The Brutal Evolution Of Technology

Published in Investing on 18 April 2012

The death of Ceefax shows that change is the enemy of high-tech businesses.

On the BBC News website, Financial Times columnist Matthew Engel today waved a fond farewell to Ceefax, the BBC's teletext service.

Before the Internet was Ceefax

Engel's homage to Ceefax ('see facts') -- the BBC's broadcast teletext service since 1974 -- comes as the analogue TV signal is switched off in London. Other parts of the UK lost Ceefax as much as two years ago, during the early stages of the roll-out of digital television.

The good news is that the UK's switch from an analogue to a digital TV signal brings many advantages, including an increase from five terrestrial channels to 40 Freeview channels. Even so, like Engel, I used to be a Ceefax addict, so I too mourn its demise.

Ceefax isn't quite dead yet (it can still be found in Kent, the North East, Northern Ireland and Sussex), but its days are numbered. Six months from now, Ceefax will finally die, superseded by the BBC's interactive Red Button service by October 2012.

Ceefax for shares

As a private investor since 1987, I first started using Ceefax to check share prices 25 years ago (always starting at page 200 for business news). I remember well the patient wait for Ceefax to cycle through, say, eight pages so that I could view a particular share price.

Even though these prices were delayed 20 minutes and updated only every 15 minutes, they were the best free quotation system available to small investors in those days.

What's more, I can remember returning from a holiday outing on the afternoon of 11 September 2001, switching on Ceefax first and seeing pages and pages of red quotes, signifying that share prices had fallen right across the board. Only when I flicked off Ceefax did I see the full horror of the attacks. 

Onwards and upwards

Of course, all things must pass -- and Ceefax is no match for the Web when it comes to up-to-the-minute, interactive news, sport, weather and TV listings. Indeed, ITV and Channel 4 closed their Teletext service in December 2009, with Channel 5 following suit last year.

From late 1993 onwards, my reliance on Ceefax started to fade, as I gained Internet access at work and home and began using various websites to check share prices and monitor stock portfolios. To be honest, I didn't really miss Ceefax, as its online rivals were faster, easier to use and graphically far superior. However, nostalgic fans can check out the Teletext Museum.

In summary, Ceefax ran for 38 years and, at its peak, had 2,000 pages of information and was checked by a third of the UK population each week. In many ways, it was truly the Internet of its time.

Creative destruction

Of course, the point here is that even the most well-established technology can be blown away -- sometimes slowly, sometimes overnight -- by a superior product or a better business. It's what Austrian-American economist Joseph Schumpeter called the 'creative destruction' of capitalism.

In other words, in free markets, the strong drive out the weak in a process of continuous corporate Darwinism. However, thanks to their incredibly strong household brands, it's a tough call to unseat consumer behemoths such as Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO.US) and Unilever (LSE: ULVR).

On the other hand, barriers to entry are far lower in the technology sector, where established companies can be brought to their knees by latecomers, relative upstarts and even 'one smart guy in his bedroom'.

For example, during the Nineties dotcom boom, AOL (NYSE: AOL.US) was the Big Daddy of the Internet. Alas, following a disastrous merger with Time Warner (NYSE: TWX.US), AOL lost ground to the likes of Yahoo! (NASDAQ: YHOO.US), Google (NASDAQ: GOOG.US) (born in 1996) and soon-to-be-listed Facebook (created in 2004).

In short, the demise of Ceefax holds up a mirror to the world of technology. It reminds us that today's must-have computers, consoles, software and applications can be tomorrow's junk -- as can be the companies selling them!

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Comments

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blackwhite 18 Apr 2012 , 4:10pm

Didn't you mean the strong drive out the weak in the above article?

CunningCliff 18 Apr 2012 , 4:14pm

D'oh!

Thanks, blackwhite, I'll get this changed immediately.

All the best,

Cliff

DANordic 18 Apr 2012 , 4:41pm

BBC. Page 302. FOOTBALL. R.I.P CEEFAX!!

CunningCliff 18 Apr 2012 , 6:07pm

More Ceefax nostalgia here:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/news/9211234/Ceefax-10-things-to-miss.html

Don't forget page 324: Premiership league table!

Cliff

UncleEbenezer 18 Apr 2012 , 11:30pm

AOL was the WHAT of the Internet?????

AOL's joining the 'net was a cause of quite a lot of consternation at the time. People were concerned that large numbers of newbies coming from a tabloid-like demographic and joining all at once would put strains on the system (old-timers were accustomed to bracing ourselves for a wave of newbies to educate each September - AOL would be a tsunami). Not so much the physical network, but social conventions - we'd see the same questions repeated endlessly (and in inappropriate places), lots of shouting "fire" in a crowded theatre.

In the event, AOL integration went remarkably smoothly (kudos to their team), and real threats came from other directions: the rise of spam, the enclosure of the commons, and Microsoft's arrival with a disgracefully cavalier attitude to security issues that were documented in the MIME RFCs as far back as 1991.

CunningCliff 19 Apr 2012 , 11:11am

Hi UncleEbenezer,

Hats off to you, sir, for easily managing to outdo me on the 'old codger' scale. I salute you! :0)

Kind regards,

Cliff

ANuvver 19 Apr 2012 , 12:32pm

As someone who used to know most of the character strings for colour changes and block graphics, do I qualify as a fellow codger?

And in this era of spam and trolls I fondly remember Compuserve...

jadeplant 19 Apr 2012 , 1:33pm

Sub-title is weird. Change is the *growing medium* of high-tech businesses.

CunningCliff 19 Apr 2012 , 4:24pm

Ah yes, jadeplant, change is the enemy of long-established high-tech businesses, but a good friend to newborn and start-up tech firms!

Cliff

tru2me 20 Apr 2012 , 12:09pm

Cliff a very relevant article concerning the Technology sector but is your title, not stating the obvious.

Surely technology by it's very nature is (if it is any good) constantly evolving.

In this respect technology does mimic nature, so I guess that is where your interesting corporate Darwinism phrase comes from.

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