desire to kick back and enjoy TV without leaving the couch. And that was 55 years ago–what a concept!
It’s exciting to think about which consumer appetites the iPad is filling and how it could evolve into a device that’s as integrated into daily life as the television remote control. What starts out as a quirky rarity used mostly by highly motivated early adopters can sometimes morph into an enabler of daily routines for the masses.
In the words of American revolutionary and early tech-lover Thomas Jefferson, “Every generation needs a new revolution.” What will time say about the iPad? It’s tough to know. If it makes consuming and enjoying media a simpler, more enjoyable experience, consumers will likely embrace it. The one thing we can be sure of is that it, too, will one day be a relic.