Legacy Technology Dies Hard

I'm sitting here at terminal four at JFK waiting to pick up my son who is returning from a long weekend in LA.

And right next to me is a bank of pay phones (five of them) that are doing a bang up business.

I've been sitting here for 20 minutes and there's been at least one in use all the time. Right now, three of the five are in use.

I can think of a few reasons why someone with a cell phone might opt instead for a pay phone (dead battery, needing to use some kind of prepaid card, etc) but honestly I can't think of the last time I used a pay phone.

The other day I was commenting to my kids that pay phones are largely gone from the streets of NYC. When I moved here 25+ years ago, there was a pay phone on many corners.

So pay phones are clearly a legacy technology in a long period of decline.

But the past 20 minutes sitting here reminds me that old technologies take a long time to die unless they are rendered completely useless like analog TVs.

We spent a good amount of time this afternoon in our weekly meeting talking about the rapid pace of innovation and opportunity in the mobile web (a big topic here lately). And so it's a good contrast for me to sit here and watch so many people pump quarters into pay phones.

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Comments (Archived):

  1. Yule Heibel

    In my city, pay phones are used by drug dealers and their customers. Seriously.So if airports are still full of pay phones in use, maybe the question is, what do airports have in common with drug trafficking? Is it that both are outside the normal (and / or legal) sphere of experience? Do both drive people to the edge (fringe)? Legacy technologies as sites for eccentric praxis? 😉

    1. Erica

      It’s probably much less interesting than that…many of those folks are probably international travelers whose cell phones don’t work here (or who don’t want to pay an arm and a leg for roaming minutes.)Most CDMA customers from the US would be in a similar situation in Europe.-Erica

      1. TL

        I second that. There is a missing market for traveling internationals at the airport, not only in the US but almost everywhere else. Getting a new cell phone is expensive especially if you’re just visiting for a few days and have no friends in the country. International rates are notoriously high.One solution: many international phones are unlocked. Instead of payphone, you buy a SIM card + prepaid amount. Not quite an option at US airports, due to network exclusivity.So legacy technology lives on till new technology becomes cheaper.

    2. fredwilson

      Whoa. That’s more analysis than I can handle today

  2. Scott Wheeler

    That kind of makes me wonder what chunk of people in older demographics have cell phones and how the decline of the payphone affects them. My grandparents are in their 80s and one still works, but I’m pretty sure none of them have cell phones.

    1. fredwilson

      There were a few people over 65 in my 20 mins of observing but most were btwn 20 and 40

    2. harpos_blues

      Scott,One *major* problem for the elderly and the disabled is the increasing trend of mobile phones becoming smaller and more feature rich. It’s almost impossible to find a mobile device with a simple, easy-to-use interface that just makes voice calls.Jitterbug (http://Jitterbug.com) is a company that makes phone with large, easily visible buttons (specially designed by Samsung), practical and affordable talk plans (via Sprint), and provides a service to pre-load the device with important numbers, 24/7 on-call nurse, etc.Jitterbug is/was originally targeted toward the senior citizen/elderly market, however, they are finding that many young folks are interested in their phones due to the simplicity of the interface and calling plans.The Jitterbug phones are designed to make voice calling simple, and allow for ease of use. It’s a successful, but expanding business model, and the hand sets are fantastic.Because the old folks in our family are so active, we became concerned when pay phones began disappearing, as did Call Boxes along the highway/interstate.We tried several different handset types with our elders, but those were just too unwieldy and hard to navigate — the buttons and screen fonts were too small. Since the Jitterbug was introduced, We’ve bought 3 so far, for family members in their 70’s (and above). All of whom are still very, very active.The old folks in my family are lovin’ their Jitterbugs. Christmas will be expensive this year. 🙂

      1. fredwilson

        What a great product

  3. robe1221

    I think technologies go through phases. With the pay phone, it was once, a main source of communication when out and about. When the cellphone came into the picture, it was still used but less use as more cellphones introduced into society. Therefore, until everyone that is out and about has a cellphone, another means will still be required.There is also the shady perspective, it is easier to hide behind a payphone than a cellphone.And who knows, if payphones got a little more creative, could even gain market share from cellphones, there are alot of paranoid people out there. And with new medical studies about cancer causing cellphones as well as new ways to hack into phones and monitor your personal lives, this might drive people back to a less complicated technology. That is where the payphone needs to come into play….

