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The Top 5 Gadgets of the Last 50 Years? Not What You Might Think

Lesson learned from five decades of consumer electronics: consuming is more popular than doing things


An interesting article ran in The Atlantic last week, outlining the top gadgets released over the past 50 years. Based on a 2011 study by the Journal of Management and Marketing Research, the piece ranks consumer electronics products released during the past 50 years based on the percentage of U.S. households that owned one within seven years of being on the market.

It’s an interesting read and puts some of the assumptions around current consumer electronics in perspective. For example, we think of Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) as dominating the MP3 player market (it does), but dominating within one consumer group doesn’t necessarily equate to being a must-have gadget for everyone — the iPod doesn’t even make the list for household adoption.

Here’s the list of the top five fastest-adopted gadgets of the last 50 years, according to The Atlantic. The cell phone comes in at No. 14, digital cameras land at No. 6 and DVRs come in at No. 18. The iPad (or tablet computers)? They haven’t been on the market for seven years yet, so we’ll have to check back in four or five years.

1. The boom box, a portable cassette tape player and radio with speakers that packed a punch (thus the name), started showing up in the U.S. in the 1970s, and within seven years more than 60% of households owned one. Although Philips (NYSE:PHG) is credited as being the first company to tack a set of speakers onto a cassette player, the main players when the devices were introduced in the U.S. were more-familiar electronics manufacturers: Sony (NYSE:SNE), General Electric (NYSE:GE), and Panasonic (NYSE:PC).

2. The CD player, which introduced digital audio into the home and precipitated the beginning of the end of the vinyl LP, was pioneered by Philips and Sony (the same companies that had established the CD audio format). The first CD player using the familiar sliding-tray mechanism was released in the U.S. by Philips in 1983, and within seven years 55% of households owned one.

3. The DVD format was invented in 1995 by four Japanese electronics manufacturers: Philips, Sony, Toshiba (PINK:TOSBF), and Panasonic. Toshiba introduced the first DVD player to the U.S. in 1997, and 50% of U.S. homes were soon trading in VHS tapes for optical discs.

4. The VCR introduced the first opportunity for consumers to record video from their television sets (decades before the Web and file swapping). It also paved the way for video rentals, which launched new businesses like Blockbuster, and changed the way Hollywood did business. The VHS format was invented by JVC and introduced into the US market by RCA in 1977, reaching a 40% household adoption rate within seven years.

5. Sony, maker of the popular Walkman line of portable cassette tape players, upgraded the Walkman to digital audio with the introduction of the first portable CD player in 1984 — and 31% of U.S. households were convinced to buy one after seven years on the shelves.

A few things are immediately notable about this list. First, Philips was very busy during the 1970s and 1980s, and was directly involved in pioneering three of the five most popular consumer gadgets of the past 50 years (as well as being a partner in the format used by a fourth). The company hasn’t been as visible recently, but has continued to invest in R&D, developing health care products, improvements in OLED displays, and award winning LED lighting products.

Sony was an electronics pioneer in the 1980s. When was the last time it was the first to market with anything? And when was the last time any of its products was wildly successful? The last real hit the company had was probably the PlayStation 3, and guess who the company has promoted to CEO? Kazuo Hirai, the guy who turned the PlayStation 3 from a low-selling, money-losing venture into a profitable hit.

If you ignore the companies involved and instead look at the nature of the product, something even more interesting emerges. All five of the top selling consumer gadgets of all time were used to watch or listen to media. Think about that when considering some of the decisions companies have made in recent years about marketing their gear: Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) pushing the Xbox as a home media center as well as a gaming console, Apple promoting everything from video streaming to e-books on the iPad, and Research in Motion (NASDAQ:RIMM) scrambling to add a BlackBerry Video Store to its PlayBook tablet’s version 2.0 system upgrade.

As of this writing, Brad Moon did not own a position in any of the stocks named here.

Article printed from InvestorPlace Media,

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