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5 Pieces of 'Old' Tech That Still Drive Today's Newest Gadgets


Are we lacking revolutionary breakthroughs in technology?

Even the freshest electronic gadgets sold today – from Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd. (OTCMKTS:SSNLF) Galaxy S4 to Glass from Google Inc (NASDAQ:GOOG) – rely heavily on technologies that were around for decades. And we're not even talking about foundational inventions like transistors or transceivers. In fact, even the oldest technologies around are constantly evolving. Here we look at a few cutting-edge devices that are in part reliant on tech that is decades-old.

SIM Cards: 22 Years Old

The tiny computer smartcard we get from our cell carrier is called a Subscriber Identification Module (SIM) and is used to identify customers on most cellular networks worldwide. Though some, like Verizon Communications Inc (NYSE:VZ), were not using it until the launch of LTE, and others, like Sprint Nextel Corporation (NYSE:S), generally don't rely on SIM cards or use embedded ones.

According to the GSM Association, soon there will be more SIM cards on Earth than people in the world. That's because we're now equipping millions of different devices with SIM cards so they can be connected to the network. Think connected cars, security cameras, or even a GPS collar for your dog.

The SIM card was first introduced on the world's pioneer GSM cellular network (now GSM is the most widely adopted standard) established by Finnish Radiolinja in 1991.

For sure, SIM cards have evolved since then, adding memory and capabilities while also shrinking in size (say thanks to Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL) for those micro- and nano-SIMs), but they still closely resemble their ancestors from '90s.

Lithium-Ion Batteries: 22 Years Old

These batteries lead the market and now power just about every type of gadget you can imagine. You can find Li-Ion batteries everywhere, from inside tiny portable electronic devices to the engines of heavy cars and planes -- in fact, The Boeing Company's (NYSE:BA) 787 Dreamliner fleet was grounded because of issues with its Li-Ion battery pack.

The idea of lithium-ion batteries was described as early as 1976 (a whopping 37 years ago), but the first commercial implementation arrived later, when Sony Corporation (ADR) (NYSE:SNE) introduced its battery in 1991.

While the Li-Ion batteries keep constantly improving, currently they are still full of trade-offs. Their energy yield leaves much to be desired, especially given the growing number of energy-hungry devices.

Still, unless scientific breakthroughs arrive, it will take decades for the emerging battery types – like Li-Air, solid-state, and Li-S – to go into mass production and take the lead from Li-Ion batteries, analysts say.

LCD Screens: 25 Years Old

Liquid Crystal Displays (LCDs) have been around for decades, with early developments traced to the 1960s. It took nearly 30 years for the industry to come close to the display types that are similar to those used these days.

The vast majority of current devices still use displays based on the technology used in the first 14" Sharp Corporation (OTCMKTS:SHCAY) color LCD thin-film-transistor display prototype in 1988.

According to IHS's iSuppli report, in 2010, LCD screens dominated the market with more than a 90% share. Things are unlikely to have changed significantly since then, though other technologies are catching up.

LCD keeps evolving; engineers have given it new matrix technologies and backlight methods. But smartphone makers are looking more and more at organic LED screens, with their superior contrast and vivid colors. TVs might soon be heading in that direction too, further eroding the current main LED-competitor's – plasma displays – market share.

Flash Memory: 26 Years Old

It's hard to imagine the modern world without this 1984 invention by Dr. Fujio Masuoka. Being commercialized only in 1987 by Toshiba Corp (OTCMKTS:TOSBF), flash memory radically changed the way we store information: Solid-state drives are so pervasive nowadays that it's hard to imagine a time when we couldn't literally put gigabytes of storage in our pocket.

We use NAND-flash modules in laptops, smartphones, memory cards, USB sticks, and dozens of other devices. And even though the principles behind the invention are old, the product's density has skyrocketed while its price has dropped significantly – roughly about 1,000x in a decade. You could get a 64-megabyte memory card in 1999 for around $200, and now you can get 1,000 times more capacity for the same price or even less.

Further improvements are not far off: Memristors from Hewlett-Packard Company (NYSE:HPQ), expected in commercial products later this year, might take storage to a whole new level with even bigger densities.

Touch Screens: 40 Years Old

The first touch screen was invented in late 1960s and put to use by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (or CERN) in 1973.

In 1992 International Business Machines Corp. (NYSE:IBM) revealed its touch screen phone Simon (sales began in 1994), but the real game-changer arrived with the iPhone in 2007, which reinvented touch screen devices, adding a multi-touch approach.

The technology behind touch screens has constantly evolved, making them more sensitive and advanced over time: You can now even use touch screens while wearing gloves.

Demand is growing too, and is expected to grow further -- unless we figure out new and improved methods for controlling our phones, tablets and computers.
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