    1. cyanbane

      I am trying to think of an example of when people (in mass) have reverted back to a previous generation of technology, not because they could not use the current generation (ie network down, etc), but because they chose to go back for another reason (privacy, medical, cost, etc).Anyone?

      1. ShanaC

        Does it have to be web-based?

        1. cyanbane

          Not at all.

          1. ShanaC

            Not to sound political, because it is a hot topic, and it is disruptive to certain parts of the VC industry. (Or why I would never want to do VC in medicine, I find that risk to people scary and if something went wrong I would be really grieved):Parts of Medicine and Medications in particular.I’m Thinking like Vioxx. Technically, even though the risk was there, the risk was low statically, especially for short term use after surgery.Or now with Abilify. Both were newer drugs. Vioxx got pulled from the Market, Abilify is having a whole lot of lawsuits, and now carries black box warnings. It definitely killed parts of its market.The best case was Thalidomide-forced the discovery of Isometric molecule, but we pulled it off the market before understanding what was what. Some technology really works well. (like a family friend who actually had part of his oral surgery practice bought out by a Venture Capital Firm. He made it safer to do implants through scans, color coding drills, and 3d milling. That’s a good thing if you need to rebuild someone’s jaw) Some technology is purely defensive medicine, such as overuse of Antibiotics and CT scans, and some purely defensive medications, such as those to stop high cholesterol early, or type 2 diabetes, as well as the third category, to treat illness. (some positive and some negative, in the last two)I just saw a movie at the IFC Center called “The Way We Get By” It follows some elderly people around. They greet the troops coming home or going to Iraq. Since they are are elderly, in their 80’s, they all seem to be going through medications. A vague (not perfect) quote stuck out in my head “It is surprisingly that these medications don’t cause you to keel over.”Medications, for the FDA, are compared to some rigorous Gold Standard Drug in Phase Three testing. You got to work better than a placebo, with less side affects than the Gold Standard. Even then, Because Phase Four Testing, where they gather data from a large group in the public, is after the public release of the drug, causing havoc wrecked upon the public. I am hearing this idea that “people are responding not as predicted” “that drug has been pulled” to new drugs and there are people who actually like studying and treating people with old fashioned/older standard drugs for a lot of chronic conditions, because they work better and more predictably in the long term, despite side effect profiles and drug interaction lists. It is a lot easier to manage a condition with one old drug, or two old drugs, despite side effects, than a whole slew of new ones.That being said, if there were magic pills for all chronic conditions that worked with very little to no side effects, and little to no interactions, a lot of people, both doctors and consumers, would be happier. And they would be bought. But that isn’t how health works, it turns out, so you hear doctors pushing health,slowly.

          2. cyanbane

            “That being said, if there were magic pills for all chronic conditions that worked with very little to no side effects, and little to no interactions, a lot of people, both doctors and consumers, would be happier.”Would Dr’s be happier seeing less patients? Part of me says Yes and part of me says No.I enjoyed reading your reply though, I wish I knew more about the medical R&D world. If you have any ‘layman’ reading suggestions I would love to hear them.

          3. ShanaC

            Well I got this: http://www.pubmedcentral.ni…from a friend who got a year to do work towards his PHD in the NIH (lucky guy). It’s about Prescribing habits of doctors. He’s been busy so I’ve been waiting a bit for a response.That being that, I learned a lot because I had good doctors who encouraged questions, good teachers who made sure I understood biology and chemistry, and some odd coincidences that meant I was being exposed PubMed and words like “comorbid conditions” and “teratogenic in vitro for humans,” while doing research because I always ended up being the one who did research and having to explain it to other people or to myself.Just read PubMed, even abstracts. Get a really good, current, AP Biology/College Biology Textbook, and one for Chemistry, and possibly one for Org Chem (I never took Organic, but it might be helpful) Look everything up, and if you still don’t understand, just write to the researcher, or better yet, look on the publishing university website, and write to the research assistants/PHD candidate- their research field is usually mentioned on the school’s website, and their name might also be listed on the paper. If they are not teaching, they’ll love you just for asking.As for doctors- I’m not a doctor, and I have no plans on becoming one. I see more with male doctors, or those who plan on going into the field, more concerns of prestige and pay. Females seem to be more concerned with time. Money is vaguely important, but the degree is less so depending on background and what kind of doctor one wants to be. I don’t see large amounts of women wanting to suit up for plastic surgery- but I do see lots of them for Family Practices,OB/GYN, and now dental, because of the time element. But that might be who I am talking to.I have two friends who plan on becoming doctors. One friend clearly “knows” the economics of it: he has commented on it, although it is also in his mind that he does want to help people. Part of it is a driving of economic forces for him.The other person is female. She just graduated and is taking a year off to think and work in a lab. I have never has a conversation with her that involved any of the economics of it. it doesn’t seem to be a driving force for her: Having a Family Practice and Controlling her time in Motherhood, while caring for her patients seems to be slightly more of a force in her idea of what doctors should be like.

