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This holiday season, Apple is on track to sell an estimated 14 million iPads, twice as many as it sold in that stretch last year. Wanting its own piece of the action, Amazon spent months with its foot jammed on the gas pedal to finish the Kindle Fire, a $199 tablet designed to let you haul your entire library of books, music, and videos around with you in an eight-inch package. It hopes to sell at least 2 or 3 million of them in the six-week stretch before 2011 ends.
By this time next year, most of those iPads and Fires will be coasters. December is prime shopping season for gizmos, but the gadget life cycle moves so quickly now that many of this season's shiniest toys will be outdated just months after they're unwrapped.
Take the iPad. Shoppers snapped them up by the ton last year—literally. Throw all 7 million iPads sold last holiday season into one big stack, and you'd have 5,400 tons of plastic, glass, and silicon. In pachydermal terms, that's more than 1,000 elephants' worth of iPads.
But just three months after shoppers sunk nearly $5 billion on stuffing iPads into holiday stockings, Apple rolled out the iPad 2: thinner, lighter, faster, and in all ways snazzier than the immediately outdated original. Sure, those old iPads still run, but once we saw better, dedicated gadget fiends started craving an upgrade.
Enter the holiday sales cycle, when all those aging devices can be cast aside. At gazelle.com, a recycling site that offers cash for used electronics, the stream of incoming devices jumps around 20 percent in January. Last year, it spiked past 1,000 devices a day.
NextWorth, another trade-in site, reports that its traffic surge begins around Thanksgiving. "The iPod market in particular sees a huge spike in late November and December," says spokesman Jeff Trachsel. "We start with sellers who are selling to fund their holiday shopping. Then in January, the story is that people got new gadgets as gifts and no longer need the old ones. Ipods are the big one because they're so giftable."
This year, Anthony Scarsella, Gazelle's "chief gadget officer," says he expects a wave of obsolete e-readers. Amazon's four-year-old original Kindle now looks like an archaeological relic, with jagged edges, Fisher-Price–style buttons, and an actual honest-to-God keyboard. Even Barnes & Noble's late-to-the-game rival, the original Nook—launched just in time for the 2009 holiday season—is painfully outdated.
One reason to expect an e-reader boom this year is that the devices finally fell to the magic price point: $99. That's what an entry-level Nook costs now, down from $149 this time last year. A bare-bones Kindle is even cheaper, at $79.
Gadgets you can get for a C-note inspire holiday shopping frenzies, as existing owners upgrade and new buyers race into the market. Exhibit A: The iPod. Apple's music player sold steadily but modestly for the first few years after its 2001 debut. Then in 2005, Apple unveiled the $99 Shuffle, and sales shot through the roof. Apple moved 14 million iPods that holiday season, three times as many as it did a year earlier.
In the land of antiquated devices, Apple castoffs reign supreme. They hold their value the best, so they command a premium on the secondhand market: Gazelle will pay twice as much for a used iPad as it will for a Motorola Xoom tablet in comparable condition. Like most trade-in sites, it resells many of the devices it collects on eBay, where bargain-hunters wait to pounce on aging-but-functional tech toys. Anything too obsolete or too broken to sell gets sent off to recyclers to melt down for scrap elements. Fun fact: There's more actual gold in a pound of cell phones than there is in a pound of gold ore.
An entire historical arc of extinct gadgets can be traced through the annual winter-electronics purge. "Personal digital assistants" were the first to go. Remember PalmPilots? Neither does Gazelle. They hardly ever show up in its mailbox anymore. "They really died back in 2009, when the tablets came out," Scarsella says.
Netbooks—those cut-price, ultra-portable laptop alternatives—are also fading fast. Consumers got tired of processors with the power of lethargic hamsters and flocked to tablets' sleeker design. Analysts at the research firm Gartner predict that Apple and its rivals will sell more than 100 million tablets next year. That's a pretty good haul for a market that didn't exist just 19 months ago.
But there's a darker streak running through our Cambrian explosion of rapidly evolving personal technology. As Blade Runner warned us nearly 30 years ago, "The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long." The average life cycle of a cell phone used to be four years; now, it's down to 18 months. Apple didn't even make it a year between its iPad 1 and iPad 2 releases. Amazon spat out four separate versions of its Kindle in its most recent release cycle. Expect one or two to emerge, Darwinian-style, with enhancements within a year. The others will quietly fade.
Technology companies call it "sunsetting" when they banish their creations to the graveyard. It's a necropolis that stretches back decades and has swallowed up vinyl records, the Walkman, film cameras, answering machines, analog TVs, Betamax, and then the entire VCR category. As we cycle faster and faster through our gadgets, we're leaving a growing trail of digital detritus in our wake. Americans discarded 2 million tons of used electronics in 2009, according to an Environmental Protection Agency study. That's twice as much as we trashed a decade earlier.
With the latest tech trends only accelerating the cycle, expect the Grim Reaper to move even more quickly. And right now, he's got his eye on your shiny new Kindle Fire.