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Is Retro Tech Hip Again?

From Guardians of the Galaxy to Stranger Things to 13 Reasons Why, popular entertainment seems to imply that the cassette tape is making a comeback. Add that to the list of retro technology making a return, which includes vinyl records, typewriters, analog cameras, and even books in print.

In a world that’s diving head-first into digital-everything, it’s refreshing when stories emerge of people embracing outmoded technology.

Nostalgia is fueling a resurgence of yesterday’s technology in the consumer world, and Nintendo is capitalizing on it. Last year, the company released an updated version of its classic NES console; it was an instant smash hit, selling out almost everywhere. This year, Nintendo repeated that strategy with its Super NES console. And it worked again. The Super NES has already sold out its pre-orders.

Earlier in the year, Nokia took a similar approach at Mobile World Congress, where it took the stage to re-introduce its classic 3310 model, a non-smartphone in a smartphone world.

In pursuit of ‘authenticity’ and non-virtualized physical objects, retro technology is seeing a revival in fits and spurts.

Ryan Raffaelli, an assistant professor in the Organizational Behavior Unit at Harvard Business School, was interested in discovering how dying technologies actually made a comeback. His initial research focused on the Swiss watchmaking industry. Swiss watchmakers dominated the watch industry until the mid-1970s, when Japan introduced low-cost, highly accurate quartz watches. Overnight, the Swiss watch industry downsized by as much as two-thirds. But Swiss watchmakers eventually re-emerged with renewed interest in mechanical watches. Today, Switzerland remains a global leader by export value. These findings lead Raffaelli to suggest that “it is possible to prolong the life of some technologies, along with organizations and communities that support them.”

And it’s true. The examples I cited above are driven by hipsters, hobbyists and conservationists – all looking to ensure their treasured pastimes don’t die out. But in the corporate arena, maintenance often plays second fiddle to new hardware. It may not have the sexiness that new hardware can offer in terms of feats and speeds, but maintenance is essential to the body politic of corporations.

Maintenance has always been key. It’s what keeps a new car, fresh off the sales lot, running smooth – possibly decades later.

Reinventing the classics

But nostalgia doesn’t always mean preserving and maintaining old technology. Sometimes, companies give old technology a new lease on life with a little reinvention.

Take Pokémon, for instance. The first game was released in 1996 and quickly became a hit. Though it evolved on Nintendo’s handhelds over the decades, the gameplay mechanics didn’t really change until 2016 when Pokémon Go was launched on smartphones.

To a degree, we hearken back to old technologies because they worked well at their peaks, becoming an essential part of our lives and dominating our cultural consciousness.

Even a mundane piece of technology like SMS communication is hanging around. Why? Because it’s universal. We’d like to make Whatsapp or Wechat our go-to instant messaging apps, but they’re not ubiquitous. Some of these new technologies just aren’t crossing the geographical or even socioeconomic divide. In certain markets, people still depend on feature phones and SMS for communication and payments.

That’s why the Nokia 3310 and SMS are still relevant today.

What does this teach us in the enterprise? Well, let the gentle hum of your legacy equipment remind you that, with a little maintenance and innovation, they could be channeled to new uses.

As vanguards of enterprise technology, you need to develop flexibility in your approach toward enterprise IT. Think hard about organizational and industry change, because that’s the key to holding it all together.

After all, things stick around for a reason.

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