Skip to comments.Don't Believe the Hype: The 21 Biggest Technology Flops
Posted on 04/04/2007 10:40:49 AM PDT by ShadowAce
Hype is the coin of the realm in the technology business. If you listen to vendors and the media, it may sometimes seem as though 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.
Take the Michelangelo virus, the subject of a media frenzy 15 years ago. March 6, 1992, was the day that the dreaded virus was supposed to strike. Journalists went overboard covering this virus, which had supposedly burrowed itself into hard drives around the world throughout 1991 and was set to start destroying data on March 6, the birthday of the famous artist.
It didn't happen that way, of course: Damage was minimal. But in honor of Michelangelo's birthday, we thought we'd track down history's biggest technology flops.
Here we nominate 21 of our favorite overhyped failures, presented in alphabetical order. At the end of the piece, we'll ask you to vote on which is the biggest tech flop of them all, or write in a nominee of your own.
The Top Flops
First we present the biggest flops, in which the hype-to-success ratio was farthest out of whack. The 14 products and technologies listed here weren't all bad. In fact, some were quite good but were either too far ahead of their time or were victims of overblown expectations. Others, of course, were downright lousy.
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.
|Apple Newton. Image courtesy of Retro Thing.|
Also, Newton was expensive -- about $700 for the first model and as much as $1,000 for later, more advanced models. In addition, 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 Palm Pilot, 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.
Digital audio tape
Take yourself back to the mid-'80s when analog tape cassettes were still a common method of purchasing and transporting music. They were easier to manage than old vinyl LPs but they didn't sound as good.
|Sony DAT player. Image courtesy of Retro Thing.|
Alas, this was another good idea that failed miserably. First, there was the matter of competing formats. Audio CDs, which were introduced around 1983, were starting to be embraced by consumers. Then the recording industry became concerned that DAT would encourage piracy because it could be used to make near-perfect digital copies of recorded music. The industry convinced Congress to pass the Audio Home Recording Act in 1992, which required strong -- some might say Draconian -- copy protection for DAT. It also required that DAT equipment vendors pay royalties to the recording industry.
That stumbling block cleared the way for audio CDs. DAT survived a while for professional recording applications, but never came close to justifying its early hype.
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 -- you would rent movies on DIVX discs that you could keep and watch for two days. Then you'd toss or recycle the discs, or pay a continuation fee to keep viewing them.
Prices were to be competitive with video store rental fees, with the added benefit of not having to return the disc. 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 bought a DIVX player. Still, left behind were lots of bad feelings about yet another bright idea that flopped.
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 and then 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.
|The Pets.com spokespuppet.|
Maybe the dot-bomb CEOs should have banded together to start Hubris.com. The CEO of OurBeginning.com, which spent $5 million to advertise on 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.
|Sony Reader. Image courtesy of Sony.|
The idea is attractive because, theoretically, e-book technology allows you to load many books and periodicals on a reasonably small handheld device, making it easier to travel with lots of reading matter. Also, e-books are easily searchable, another huge advantage over paper books.
However, e-books are much in need of standardization. Specifically, the number of potential formats for e-books remains huge -- the Wikipedia entry for e-books lists more than 20 formats. It's not pleasant to contemplate buying an e-reader and then finding out that a book or periodical you want is available only in an incompatible format.
Furthermore, the devices themselves just aren't good enough yet. Some folks find them unwieldy; others say they're difficult to use. And for many people, there's just no replacing the old-fashioned, reassuring feel of paper.
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 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.
|IBM PCjr. Image © Jim Leonard (OpenContent License applies).|
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 similar fate as PCjr.
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.
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 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 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 is more successful than its first.
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 cartoon-like interface was meant to resemble an office or living room. You were walked through tasks by silly-looking cartoon characters (something Microsoft persisted in doing with its Windows Help system long after Bob perished).
The Net PC
The Net PC was yet another small, overpromoted computing device aimed at home users.
Image courtesy of Retro Thing.
The best-known Net PC was the iOpener by Netpliance, which ran ads during the 2000 Super Bowl, along with a host of other hype-happy technology start-ups that no longer exist. 3Com Corp. got into the act with its Audrey, and Oracle Corp.'s Larry Ellison launched a company, New Internet Computer, to develop and sell the devices.
The problem: Net PCs were introduced just as the price of more intelligent desktop PCs was plummeting. Why buy an extremely limited device when you could get a full-featured computer for around $300? After a couple of years of hype, Net PCs faded away.
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% 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, leveling 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.
|Vintage hype from the PointCast Network.|
However, most users never became excited about push. Those who did take the technology for a spin found themselves inundated with news, weather, sports and more; it wasn't easy to filter what specific information was received. There was also a strong backlash from employers, which prohibited the use of push products for fear they would hog network bandwidth and distract workers.
Push technology hasn't really gone away. In addition to mobile e-mail, RSS feeds and many of today's desktop widgets are a form of push, but with more filters and controls than their early forebears. But the original hype was so far off the charts that companies like PointCast faded away.