      2. robe1221

        My wife just mentioned that in Japan, they are rethinking on how to make the A/C units here. The costs of operation and the emissions of CO2 into the environment have pressured them to consider revamping the innards of the wall mounted units.Basically, they will change them to huge wall mounted fans with some temperature drop but not much. This will cut down on electricity usage and CO2 dumpage.Not quite a reverse use of technology, but an advancement using an older efficient method.On a side note, wonder why no Analog based storage devices have been reintroduced into the market? Records are still used because they have better sound but not widely distributed. What would it take to produce an analog media as compact as a CD/DVD/BlueRay??

      3. Lloyd Fassett

        The best drive train for moutain bikes is made by SRAM and has 2 cogs up front (instead of the regular 3) and 10 in back. It’s called 2 x 10. In the documentary Klunkerz, there is a quick image of an early version of a mt bike with a 2 X 5 configuration from the late 70’s.There was a long period of time when sail boats and steam boats both were successful. Steam didn’t really take off for over seas travel until the efficiency of triple expansion engine design was possible, which in turn required better steel to withstand the higher pressure, plus the invention of the screw drive.Are Netbooks that connect to web apps in the cloud more like dumb terminals connected to mainframes than to stand alone PC’s?I think the examples are not tightly answering your question, but kind of.

        1. cyanbane

          I think netbooks is a great example (sorry just not familiar enough with your other two examples). Netbooks are a diminished quality compared to the direction that the previous market was taking us (small but more powerful/on a higher tier price point).Netbooks ARE the direction of the dumb terminal just better server side interaction. Best example yet.

      4. kidmercury

        not sure if this fits what you’re looking for, but i know some people that refuse to use eletronic cash (i.e. debit card or credit card) due to privacy concerns.maybe a better example are some folks who have used cell phones, but have reverted to landlines because of concerns that cell phones cause brain tumors.

        1. cyanbane

          I know someone (in their 20s – law abiding citizen) who refuses to use debit card/credit card’s either for that very reason.I am looking for more examples of groups of people that used a product in mass then reverted back to a previous “generation” (used loosely) of that same type product even when the original product was still being offered.I think the cc/debit card example is a good use of “information conduit obfuscation” which goes back to Fred’s original post and the earlier comment about drug dealers using pay phones it to shade their deals. I think we will be seeing A LOT more instances of certain subsets of the population reverting back to earlier legacy versions of hardware/systems specifically to hide/mask information. The next 20 years are going to be full of this for seedy operations.

      5. bijan

        @cyanbane,i’m listening to my turntable a lot these days. It’s old school and doesn’t give me all the benefits of digital but it gives me something else that’s hard to explain.

        1. markslater

          technics 1200 series?i’ll never give mine away. ever.

        2. fredwilson

          Me too Bijan. The sound is better and there’s something tangible about putting a record on

      6. JeremiahKane

        Here is my stab at a list:Nuclear Weapons (hopefully)Men’s hats (fashion killed them, but the hat itself does a nice job covering the head)Freon, DDT and High-Flow toilets (environmental)Watches (fashion and signalling vs. accuracy)

        1. fredwilson

          Nice list. But I still like supersonic trans-atlantic flight best

      7. fredwilson

        Supersonic cross atlantic jets?

