Sony’s latest versions of the Walkman, the pioneering portable music player first released in 1979, are nothing like the original cassette player that came with foam headphones. Instead the latest Walkman is a digital music player that costs $1,600 or $3,200.
This probably won’t be a big seller. Neither were the Nokia and BlackBerry phones that also lived on — at least until recently — long after those devices became relics to those of us who even remember them.
I wanted to know: Who loves technology that is long past its prime? Well, it’s people like Chris Fralic.
The board partner with the start-up investment firm First Round remembers buying a 2004 Sony PlayStation Portable video game device on eBay when it was available only in Japan. At a party, he pulled the device out of his shirt pocket and people swarmed.
“It was like it was beamed from the future,” Fralic told me over the phone this week, as he held an old PSP in his hand.
To you, this kind of stuff might be obsolete junk. To enthusiasts like Fralic, technology gadgets contain history — of the collectors’ lives, the tech industry, the United States or all of the above.
“They all tell a story,” Fralic said. “I’ve used and sold and loved this stuff from when it first came out. It’s cool to look back and realize how important it was.”
Fralic converted a third-floor attic in his home into a personal museum for his collection of thousands of technology devices and memorabilia from the past 40 years or more.
Yes, Fralic owns multiple versions of the old school Walkman and Sony’s Discman CD player. (He emailed me a photo as evidence.) His collection also includes a hulking DEC PDP-11 minicomputer nicknamed R2-D2 that Fralic admitted is a pain to move.
He owns the pieces of an original “blue box” electronic device that Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak cobbled together — before they founded Apple Computer — to hack telephone lines. His collection has so many phones, including a Gordon Gekko-style monster and a Soviet era “yellow phone” designed for connecting to the Kremlin.
Technology by its nature is fast moving, and there’s often no time or inclination to look back. But many old tech gadgets never really die. Instead, they live on in nostalgia products, like Sony’s not-Walkman, and in the garages and attics of aficionados who believe the PSP was the coolest thing ever made.
Addison Del Mastro’s love for a 1970s cassette tape changer from Japan and old clock radios is not about personal nostalgia. Del Mastro, who writes a newsletter about urbanism and land use, is 28 years old and has barely wielded that stuff himself.
But Del Mastro said that when he was a teenager, he brought home from his local recycling center a discarded RadioShack clock radio with faux wood paneling and a cassette player. “I plugged the thing in, and it worked.” He was hooked.
Del Mastro said that he appreciates the creativity and craftsmanship that went into decades-old consumer electronics as well as the ability to understand how they worked.
“You can open up that spinning cassette player from 1970, and any layman can understand what is going on,” he told me. “It engages your brain and your hands. That experience is absent in a lot of modern technology or devices.”
Adam Minter said that he started hearing a decade or so ago from electronics recyclers who were getting calls from people eager to buy obsolete personal computers. They were offering far more money than the PCs were worth to strip for raw materials like gold.
Minter, a former colleague of mine who has written two books about the second lives of our stuff, said that those phone calls were often from collectors who hunt for every computer chip ever made by Intel or other manufacturers. “It sounds weird but, really, is it?” Minter said. “You’re collecting these artifacts of our technological age.”
There are, of course, collectors and enthusiasts for everything. You might love vintage Bakelite jewelry or 1970s Italian bicycles. Technology gadgets that inspire wonder and lust are no different. Talking to people for this newsletter felt as if I’d wandered into an extremely nerdy subculture, and I may never be able to get out again.
“When you crack open this crazy world, I’m a small player in it,” Fralic said. “There are people who are nuts about this stuff.”
Tip of the Week
Taking your smartphone abroad
If you’re in the U.S. and planning a trip outside the country, Brian X. Chen, the New York Times personal technology columnist, has you covered.
Taking a smartphone abroad can be a lousy experience for Americans.
International data plans from U.S. phone carriers such as Verizon and AT&T often work well — but they aren’t cheap. That $10 a day to use your phone in many other countries adds up on longer trips, and the travel plans sometimes limit the data you’re using to look up online maps, restaurants and tourist attractions.
Over the years, I’ve tried a number of alternatives on international trips. I’ve had mixed results with eSIMs — essentially a digital method of instructing your smartphone to latch on to a foreign cellular network as soon as you arrive.
In Thailand, the eSIM that I bought didn’t work. When I tried to contact customer support, no one spoke English. On the other hand, when I was in Canada, I used an eSIM that worked great but was on the pricey side — $40 for one gigabyte of data. And eSIMs may not work on every smartphone.
In my experience, the most foolproof and affordable way to take a smartphone abroad is to purchase a physical SIM card from a major carrier at your travel destination.
When I traveled to Japan about five years ago, I ordered a few DoCoMo SIM cards loaded with one gigabyte of data for $20 apiece. The SIM cards — tiny pieces of plastic that slot into your phone and contain instructions to internet and phone service networks — were delivered to my house before my trip.
When I arrived in Japan, I popped out my Verizon SIM card, replaced it with the DoCoMo one and followed instructions to activate the service. It worked great, and if something had gone wrong, I had the option to walk into a DoCoMo store in Japan to ask for help.
(Plan ahead and check with your phone provider to make sure that you will be able to use your phone outside the U.S. And if you use an eSIM or SIM card abroad, you might not have access to your regular telephone number or SMS texts.)
Before we go …
Blasting off is more fun than running Amazon: Bloomberg’s Brad Stone checks in on Jeff Bezos, who retired last year as Amazon’s chief executive and is now spending much of his time focused on his private space company, his personal life and his climate philanthropy. Don’t miss the detail about Bezos’ tailored jumpsuit. (A subscription may be required.)
Wired spoke with Rafaela Vasquez, who was behind the wheel of an Uber self-driving test car in 2018 when it struck and killed a pedestrian, Elaine Herzberg. Vasquez is facing criminal charges, and she’s at the center of a debate over whom to blame for deaths caused by computerized cars. (A subscription may be required.)
The GasBuddy app is a privacy nightmare. Here are alternatives to finding cheaper gas, from The New York Times’s Wirecutter product review site.
Hugs to this
Please enjoy this sparkly horse mosaic in a New York subway station.
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