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The End of the Road

4 Sep, 2013 By: Thomas K. Arnold

I wonder, sometimes, when we’re going to hit the end of the road in various product types. I thought we had hit the end of the road with high-definition TV, but then along comes 4K. Is this the end? Is this as good as it gets? Or will there be an even sharper image down the road — and down the road from that, until we get to ... a difference only a microscope can detect?

Seriously. Think about it. A generation ago, we reached a point where record players — oh, I’m sorry, hi-fi systems — got as good as they were ever going to get. It was in the early 1970s, I seem to recall, when the vinyl-playing machines reached their ultimate state of the art. Needles were as tiny as they could be; cartridges (those things that held the needle) were as sophisticated as they were ever going to get; tone arms were as light as a feather, minimizing damage to the fragile disc, which lost a little of its substance each time it was played.

Of course, when record players reached their zenith and consumer electronics manufacturers realized they could no longer build a better mousetrap they turned their attention toward building something different — and thus was born the compact disc, which relied on a laser beam, a “virtual” needle, if you will, with no weight and no damage to the disc.

Typewriters — same thing. The IBM Selectric, with its ability to instantly “erase” characters by striking over a letter with a magical substance that seemed to pull the ink right off the page, was the standard for years and years — until typewriters, no matter how good, were rendered obsolete by word processors and computers.

Musical instruments? We hit the end of the road there many years ago. Pianos and violins have remained fundamentally unchanged for hundreds of years, while electric guitars peaked in the 1950s and ’60s.

Back to TVs. As with so many products near the end of the road in terms of quality, we have seen lots of experimentation in recent years — as though manufacturers know we’ve about hit the wall in terms of picture quality and are desperately searching for some other reason to get people to buy new TVs.

The short-lived 3D hype reminded me of Quad Sound in the final days of vinyl — a grand concept, but horrible go-to-market execution and a small, niche audience.

And now we have Sony Electronics all excited about a “curved-screen” TV that has me scratching my head and wondering, wasn’t it just a decade or so ago that we got away from the old bulky curved-screen analog TVs and were all wowed by flat-screens?

Ah, the end of the road. Sometimes it seems more like a loop.

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