        1. cyanbane

          I’m debating what % of people who used supersonic planes quit using them because they got to expensive vs the % that stopped using them because they were not offered anymore because of the former group.I agree this is an example of a “mass technological regression” either way though (and probably the most commercially well known one mentioned).

  4. JeremiahKane

    That’s a bit surprising. I would guess that the advertising on the outside of the phones in the city is worth more than the call revenue, but at JFK the dead cell, international traveler and drug dealer market must be enough. Then again, as of 2004 almost 1 million people still rented their home phones so you never can tell.

  5. needcaffeine

    a few years ago I remember that Verizon was keeping payphones in NYC; but using them as repeaters for mobile broadband & WiFi. Though there isn’t a need for a great many of them; they shouldn’t be nullified. There are often places where cell signal is rare, or you battery is dead, or you’re lost & need to use a local phone # to make a call.

    1. billc124

      Clarke, I just read your comment, someone stole my idea…LOL, see my comment below. I think I might have been typing mine at the same time as you.

  6. billc124

    Is it possible the economy has something to do with this. If you lose your job or are not making enough money lately, one of the things you may get rid of is cell phone service if it is not absolutely necessary. I know plenty of people who have ditched their monthly cell phone plan and gone the pre-paid route. I could never do that since I need to get my email for work, but my company pays for my data plan. I am sure dead phone batteries is probably the most likely cause, especially since you can use cell phones to play music, watch movies, etc.. these days. It is not out of the question for the battery to die in flight. As cell phones get more and more of these types of capabilities, maybe pay phone usage at airports will increase. I always thought that payphones that weren’t in use anymore would be a great way to build a wifi network, the line is already there so you could just run a DSL connection to it, then setup a wifi router in a box right at the location. I actually thought about setting up a business for bars and restaurants to offer free internet by running a DSL connection to the payphone on site and going wifi from there. Then cell phones took off and killed that idea as most places had the payphones removed.

    1. fredwilson

      There was some discussion of using pay phones in NYC as wifi hotspots

  7. levijones

    What’s even more interesting is that we all assume that every single person on the planet owns a cell phone…

    1. ShanaC

      It is a huge shift in culture to give lots of people cell phones. I really sometimes hate that we now assume that the other end is always “on” and “there.” Even with phone screening, I still feel like I am scrambling because the other end is actually now less “there” because devices cause so much interconnectivity that it is too easy to shift schedules.

    2. fredwilson

      Yup. That was my point

  8. narendra

    The legacy web is the same way.

  9. sfmitch

    It’s not that users don’t use pay phones but rather most pay phones are not profitable to install / maintain. Airports with their insane amount of foot traffic are a pretty good place for pay phones to make economic sense.This is a great example of how hard it is to step outside of your own shoes and to see things from another point of view. For cell phone users, it is almost unimaginable that people would use a pay phone. It’s a huge advantage of having diverse group of friends / contacts – see other’s points of view.

    1. fredwilson

      Yes. That’s one reason why startups in nyc and europe have some advantages over bay area startups

  10. Tim

    A lot of my company telecons are on 800 numbers. If I’m going to be sitting in on a telecon at an airport, lots of times I’ll use a pay phone because the sound is better than I get on my mobile, and quite a few airports have those little sit-down payphone cubes.

    1. fredwilson

      That’s interesting

  11. pparrot

    In some part of the world, some people adapted the concept of public pay phones to cell phones. “Some cell phones have even become public phones. On nearly every street corner in Abidjan, there are outdoor stands where cell phone owners sell one-minute local calls on their phone for the equivalent of about 20 cents. “You can check the article there + image.http://www.voanews.com/engl

    1. fredwilson

      I participated in a grameen microfinance program a few years ago where our grants were used to loan women in tribal villages in africa enough money to set up a ‘pay phone’ in each village. The pay phone was just a cell phone. The results were excellent

  12. Guest

    I’ve got a 20-yr old TI calculator, which I love and still use a lot. You gotta problem with that? Huh? Huh?:)

    1. fredwilson

      Me too! But you know there’s a killer iphone app that completely replicates that calculator on the iphone

      1. Guest

        Well, that may be the tipping point for me getting an iPhone… If only there was a “cash for (number)crunchers” program where I would get money for the calculator to buy an iPhone…BTW, I just read an interview with Q. Tarantino, where he says he uses an 80s’ word processor to type scripts. That’s too extreme…

        1. fredwilson

          He’s too extreme

  13. Druce Vertes

    linking to previous themes, it’s partly because traveling to/from foreign countries their own phones don’t work or cost a fortune… damn monopoly mobile networks!but yeah legacy technologies (and companies) are hard to kill… floppy drives, serial ports.There’s a reverse ‘crossing the chasm’ factor for tech companies where they decline gradually at first, and then reach a point where no one wants to be the last one depending on them and they just melt away.

