Ten technology flops of the past 40 years

Ten technology flops of the past 40 years

Hype is the coin of the realm in the technology business. If you listen to vendors and the media, it might seem that every new product, service, concept or even security threat will be the Next Big Thing. Some live up to all the fuss, but many don't -- and some fail spectacularly. Our list of the 10 biggest technology failures includes a few that weren't all bad. In fact, some were quite good but were either too far ahead of their time or victims of overblown expectations. Others, of course, were downright lousy.

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 (most notably "Doonesbury"), 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 $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.

To clarify, the official name of Apple's product was the Messagepad; Newton was really the name of the operating system. But Newton captured the public's imagination, so that's what the device was popularly called.

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 '90s, 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.

The DIVX discs were to be priced competitively with video store rental fees, with the added benefit of not having to be returned. All that was required was a DIVX player, which Circuit City would be happy to sell you, and the movie discs, which Circuit City also would be happy to sell you.

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.

Consumers didn't warm to the scheme either, fearing that DIVX vs. DVD could turn into another costly Betamax vs. VHS debacle. DIVX died a rapid death -- it was launched in 1998 and was pretty much sunk by the middle of 1999, leaving some people with worthless equipment -- although vendors did offer a $100 refund for those who had bought a DIVX player. Still, left behind were lots of bad feelings about yet another bright idea that had flopped.

Dot-bombs: Oh, those glorious days in the late '90s, 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.

Maybe the dot-bomb CEOs should have banded together to start The CEO of, which spent $5 million to advertise during the Super Bowl, was quoted in BusinessWeek as saying, "I consider myself a visionary." He apparently couldn't foresee that his Super Bowl spending would hasten the end of his company.

IBM PCjr: Like the Apple Newton, IBM's PCjr was ahead of its time. Unlike Newton, PCjr was poorly designed.

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 that overdosed on growth hormone -- 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. The company targeted the home and educational markets again a few years later with the PS/1, which met a fate similar to that of PCjr.

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 '90s 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. Both vendors generated a lot of hype, but Flooz's commercials featuring Whoopi Goldberg received the most attention.

Unfortunately, consumers preferred to use real money and credit cards. And Flooz faced a battery of consumer complaints before its demise in 2001. Before they expired, Beenz and Flooz agreed to work together, proving once again that in the warped universe of techno-hype, one plus one can equal zero.

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 News backtracked, saying, "After losing nearly $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 taken over by Iridium Satellite LLC, which recently said that it wants to launch new satellites and hopes to attract partners to provide services beyond basic voice calling, such as a next-generation global positioning system. Time will tell if its current incarnation will be more successful than its first.

Microsoft Bob: Bob was a graphical user interface built on top of Windows 3.1. The idea was to make Windows palatable to nontechnical 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.

The Net PC: The Net PC was yet another small, overpromoted computing device aimed at home users.

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 e-mail caused a 40 percent increase in paper use in many organizations.

True, the role of office paper has been changing recently. Most large organizations 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 levelling, take a look around your office: Is it paperless yet? Will it be paperless anytime soon? We didn't think so.

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 VR 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 VR 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, VR never took off commercially, even though some useful niche applications, such providing surgeons with a way to practice tricky medical procedures, still exist.

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