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Goldstuck on Gadgets

While old tech dies, stupidity lives on

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Still using a custom phone number that lets callers key in a word instead of a number? Well, your number is obsolete, along with several other innovations you thought were cutting edge, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

In the coming decade, we will witness and mourn the passing of the record store and the bookstore. The newspaper as we know it won’t be far behind. A combination of evolving technology, easy access and sane cost structures will sweep away physical distribution of content.

But it is not only low-tech that dies when technology moves on. Right now, we are witnessing the slow death of a number of one-time hi-tech innovations we have come to take for granted.

Take SMS. In the last month of 2011, the use of SMS to send holiday greetings rose almost 10% over the previous year. Evidence that SMS was still alive and well, right?

Wrong. The use of data services for instant messaging ‚ instant text messages that use the data layer of the network and cost a tiny fraction of SMS greetings ‚ increased by more than 200% over the same period. And considering that the rate of growth in SMS use had been far higher in previous holiday seasons, we can conclude that December 2011 saw the peak of the SMS era before it begins its long decline down the other side of the bell curve.

The decline may last as much as ten years, and will go hand-in-hand with many arguments that SMS is still alive and well. We hear the same arguments for the fax machine, which is really a dead machine walking. More fax spam is sent to these devices than any useful document.

The argument that we need faxes in order to sign physical documents falls away when one considers the ease with which a scanned signature can be added to an electronic document ‚ as long as it is e-mailed in an editable format. The accountants and lawyers quibble about the forgery risks in such documents, but it is no different from the ability to paste copied signatures onto a document before faxing it.

So far, so obvious. Other hi-tech innovations will not have the luxury of a decade to contemplate their own demise.

The next dead tech walking is the customised business phone number. Operators have created a useful revenue stream in charging a premium for numbers in the format of 0861 TECH-R-US, where each letter corresponds with a number on a standard dial of a desk phone or of a traditional ‚feature‚ cellphone.

In the era of smartphones, though, the custom number becomes not only meaningless, but useless.

Go on, look around for a custom number that uses a descriptive word or brand name instead of a number. You’ll find it in many ads in those 20th century objects called magazines, or the 18th century invention known as a newspaper.

Now try calling that number on your smartphone with its QWERTY keyboard or virtual touchscreen phone. You guessed it: it isn’t even a number. It doesn’t work.

Why are companies still using them?

For the same reason that their web sites contain the bare minimum of contact details, are designed either like brochures or Christmas trees, and refer customers to call centres with interactive voice response (IVR) menus that offer more irritation than information.

Most companies are not only clueless about how customers would prefer to communicate: they are clueless about how to keep up with communications.

It’s not that it’s difficult. It’s that people are allowed to get away with mindless excuses like ‚I’m useless with technology‚ , or ‚I leave the hi-tech stuff to the kids‚ .

By next year, more South Africans will be buying smartphones than ‚feature phones‚ . If you only give them a custom number to call, they can’t call.

This isn’t hi-tech: this is common sense. And here’s a message from the past: in business, you don’t have a right to be stupid.

* Arthur Goldstuck heads up World Wide Worx and is editor-in-chief of Gadget. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee

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