Tech holdouts: Newer devices are not for everyone

| Friday, Sept. 6, 2013, 8:57 p.m.

The future is increasingly happening right now. And one of its architects is Daniel Siewiorek.

In addition to being an inventor and electrical engineer, Siewiorek is director of the Quality of Life Technology Center on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University in Oakland.

The center, which is run jointly run by CMU and the University of Pittsburgh, is developing some of the coolest gadgets this side of “Iron Man.” Last year, they partnered with Intel Labs Pittsburgh to create a robot butler. The Home Exploring Robot Butler, or HERB, is designed to assist older or disabled folks with daily tasks.

But when it comes to personal technology, newer is not always better for Siewiorek. He owns a flip phone. No touch screen, but it allows him to take and send photos. It also has text, email, voice mail, chat and speakerphone functions.

“I don't really feel the need for a smartphone,” he says.

For Siewiorek, a potential loss of privacy is too big a price to pay for the convenience of a smartphone. The proliferation of apps has turned smartphones into electronic gossips whose data-mining capability can tell your business all over town, so to speak.

He also holds onto his trusty slide rule, which he keeps in his car. He still uses it to compute gas mileage, although he says not as much as he used to.

“I think people get used to operating with their technology,” Siewiorek says. “When you have upgrades, it's not easy to set parameters to get back to where you're comfortable. There's a learning curve. Every time I upgrade, it takes me a week or two.”

Anti-technology diehards have existed for at least as long as users of goose quills refused to capitulate to those newfangled fountain pens. But as the rate of technological innovation accelerates, chances are it will leave even more folks holding onto their old gear.

Call it upgrade fatigue — some folks simply are weary of scrambling to get the next generation of smartphone or tablet. Others cite cost. Many might simply hold onto their devices because, hey, they work. Why throw out a perfectly good answering machine or Texas Instruments calculator, even if it is the size of a catcher's mitt? Or their Walkman portable cassette player, which manufacturer Sony began phasing out in 2010?

Anna Lisa Haughwout of White Oak is a proud flip-phone fogy. Haughwout, owner of the Curves gym in North Versailles, inherited the phone from her husband when he upgraded to a new phone.

“Everybody says it's ancient, and I should get a new phone,” she says. “People say, to me, ‘When are you going to get rid of that dinosaur?' ”

Fifteen percent of adults in the United States do not own cellphones, according to “The Best (and Worst) of Mobile Connectivity” by Aaron Smith, published last year by the Pew Internet Research Center. One in five of this group of non-cellphone users cited cost as a reason that they do not own a cellphone, while 38 percent said they didn't need one or that they were happy with their landline, while 11 percent said they did not like cellphones and had no interest in owning one.

Forty percent of adults own cellphones but have not upgraded to a smartphone. Of this group, 37 percent said cost was their main reason for not upgrading. Nine percent of non-smartphone users said they didn't upgrade because they didn't understand how to use a smartphone.

One technology embraced by almost everyone is the television, but that doesn't mean everyone is ready to buy an HDTV or its successor Ultra-HD, with reportedly four times the resolution of plain old HDTV, says Shawn DuBravac, chief economist and senior director of research for the Consumer Electronics Association in Washington, D.C., which organizes the International CES every January in Las Vegas.

With the exception of television, not many forms of technology are adopted by more than 90 percent of the population, he says, but “DVDs were one of those categories that were able to get above that 90 percent threshold.

“Things like VCRs never broke (that) percent threshold. DVDs ... were one of the few very successful categories.” DuBravac says.

Now, purchases of portable and traditional DVD players are declining as Blu-ray sales rise, he says. At least consumers get a break — the Blu-ray players are “backwards compatible,” meaning that they will play DVDs.

That's not always the case. Mary Beth Krastas keeps her VCR hooked up to the Toshiba flat-screen television at her Penn Hills home. She hasn't used it in ages, but she won't part with it.

“I hold onto it, because I have memories,” she says. “One of the very treasured memories are of my children when they were younger. I really don't have the time to transfer them onto CDs or DVDs.”

When it comes to maintaining the integrity of the images, she says she trusts VHS tape more than DVDs.

“One of the other reasons I don't have them made into a DVD is that I know that DVDs will not last forever with their information,” Krastas says. “You don't want to take that chance of losing memories that mean so much. VHS tapes may fade, but the images are still there.”

Howard Neimetz still repairs five or 10 VCRs a week at Howard's VCR Service. Most of his clientele is older than 50, he says.

He started his business in 1964 as Howard's TV Service. It's not likely to become Howard's DVD Service, however.

“I don't repair DVD (players), because you can't get the parts, and everything's so small,” he says. “DVDs, you have to change the whole board. That can be $70 or $80. You might as well get a new one.”

Then, there's that passionate group of audiophiles who swear by the sound of vinyl record albums played on a prehistoric turntable and an analog receiver. These stereos are the bread and butter for Vince Bomba, owner of Galaxie CQ Electronics in Squirrel Hill. A former field engineer for Mellon Bank, he also repairs VCRs and yes, 8-track players.

For a while, he says, he was repairing one 8-track a week.

“I have people come in and say, ‘I bought this box of old tapes at a flea market. I have REO Speedwagon, I've got Steppenwolf. I don't have anything to play them on. … I've had a guy come in with an '80s Lincoln Town Car. He wanted that 8-track to work in his dash. He said it was part of the restoration.

“Those units were well made,” Bomba says of 8-tracks. “If it doesn't need a motor, it's usually just a belt or cleaning or adjusting, as opposed to a CD player.”

Certain technologies also have fierce partisans, as many a Macintosh owner will attest.

You couldn't pay Andy Masich to own a car that doesn't have a manual transmission. The president and CEO of the Senator John Heinz History Center in the Strip District, he drives a 1949 Jeep Station Wagon. Its manual transmission gets better gas mileage and is cheaper to repair than automatic transmissions, he says.

“That's the one thing that I'm going kicking and screaming into the 21st century about,” he says. “I am as techie and connected as you can imagine. The only thing that is kind of a throwback is that manual transmission. I'll turn it loose when they pry my cold dead fingers from the gearshift bulb.”

William Loeffler is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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