  14. Mihai Badoiu

    I used a pay phone in the airport in Belgium. The reason is simple: I didn’t trust my phone company with the roaming fee. It turns out that the pay phones in the Brussels airport are quite expensive too. I think it was something like $11 per minute (I had to make a call to US), and there was no notice of it. I only found out when I looked at the credit card account. I felt cheated.–mihai

  15. ar

    Fred, just wondering, why is there an ad for Tracfone (prepaid cell) on this post when viewing from google reader? also – i bet it is not for the same reason many adults dont use social networks: ://www.usatoday.com/money/medi…

    1. fredwilson

      The rss ads from google never fail to entertain

  16. MarinaMartin

    My life has been an interesting contrast the last few years, as I’m a social media / tech early adopter in my private life but I work (as an efficiency consultant) primarily with low-tech companies. I see Windows 95 terminals and legacy software from the early 1980s on a *constant* basis. Yet, these same companies with older technology are generally profitable and have money to spend on services; they’ve simply been humming along just fine as-is and don’t understand why they should change. And since their workforces are typically older, an overnight transition to Windows 7 and Yammer is untenable.There’s still a great deal of money left on the table when one caters to and markets via new technology.

    1. ShanaC

      Very true if you talk about small specialized software for things like medical services. Some offices have it custom written and refuse to budge, because thier software packages are so damn complicated and lame between the legal side and the technicalities of insurance + medical side. Easier just to port stuff from years and years ago.

    2. fredwilson

      My mother in law ran a business for 20 years on a pc software program I built for her in the mid 80s using an off the shelf pc database software package. It was not even client server and had no GUI. But I built it custom to her requirements and although she tried a few times to replicate it on newer technologies, nobody ever could make it work the way she wanted. So she stuck with the thing I hacked together over a long weekend

  17. Vladimir Vukicevic

    You’ve spoken about this before but SMS will be that mobile technology that will be around for much longer than anyone thinks – especially from a global perspective.

    1. fredwilson

      For sure

  18. Jan Schultink

    Adding to the guessing here:- The view of a pay phone could actually remind people to call someone before taking off- People want to get rid of coins- With millions passing through JFK, a few pay phones is actually not that much.

  19. Kevin Chan

    I own a single cell phone, with a battery life span of a day. I would believe that pay phones are still essential as it would always be reliable, and the comfort of knowing it is still in existence offers assurance.Also I know it is a major inconvenience, and I may be the only loon to bother, but I’m sticking to my cell with a one day life span, and I memorize a lot of numbers in my head to use the pay phones.

  20. Joe Lazarus

    My dad doesn’t own a cell phone. He has never used an ATM machine. A few years ago, he broke down and started using the internet occasionally, which he often refers to as “the email”… as in, “It’s supposed to be sunny tomorrow. I saw it on the email.” Old school.It’s kind of refreshing, actually.

    1. fredwilson

      Maybe someday he’ll talk about seeing something on ‘the twitter’

      1. Joe Lazarus

        Ha! Believe it or not, my dad has heard of Twitter. I told him Iinterviewed there and he said he had read about them & heard themmentioned on the nightly news. Props to the PR folks at “thetwitter”.

  21. Gabriel Gunderson

    My problem with pay phones, who carries coins? Yeah, *coins* are legacy.Gabe

    1. fredwilson

      I’m not a fan of coins. I don’t like carrying them, particularly in airports where they are yet another thing to pull out for security

  22. Rocky Agrawal

    My use of payphones has largely been limited to AT&T network saturation (conferences, O’Hare airport). Occasionally when the phone’s battery is dead, but that’s rarer because I have very few phone numbers memorized.One technology that refuses to die: the fax machine. I’m amazed how many businesses still require faxes of documents. The most common that I run into are insurance companies and others in the medical field. I remember a company that would fax X-rays to India for diagnosis — that’s a frightening thought.

