The 10 biggest technology flops of the past 40 years

Some were ahead of their time, others were just plain shoddy and ill-conceived. David Haskin gives his pick of the top 10 disasters

1. The Apple Newton: In 1993, Apple hyped its Newton PDA as only Apple can, with clever advertising and relentless word-of-mouth campaigns. While the device’s physical size was gargantuan by today’s standards, it was full of features, such as personal information management and add-on storage slots, that remain essential parts of today’s mobile devices.

So why did the Newton flop? One reason was the ridicule heaped on it by talk show comedians and comic strips, which focused on the supposed inaccuracy of the handwriting recognition.

Also, the Newton was expensive — about US$700 for the first model and as much as US$1,000 for later, more advanced models. In addition, the Newton was arguably ahead of its time.

Still, before it faded away in 1998, Newton paved the way for PDAs, which led, in turn, to today’s smart phones — in particular, the smaller, cheaper PalmPilot, which was released in 1995 and became a runaway success.

2. DIVX: Presaging our current era of Netflix and downloadable movies, DIVX (not to be confused with DiVX, the video codec) flashed brightly in the late 1990s, then flamed out. The idea, hatched by electronics retailer Circuit City, was interesting — customers could rent movies on DIVX discs that they could keep and watch for two days. Then users would toss or recycle the discs, or pay a continuation fee to keep viewing them.

Hardware vendors went along for a while but weren’t overly enthusiastic, since the DVD format, for which they also were manufacturing players, was starting to gain traction at the time. And the video rental industry fought the concept tooth and nail, loudly proclaiming the benefits of the DVD format, which they called “Open DVD,” over DIVX.

DIVX died a rapid death — it was launched in 1998 and was pretty much sunk by the middle of 1999.

3. Dot-bombs: Oh, those glorious days in the late 1990s, when everyone thought they’d get rich off the internet! One poorly conceived dot-com company after another was launched and promoted with an influx of money from the venture capital community. The lucky ones went public and saw their stock prices go through the roof only to plummet after the bubble burst in 2000. Many others never even made it that far before fizzling out.

Although they represented a wide range of concepts and products, it’s hard not to think of these “dot-bombs” as one entity, which is why we’ve entered them as a single nominee.

4. The IBM PCjr: Released to great fanfare in 1984 with at least two magazines devoted to it, IBM hoped that PCjr would catch on as a relatively inexpensive version of its IBM PC for homes and schools. In those days, the Apple II and console devices like the Commodore 64 dominated those still-small markets. The PCjr was both expensive and unpleasant to use. Its infamous chiclet keyboard was wireless, but the raised keys — kind of like BlackBerry keys overdosed on growth hormones — were uncomfortable to use for basic tasks like touch-typing. And in another burst of dubious inspiration, PCjr didn’t come with a hard drive. Instead, programs were contained on cartridges that users plugged into the front of the device.

IBM pulled the PCjr from the market in 1985. It targeted the home and educational markets again a few years later with the PS/1, which met a fate similar to that of PCjr.

5. Internet currency: Remember Flooz and Beenz? These two internet bubble vendors arguably deserved to die simply because of their goofy names. They provided online currency, which many dot-com proponents in the late 1990s considered the secret sauce that would lead to the wild success of e-commerce.

The idea was to create an “internet currency” that was not legal tender in any particular country but could be used to purchase items on the web.

Unfortunately, consumers preferred to use real money and credit cards.

6. Iridium: It was an undeniably brilliant idea to launch 66 satellites and link them with mesh technology for routing calls to and from any point in the world. And when it started in 1998, Iridium entranced the technology world.

“Iridium’s core identity is defined by its transcendence of national borders, a structure that is particularly post-Cold War,” Wired magazine gushed in its October 1998 cover story. “Iridium may well serve as a first model of the 21st-century corporation.”

But Iridium’s technology cost an immense amount of money to deploy, and most users were resistant to paying dollars per minute of call time and carrying around a phone larger than a brick. Less than a year later, Wired backtracked, saying, “After losing nearly US$1 billion in two disastrous quarters, the engineering marvel is in danger of becoming the Ford Edsel of the sky.”

In 2000, the company was bought by Iridium Satellite, a group of private investors, for a fraction of what the original Motorola-backed Iridium entity paid to get it up and running. The system is still operational, due to the US Department of Defence’s use of it and it is also used for communications at remote research stations, such as the US Amundsen-Scott station at the South Pole.

7. Microsoft Bob: Bob was a graphical user interface built on top of Windows 3.1. The idea was to make Windows palatable to non-technical users. But Bob, released in 1995, was far more stupid than its users, most of whom saw the interface as an insult to their intelligence. Bob’s cartoonlike interface was meant to resemble an office or living room. Users were walked through tasks by silly-looking cartoon characters (something Microsoft persisted in doing with its Windows Help system long after Bob perished).

Perhaps worst of all, Bob’s logo included a yellow smiley face for the “o” in the name. Bob eventually faded away, and even Microsoft executives agreed it had been a miserable failure.

8. The Net PC: The Net PC was yet another small, over-promoted computing device aimed at home users.

9. The paperless office: It’s not known exactly when this dream of marketers and technology vendors emerged, although The Christian Science Monitor suggested in a 2005 article that the term “was probably first coined in a 1966 article in the Harvard Business Review in reference to the emergence of digital data storage.”

Just as futurists in the 1950s boldly but inaccurately predicted that computers would cut our work days in half, offices without paper have turned out to be a pipe dream. A book published by MIT Press in 2002 called The Myth of the Paperless Office found that email caused a 40%increase in paper use in many organisations.

True, the role of office paper has been changing recently. Most large organisations now depend on digital, not paper, storage of documents. And The Christian Science Monitor found that sales of plain white office paper are, indeed, levelling off. But even if office paper consumption is leveling, take a look around your office; is it paperless yet? Will it be paperless anytime soon? We didn’t think so.

10. Virtual reality: The idea sounds fantastic —put on special goggles, gloves and perhaps other connected clothing and immerse yourself fully in a 3-D game, training session or other activity. That idea made early virtual reality proponents heroes to many technologists. One of those folk heroes was Jaron Lanier, who in the mid-’80s started a company called VPL Research to create virtual reality products.

Maybe virtual reality failed in the mass market because of consumer concerns that the equipment would cost too much or make them look silly. Or maybe virtual-reality worlds were less real and compelling than our own imaginations. In any case, it never took off commercially, even though some useful niche applications, such as providing surgeons with a way to practise tricky medical procedures, still exist.

Additional reporting on the Iridium entry by David Watson

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