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The Selectric lesson.

Fifty years ago last month, IBM made its revolutionary Selectric typewriter available to the world. And 25 years ago, in 1986, the production of the Selectric ended. This year, the United States Post Office created a commemorative stamp honoring the designer of this iconic piece of technology and included it in the commemorative series called Pioneers of American Industrial Design, issued in June. There are 12 stamps in the series, each honoring a designer by name and including an illustration of his or her work. Walter Teague's Bakelite "Baby Brownie" is on one of the stamps, as is Henry Dreyfuss's 1937 Model 302 Bell desk telephone. The hardware selected for the Eliot Noyes's stamp was the 1961 Selectric.


Thomas J. Watson, Jr., was elected chairman of the IBM Board in 1961, and the world-class Thomas J. Watson Research Center opened in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Several IBM products debuted that year. "IBM introduce[d] the 'Selectric' Typewriter, an electric typewriter which uses golf ball-shaped typing elements rather than type bars or movable carriages; the 'Executory' PBX dictation system and portable dictating unit; the 1710 control system; the Hypertape system; the 1301 disk storage; and the high-speed 1403 printer." (IBM Highlights, 1885-1969)

In its first quarter-century, 13 million Selectric type-writers were sold. The new design accepted multiple typefaces by simply unsnapping a small top lever and lifting and replacing one letter ball with another. Corrections were also automated with a backspace strike-over key. Fast typists became even faster on the rock-solid typing consoles. The interruption to reach in and pull apart jammed keys was gone. Of all the devices released by IBM in 1961, only the Selectric achieved legendary status.


On April 25, 2011, the last company on earth still manufacturing typewriters announced that it was closing its plant. Godrej and Boyce, located in Mumbai, India, was calling it quits after 60 years. In an article printed on the day of the announcement, the Daily Mail explained, "Although typewriters became obsolete in the west, they were still common in India--until recently." Godrej and Boyce had only about 200 machines left in its inventory at the time of the closing, but the demise had been long and inevitable. "From the early 2000s onward," the general manager told the Daily Mail, "computers started dominating. All the manufacturers of office typewriters stopped production except us. Until 2009, we used to produce 10,000 to 12,000 machines a year." The market had dwindled away to less than 800 a year.


These two milestones mark the passing of a technology that, in its time, carried the world's load of business records, correspondence, and manuscript copy for most of the printed word in the 20th Century. Many consider the Selectric the penultimate typing machine, and now the last gasp of the industry has been exhaled in one of the most wired places on earth.


There's an important lesson in these historic events. It was expressed in a metaphor centuries ago by the Pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus. He observed that you can't step into the same stream twice. As soon as you step out on to the shore, the stream has changed. Heraclitus extrapolated this out to all of reality, concluding that the only thing that doesn't change in the world is change itself.

The process of ceaseless change in technology also is frequently described with a water metaphor. But rather than the steady, contemplative flow of the ancient philosopher's stream, reality in the tech world "churns" in a process that generates the new from the old. The next best thing often doesn't just step over established products or procedures: It crushes them in its forward march. Those who carry a pocketful of thumb drives might smile as they recall the five-inch floppy disks of the first personal computers, but they will, no doubt, seem as comical to those who will utilize molecular storage devices in the future.

Economic theorists have a similar notion of change embedded in the "creative destruction" model of Joseph Schumpeter. The transitions in business and economic systems are often not painless, and it seems the process is even more ruthless with computerized technology. The Selectric is an impressive collection of elegant engineering solutions, but you're only going to find them now in pawnshops, garage sales, and museums of computer technology. They have been eliminated.

People today wonder out loud about the future of GPS devices from companies like TomTom (the Netherlands) and Garmin (Kansas). Will they survive the waves of smart-phones and tablets flooding the markets? GPS technology can work very nicely on the phones and even the new tablets. Dedicated e-readers are facing the same onslaught by the same two alternate delivery methods for books. The phones are more convenient as portable libraries, and the tablets provide a larger page size and are backlit.

If you trace the history of various technologies, you can often track the progress by noting the gravestones along the way. For example, in the distant past, the only people collecting movies were those who owned projection equipment. Then came the videotape players of the VHS/Betamax wars, and then those went the way of the eight-track, eulogized in garage sales around the country when the DVD started knocking heads with its new nephew, Blue-ray; then Blockbuster got busted, and Netflix, Amazon, and iTunes created jet streams of video delivered in the air. And you can probably safely bet that these aren't the last "streams" churning in this sector of technology.

Change and destruction seem to have become the co-creationist force in the digital universe. And the destructive part of the equation seems different in another way. The planned obsolescence of a previous age has become an abandoned strategy. Digital devices tend to have fewer moving parts--flash memory, for example, is replacing the spinning hard drives--and there's a greater reliance on software instruction sets than any kind of gears or other machine parts. The devices don't wear out--light through fiber is frictionless, as is wireless--they are, instead, replaced by the next upgrade of the same thing or an entirely new technology.

The Selectric is gone, and who would have predicted back in 1961 that so many would one day be typing airborne messages with their thumbs on the bus going home?

By Michael Castelluccio, Editor
COPYRIGHT 2011 Institute of Management Accountants
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Title Annotation:TECH FORUM
Author:Castelluccio, Michael
Publication:Strategic Finance
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2011
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