    1. S. Pandya

      I think this is a technology that is ripe for disruption. All someone would need is an electronic mailbox equivalent of “Earth class mail” and best-in-class OCR, and they could start grabbing share.Fax is a technology that was ingenious when it was invented, but is a waste of bandwidth and phone numbers in the 21st century. Not to mention that the security is assured only by limited physical access….Full Disclosure: I personally hate fax machines.

    2. fredwilson

      Yup. We’ve largely done away with faxes in our office but it took a lot longer than I thought it would

  23. Lloyd Fassett

    I went into a sales pitch two years ago with a picture of empty phone booths I took 30 minutes before the meeting under the title “Things Change” implying that they should buy what I’m selling, and they did. I really like that slide.What this really makes me think of though is that AT&T supposedly did a significant market survey in 1980 that said the market for cell phones was too small to support the cost. Craig McCaw went ahead anyway and built the company that an AT&T baby bell purchased 20 years later.Not only does technology die hard, but the big money and entrenched players frequently think their technolgies don’t die.

    1. fredwilson


  24. Magnus Wikegård

    If my cell was dead i couldn’t call anyone anyway. I dont remember any numbers anymore. They are all names in my contacts list. If people call me first and I added them later, added them from Outlook I have never even dialed them once. What I need is the new standard charger plug and pay chargers at the gate.I live in Europe and have same rate all over the place when i can roam 3. Data for some reason does not have a flatrate abroad.

    1. fredwilson

      I’d love standard chargers instead of outlets at the gate

  25. J. Pablo Fernández

    Another reason: I’ve used pay phones at airports when I wanted to get in contact with the hotel I was going to and the cellphone I had didn’t have international cover (and I was in another country). Probably more common in Europe than in US.

  26. David Noël

    I actually remember the last time I used a pay phone. It was while visiting NYC in November of 2006 and it was an overseas call to let my parents know I was fine. There are several reasons for people to use a pay phone (you mentioned some) and when I look at all the tourists visiting Berlin, many of them still buy phone cards to call home. Funny when you think that instead, you could go into a internet café and use Skype.

  27. LIAD

    Thinking about your post in terms of disruptive innovation and barriers to consumption.Pay phones are actually quite disruptive and overcome 2 of the 4 main reasons for non-consumption (wealth and context/access).These are both exacerbated in settings such as airports where network service is frequently poor thus providing increased non-consumption of cellphones for context/access reasons, coupled with these locations having a higher than average proportion of travellers/foreigners where usage of native cell phones are prohibitively expensive thus compounding non-consumption of cell phones due to wealth reasons.It makes sense for legacy technologies like pay-phones to make “good money” in these settings.Is there a cycle to disruptive innovations where the disruptor becomes the disrupted?

    1. fredwilson

      I’ve heard the idea that they were foreign travelers expressed in more than a few comments. But I didn’t hear anything other than english being spoken. Not that I was listening too carefully

  28. Alex MacCaw

    I’m 19, and I’ve never used a pay phone.Also, my first email address was a gmail one.I think it’s not just pay phones that are doomed – but also landline company phones. At the last place I worked we were all issued with mobiles. I see that happening more and more.

    1. fredwilson

      The first time I saw a company do that was 1999. I thought I was a bit crazy not to have a pbx and land lines. But for a small ten person company it worked fine

