1998 vs. 2008: A Tech Retrospective

Phone prices had drifted downward but were still very high, averaging $2300 for portable models. A typical monthly bill was $100 to $150, with charges of 50 cents per minute for both incoming and outgoing calls.

Phones and service remained very basic, with no voice mail, call forwarding, caller ID, or other niceties that we now take for granted; and Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, camera capabilities, touch screens, music and video playback, and Web access (all provided by the iPhone) were beyond the horizon altogether. The 8500XL did have an LED display and enough memory to retain 30 numbers. A few years later, however, Motorola introduced the StarTAC--the first clamshell flip phone--and the true pocketable phone was born.

What's next? Google's Android initiative, with working prototypes shown this month at Barcelona's Mobile Congress, promises an open smart-phone platform, which may end the era of carriers' stranglehold on handsets.

Big-Screen TVs

1988: Mitsubishi Diamond Vision II 3503

  • Price: $3000 ($5258 adjusted for inflation)
  • Size: 35 inches
  • Resolution: 480 lines, interlaced
  • Format: NTSC
  • Display technology: CRT

2008: Panasonic TH-50PZ77U HDTV

  • Price: $2300
  • Size: 50 inches
  • Resolution: 1080 lines, progressive scan
  • Format: ATSC
  • Display technology: plasma

When Mitsubishi shipped its 35-inch Diamond Vision television in 1985, it was the world's biggest cathode-ray tube TV. By 1988, popular electronics columnist Harry Somerfield said that the company's model 3503 offered "probably the best big picture available anywhere, at any price."

The phrase "at any price" was apt, since (in 2008 dollars) the 3503 cost $5258. The smooth image quality and excellent color of analog CRTs still beats what plasma and LCD sets can produce, but tubes have some practical limitations: A 35-inch CRT weighs about 200 pounds, and it's about 2 feet deep. The demand for ever-larger screens has prompted a switch to flat-panel TVs. One of today's top models is the 50-inch Panasonic TH-50PZ77U, a plasma-screen television that has garnered a slew of awards.

Sharp predicts that by 2015 the average TV screen size will have increased to 60 inches.  Organic light-emitting diodes, the next big thing in display technology, will offer breathtaking image quality. The 60-inch screens of the future may be OLED-based, but the technology still has some maturing to do: The OLED screen on Sony's new $2300 XEL-1 measures just 11 inches.

1988: Pioneer CLD-1010 Laserdisc Player

  • Price: $1427 ($2278 adjusted for inflation)
  • Resolution: 420-line
  • Output: composite
  • Media supported: Laserdisc, CD-audio, CD-video

2008: Panasonic DMP-BD30K Blu-ray Disc Player

  • Price: $500
  • Resolution: 1080-line
  • Output: HDMI
  • Media supported: Blu-ray 1.1, DVD (with upscaling), CD

Laserdisc was the Blu-ray of 1988--a high-quality alternative to the then-dominant video media (VHS tape then; regular DVD now). And like Blu-ray gear today, Laserdisc players commanded a premium price.

The Pioneer CLD-1010 doubled as a CD-audio player; and later models could play DVDs, too. But Laserdisc never gained widespread support from equipment makers and movie studies, and as a result its household penetration in the United States peaked at just 2 percent.

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