CES 2015: You can’t go back: Android ‘retro’ kit just isn’t the real thing

Craig Grannell dons his old-git hat and grumbles about how iconic old gadgets simply become yet more Android devices
CES 2015: You can’t go back: Android ‘retro’ kit just isn’t the real thing

Each year, CES throws up (figuratively, although some people might argue almost literally) certain themes that set the course for technology for the rest of the year.

In 2014, it was all about smart technology, which, sure enough, became increasingly absurd as the months passed.

This year, possibly due to the economy still being given a thorough thrashing, there’s a clear attempt to infuse technology with familiarity and the warm, fuzzy glow of nostalgia.

By way of example, there’s the new Kodak Instamatic and the new Sony Walkman. Both of these names propel me back to simpler times, blissfully free from mortgage payments, nappies, constant nagging notifications on multiple black rectangles, and spam.

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CES 2015: You can’t go back: Android ‘retro’ kit just isn’t the real thing

My Walkman was already old when I got it - a hand-me-down from my mother. I recall it (probably erroneously - although only slightly) being about the same size and weight as a housebrick.

The thing was so bulky that it came with a shoulder strap rather than a belt-clip, in order that it not yank your trousers down at inopportune moments. Its heft was such that if you spun round too quickly, the thing would fly dangerously about your person, causing you to send friends flying into walls, or turn hideous (but, at the time, weirdly fashionable) ceramic owls and field-mice into exciting three-dimensional puzzles.

Despite this, I loved the thing, with its giant clicky buttons, even as it chewed through batteries (and sometimes the cassettes it was supposed to be playing). It was this that cemented itself in my head whenever I thought ‘Walkman’, eclipsing any successors with their new-fangled shiny discs, MiniDiscs, and MP3s.

CES 2015: You can’t go back: Android ‘retro’ kit just isn’t the real thing

Similarly, Kodak Instamatic has an important place in history for a great many people, ushering in an age of relatively low-cost photography, and boasting form factors that were tactile, beautiful and approachable. Naturally, by the time I got my hands on one, it was already pretty old, but that merely somehow made it feel experienced and worldly wise.

This was a camera that had been places; it quickly became a cherished item - something magical that had a life of its own.

Old for old's sake?

CES 2015: You can’t go back: Android ‘retro’ kit just isn’t the real thing

At CES 2015, though, the modern-day interpretations of these classics bear little relationship to their forebears. Admittedly - at least from certain angles - you might initially think otherwise. The Instamatic certainly has an unmistakable form factor, and while there’s no such immediate familiarity with the Walkman, it nonetheless intrigues with its chunky buttons and textured matte black finish, emblazoned with a gold Walkman logo.

But flip these devices over and you’re abruptly wrenched back to the present, faced with touchscreens running Android. Naturally, this is about pragmatism, utilising a relatively freely available foundation in order to create new high-tech gadgets. But by encasing these items in retro clothing, they end up feeling a little hollow and soulless.

They’re neither one thing nor the other - not classic kit, nor anything truly new.

For the nostalgic, there’s a whiff of cynicism in the air, of trying to part old fools with their money. And for relative youngsters who never experienced a Walkman or Instamatic first-hand, you have to wonder whether these Android devices would have been better just shooting for being amazing in their own right.

As it is, while the originals were game-changers, these new tykes simply feel like more of the same. And truly, they are proof that in the world of technology, you can never go home again — unless you visit eBay.

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