  29. Venkat

    Technological end of life doesn’t respect the same dynamics organic biological life-forms do. New use cases, combined effects of high sunk costs and low maintenance costs, worst-case (rather than average case) infrastructure design, all contribute. Some points:* End-of-life technologies are usually optimized to death in cost structure. Harvesting can go on as long as the low maintenance costs of the high-reliability stuff is lower than the revenue from the declining use base. Things can sink pretty low before they become too unprofitable to maintain. And don’t forget that truly killing a technology requires payment of a “bubble cost” (dismantling, shredding/transport to a landfill/reprocessing etc.; even digital technologies have some rough analogues).* End–of-life technologies can get a second lease on life by discovering new use cases. My favorite example is one I learned about recently: large-scale immigration (steerage fare) was the primary cash cow of the shipping lines to America in the 18th/19th century. When that business started to collapse, the shipping lines repositioned successfully to make most of their money off rich customers paying cabin class fares. Lower base, higher unit cost and margin. Crawling upmarket. Ditto for horses: from mass transport to rich-people pleasure. You don’t need an external disruptor. Simple environmental shifts can cause the upmarket/new use case shift.* Your payphone example is particularly interesting. Like many infrastructure technologies, it manifests worst-case design rather than average-load design. It is designed to be profitable with low median utilization, with occasional high peaks for emergencies. Where technologies like airlines would collapse if the average utilization levels dropped too low, things like payphones are technological camels. They can survive on long droughts of use punctuated by binges. So long as 9/11 style emergencies and collapse scenarios of cellphone infrastructure exist, the payphone system will probably be economically sustainable.It just takes a very different kind of entrepreneurial mindset to envision the possibilities of decay and obsolescence. Anybody can ideate around bright and shiny new stuff. It takes a subtler kind of talent to ideate around the old and dying.Moore’s “Dealing with Darwin” has some good thoughts on this subject, but it is an underexplored area in the thinking around innovation.

    1. fredwilson

      Great comment

  30. Michael Johnston

    In NYC, the combination of 911 and the ubiquity of home and mobile phones put fire call boxes out of business. They remain, largely as decorative reminders of days gone by.

  31. michael

    this whole thread reminds me of a great lewis ck bit … watch it! hilarious:http://www.youtube.com/watc…(incidentally, i had four 9s and one 0 in my home phone number growing up. took easily :15 just to dial. think about it.)

    1. fredwilson

      I don’t even have to click thru. I know what bit it is and you are right. Hilarious!

  32. Rocky Agrawal

    The unfortunate thing is that some of the places you’d most need payphones, they’re no longer supported because of the economics. I’m thinking of remote areas where cell phones don’t work.When I’m out hiking or in a far out place and I see a payphone I check to see if it’s still working. The vast majority of the time, it isn’t.Like this one in Emerald Bay on Lake Tahoe:http://www.flickr.com/photo

  33. Aruni S. Gunasegaram

    So true! Not only legacy technology but also legacy ways of doing things and legacy ‘tried and tested’ mentality die a long, slow painful death sometimes.I can’t remember the last time I used a payphone. In 3rd world countries though many people use phone cards.

  34. bombtune

    I see people at pay phones all the time as well. They’re still useful which is why they’re still in business. Not everyone has a cell phone, just like not everyone has an MP3 player or iPhone to store music. I still see people with CD players so someone must still be buying CDs are we see that in the numbers. But at which point does the industry decide as a whole to kill antiquated technology like the FCC did with analog TV.That being said, I think the next pay phone runs through the Internet just like everything else that involves communication.

    1. fredwilson


  35. Jeff DiStanlo

    i have been dogging our old fax machine at work and trying to get us all e-fax lines. then lightning took out our router and internet connection. all of a sudden that old school fax over land line was quite useful. sometimes the old technology just works and has less interdependencies than the new stuff.

    1. fredwilson


  36. benortega

    The number of pay phones nationwide plunged from 2 million in 2000 to 870,000 in 2007, according to the Federal Communications Commission. – http://bit.ly/GQ0mI had the same experience about a month ago when I purchased a “dump run” vehicle (1991 pickup) and when my kids sat in it for the first time, they asked what the handle with the knob does……rolls the window up and down!! That was amplified by my youngest who said, “the windows roll down when the car is off too!” They were amazed.Tech and Innovation are moving so fast. It took 1.5 of a generational change to forget about albums but only took .5 of a generational change to forget about dial-up. (my kids have no idea of anything less than DSL; we’re on FIOS now)It is nice to see hints of where we’ve come from, as we go through what I feel is the most significant habit change in our times.

    1. fredwilson

      You should have seen my kids when they saw a rotary phone for the first time.’You really have to spin that thing around for every single number???’It happened a while ago now but I remember that moment so well

  37. gorbachev

    Last time I used a pay phone was during 9/11.Cellphones weren’t working. Payphones had lines of 15 deep, but they were working perfectly.

    1. fredwilson

      well then thank god legacy technology dies hard