Today’s data storage owes the audiocassette a debt

It began when one inventor cut a wooden template to the size of his pocket

Inventor of the audiocassette Lou Ottens' death at age 94 in early 2021 gave media and technology fans everywhere a chance to stop and think. In the age of Musks and Zuckerbergs, it's easy to forget how much Ottens changed the game. New audio series Fast Forward explores how we can explore technology's future by looking to the past.


From the pocket of the world

Before the audiocassette, the home and studio audio standard was heavy, bulky and easily damaged open-reel tape. Ottens began with the idea of something conveniently carried, cutting a piece of wood to the size of his pocket as a template.

When Phillips introduced the audiocassette to market in 1963, it was a tiny sound revolution – light and compact, it made data transportable and accessible in ways never before possible. And it traveled everywhere from car dashboards to zero-gravity space vehicles.

Small sounds goes big

From the 80s, cassette players were used to load software and games onto early home computers and record telephone messages. When the Sony Walkman appeared in 1977 – a cassette player small and light enough to be worn clipped to a belt – along with longer life batteries, it took audiocassettes further still. Before cassettes receded into obsolescence around the late 1990s, the penetration of Lou Ottens' innovation was total.

But the audiocassette stayed influential. Ottens also helped develop the Compact Disc, which stored more and lasted longer. But its use and distribution patterns followed those established by its predecessor, the cassette. Encrypting data onto CDs and later flash USB drives followed similar patterns, from storing and erasing files to transport and distribution as 'removable memory.'

Symbolic influence

The cassette's influence didn't end there. Symbols on PlayStation, Xbox and other game controllers mimic those introduced with the audiocassette. In fact, the controls on almost all audio-visual players, from smartphones to professional editing software, share those the audiocassette used first: A right-pointing triangle for play, double triangles for fast forward and rewind and parallel vertical bars for pause.

Of all the cassette's symbolic introductions, pause is the most welcome at times of rapid, disruptive innovation. Technology-led progress suggests we must track the latest innovations, the newest platforms, the boldest business models without pause – it's all fast forward until we don't where we are anymore. That's when we need to press pause – maybe even rewind.

Past lessons invaluable for future success

Such a frantic pace can distract us from learning from the past. The influence of the audiocassette, far beyond its apparent obsolescence, is a case in point.

Our new Tomorrow Unlocked audio documentary series Fast Forward is devoted to examining trends from the recent past shaping today's technology. It explores practical lessons that might otherwise have been lost in our rapid forward momentum.

Clayton M Christensen and Joseph Bower coined the term 'disruptive' to describe game-changing technologies in their 1995 article, Disruptive technologies: Catching the wave. Although 'disruptive' has since been overused, Bower and Christensen first identified the idea of disruptive technologies by taking the long view of innovation's history.

Overuse tends to stretch meaning to the point where the original definition is all but lost. Disruptive technologies, often coming from outside an existing system of established firms and products, create new markets that eventually displace that system.

The concept can be crushed down to Mark Zuckerberg's infamous (former) motto for Facebook: Move fast and break things. What 'move fast and break things' lacks in nuance, it makes up for in commitment – which is fine until you remember moving fast and breaking things is what bulls do in china shops.

Launching unfinished business

The current rush to disrupt in tech industries condemns customers to live in a 'beta' universe where bugs become features. But as entrepreneur Andy Budd observed in a recent blog post, "Without a clear picture of what you're building, it's almost impossible to predict problems. We're encouraged to learn about the future not by thinking, imagining or researching outcomes, but by launching products and learning from the results."

The law of unintended consequences governs the 'beta' universe. Taking the long view can help swing those consequences from negative to positive. It's unlikely Lou Ottens foresaw the deep, long-term impact of the audiocassette while cutting that block of wood to fit in his pocket.

Ottens was just five in 1926 when Thomas Edison died. Edison invented the phonograph, which made mechanical sound recording and playback possible for the first time.

During his life, Edison broke a lot of things. He first tried to market the phonograph by putting it inside a doll that recited nursery rhymes and wished its owner a happy Christmas. The doll was a dismal failure, withdrawn from shelves after most were unsold or returned by disturbed customers.

For Edison, trial and error were part of the process, to be repeated until the product was ready for the public. His customers didn't want a talking doll, but they did want to hear a famous tenor like Enrico Caruso in their parlors.

"I have not failed," Edison said about his repeated setbacks while inventing the lightbulb. "I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." Sometimes the long view still offers the best lessons.

Listen to the episodes and read articles and interviews from Fast Forward series.

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