Pagers, faxes and cheques: Things that might seem obsolete, but aren't

By Gareth Evans & Roland Hughes
BBC News

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Cassette tapes have made a comeback. Thankfully, the boombox-on-shoulder look has not.

The roughly 1,000 people who still used pagers in Japan might have shed a tear this week when they were finally discontinued. Wait, you may say... pagers are still a thing?

Even though you won't find them in Japan any more, pagers are still used elsewhere. And they're not the only "outdated" item still being employed around the world.

1) Pagers

Media caption,
Retro tech: When the pager was king

How do they work?

They're like small radio receivers (we're not explaining what a "radio" is) that you can carry around. Each user has a personal code that people can quote if they want to send a message to you. Each message flashes up on the side of the pager.

Why are they still around?

More than 10% of the world's remaining pagers are used by 130,000 people who work for the UK's National Health Service (NHS). One study from 2017 said 80% of British hospitals still used them.

Why? For one thing, reception is always good: some hospital rooms are designed to contain X-rays, but this also ends up blocking telephone signals. Pagers' radio signals are fine. They're also fast, and useful in emergencies.

But pagers might not be long for this world: they are to be phased out of the NHS by 2021 and replaced by another messaging system.

2) Cheques

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Image caption,
Cheques are so rare these days, it's normal to take photos of them when you see them

How do they work?

Imagine a book made of slips of paper that your bank gives you. You can tear out a slip (or "cheque"), write down a number (one that is equal to or less than the amount of money you have in your account) and give it to someone, who can then give it to their own bank for money. Simple!

Why are they still around?

They're used more than you might think, even if they are less popular than ever.

In the US, where small stores may not accept cards and landlords often demand to be paid by cheque, an average of 7.1 cheques were written per household per month in 2015.

Chequebooks were due to be phased out in the UK by 2018, but those plans were scrapped, because no viable alternatives for the elderly and vulnerable were in place (most British cheque users are aged over 65).

According to UK Finance, the trade association for the British banking sector, cheques made up only 0.9% of all payments here in 2018 - but they still added up to a surprising £443 billion ($550 billion) in transactions.

Having said this, the number of cheques cashed here has fallen 75% in only 10 years. That figure is unlikely to increase again, but the UK finance industry still expects 135 million cheque payments to be made in 2028.

A number of other countries, including the Netherlands, Namibia and Denmark, have already phased out cheques.

3) Cassettes

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Image caption,
Pictured: A time before music streaming sites

How do they work?

Well, for those of a certain age, the idea of a cassette tape working at all might seem like a pipedream. This retro music format largely conjures dark memories of badly tangled tape and cracked cases.

But for the uninitiated: imagine a small, rectangular, plastic box filled with a roll of magnetic tape. On that tape you'll find, as if by magic, the work of musical icons such as Madonna, Prince and Rick Astley. You could even record your own!

Pop that plastic box satisfyingly into a cassette player - perhaps a classic Sony Walkman or your granddad's car stereo - press play, and away you go. Just don't expect great sound quality…

Why are they still around?

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Image caption,
A number of high-profile artists have released - or re-released - music on cassette in recent years

They're more than just hanging around - cassette tapes are actually becoming more popular. It's something of a mini-renaissance.

In the UK, sales are at their highest level for more than a decade. More than 35,000 of them were sold in the first seven months of this year, according to the British Phonographic Industry (BPI). That might not sound like much (because, well, it isn't) but it marks the seventh year in a row that sales of the format have increased.

It's a similar story in the US, where, according to Nielsen music, sales of cassette tapes grew by 23% in 2018 compared with the previous year. So what's behind this rise?

"I think it's nostalgia," says Ken Brissenden, who owns an online cassette retailer called - naturally - Mr Cassette. "It slows down the process of enjoying music. People of my generation like the process of choosing a cassette and looking at the band notes on the sleeve.

"Plus, it's easier and more portable than vinyl."

But it's not just those looking to re-live their youth who are buying cassettes. "It's on trend," Mr Brissenden explains. "It seemed to take off when Eminem and other big artist started releasing them."

Indeed, a slew of modern artists have chosen to release their music on cassette in recent years. This year's best-selling artists in the format include Billie Eilish, Kylie Minogue and Lewis Capaldi. So there's life in the little tapes yet.

Farewell to the items that did not make it

4) Tamagotchis

Media caption,
Tamagotchis were launched in Japan in 1996, sparking a cyber-pet craze

How do they work?

They are electronic pets in the shape of an egg that you have to keep alive. Presumably it's all about learning how to process death and guilt.

Why are they still around?

Ironically, Tamagotchis refused to die. Instead, they have evolved.

They were released in Japan in 1996, and grew in popularity around the world in the year afterwards. Within its first few years, more than 40 million had been sold. And while sales have definitely slowed since, about six million were sold between 2010 and 2017.

Last year, a whole new generation of Tamagotchi was released. The basic pixelated grey screen of the 1990s has now been replaced by one in colour. New Tamagochi can, when bumped, exchange data, marry each other and breed, which is nice.

There's also a new era of Tamagotchi fans who meet on an online forum. Among the subjects being discussed: who should my Tama marry, tributes to dead Tamas and "mature and focused discussion" on Tamagotchi.

5) Fax machines

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Image caption,
People queue to use a fax machine at a US airport in 2000. Hopefully this isn't an emergency.

How do they work?

If you're young enough to have never used - or even seen - a fax machine, then imagine a bulky printer that sounds like a steam engine. Some older models might even have a telephone attached. They're far from sleek.

They work by scanning a document and transferring it into a signal which is then sent down a telephone line, to the sound of a piercing hell-scream, to another fax machine. This machine then reproduces the document and prints it out.

Why are they still around?

Largely because businesses, the health industry and government departments have failed to update their technology.

Again, let's look at NHS here in the UK. It's thought to be the world's largest purchaser of fax machines. It is so reliant on the outdated tech that last year it was banned from buying them altogether. It was then told by the government - presumably by email - to phase them out by March 2020.

Elsewhere in the world, the fax machine is still widely used in a number of countries including the US, Germany, Israel and Japan. Millions of faxed pages are still sent every day.

"For many older people who may feel uncomfortable with computers, faxing is easier, less expensive, and more familiar," says Professor Jonathan Coopersmith, who has written a history of the device. "Expect them to remain around even as they take a smaller share of daily communicating. "

Indeed, in Japan, the machine persists to some extent because handwriting and hard copies are still so highly valued. In fact, just last year, the country's new cyber-security minister admitted he had never used a computer. Talk about learning on the job.

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