Your refrigerator knows when you are low on milk and automatically orders more over the Internet. The cow juice and your other groceries are delivered to your front door. How has our species survived so long without this?
The (supposedly) irresistible appeal of smart appliances created a buzz at trade shows and was widely discussed in the media in the two years before the dot-com bubble burst. The idea was supported by virtually all major appliance vendors as well as dot-com grocery delivery services like Peapod and NetGrocer. Supermarket chains also scrambled to get a piece of the action. And Intel, always eager to sell chips -- even those used in refrigerators -- was part of the frenzy too.
Long story short: The bubble burst, and we haven't heard much about intelligent appliances since. Somehow, we're still surviving.
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.
Not all flops were as spectacular as the ones mentioned above. Many were momentarily successful or technically adept -- or they simply weren't hyped as much as our main flops. Here we present six additional flops that we consider also-rans -- but perhaps you'll think differently.
|Apple Lisa. Image courtesy of Stan Sieler.
It sported a graphical user interface and supported multitasking, but it was slow, slow, slow and expensive -- just under $10,000 at first. Its demise was hastened both by the growing popularity of the IBM PC and by the release of Apple's sleeker, less expensive Macintosh in 1984.
|DC controller. Image courtesy
(GFDL and CC
But even though the device sold more than 10 million units, Dreamcast fell victim to other game consoles, most notably the PlayStation 2, which was released in spring of 2000.
If it's possible for a failure to be a huge success, this is it. Launched by Steve Jobs in 1985 after his exile from Apple, NeXT's platform and high-end computers didn't sell well.
But when Jobs sold NeXT to Apple in 1996 for a reported $400 million, the NeXT operating system eventually became a significant part of Mac OS X.
When it was released in 1987, OS/2 was a joint project between Microsoft and IBM, but when that marriage hit the rocks -- about the time Microsoft released Windows 3.0 -- IBM decided to go it alone with OS/2. Remarkably, even though IBM's interest in OS/2 faded out in the '90s, it only stopped supporting the operating system at the end of last year.
Talk about an idea that was way before its time. Qube (not to be confused with The Qube, a Sun server appliance) was launched in 1977 by Warner Communications as an attempt to give the company a leg up in the early cable TV wars. The system used a set-top box and remote control to give viewers features like interactive television and pay-per-view feature movies. (For details, see Ken Freed's "When Cable Went Qubist".) Launched to great fanfare in Columbus, Ohio, Qube spread to a handful of other cities. It was popular among many users, but it couldn't overcome other Warner mistakes and met its demise in the early '90s.
Over the years, Bill Gates (among others) has repeatedly predicted that speech recognition will be a major form of input, but it hasn't happened yet. Part of the problem is that, even with 99% accuracy, there are still a lot of errors to correct. Plus, many of us use computers in public places where speech recognition would be clumsy, embarrassing or downright rude. Still, the technology continues to improve, and it is being used in niche markets such as in medicine. Maybe someday it'll make it to the rest of us.
try “Xybernaut” the ‘wearable” computer!
I believe the Sony PS3 will be added to this lit when it is all said and done.
Too bad that “white stuff” wasn’t Plaster-of-Paris !!!
That would sure make me Whoopi - :-)
I was an OS/2 Warp beta tester and had a lot of good expectations about it going up against MS Windows. I still know how to crash this 'crashless' operating system by doing nothing more than manipulating the tools IBM gave you to customize your UI. I submitted that bug and they never fixed it.
I'm also pretty sure I can find a dusty old Newton in a box in the garage.
Some of these ideas bombed because the technology wasn’t there, some bombed because the marketing was awful, and some bombed because the idea just sucked.
But the “paperless office” idea will never work because of people and their habits and ideas. We have one supervisor at my company that requires that all her workers print off a copy of every e-mail they recieve so that there is a paper trail of communication.
How can e-mail help cut her paper use when she requires a print our of every e-mail? Well, obviously it can’t. I get route mail daily that could have been sent to me by e-mail. Why? Because some people have to hold a piece of paper in their hand in order for it to be a “memo” or a “report”.
So while a lot of these ideas make me laugh, the failure of the “paperless” office is very sad indeed.
Thanks for this. I teach and do research in information management and always have to tell the ‘kids’ that technology is not always the answer and that newest is not always the best.
I couldn’t get a visual of Bob and did a quick Google search. http://toastytech.com/guis/bob.html has a nice walkthru of the Bob screens and how it was used. I had something similar to this on an old Packard Bell, tho I don’t recall it having a name.
One tool that I thought would take off was the Cuecat. I got one for free and thought it was neat, tho those feelings were mostly based on the press. I’m not sure if, after installing it, I ever actually used it. I would love to get additional info on products while in the store, but that’s the kind of person I am. Apparently others were not so inclined. http://cuecat.com/
Then there was the replacement/enhancement, Betacam SP which used metal tape. And what we use at our station, BetaSX, a digital recording format.
Betamax died because Sony was greedy and wouldn't license the technology to other manufacturers until it was way too late, when they licensed Toshiba to make one model of recorder.
JVC, the owner of the VHS format, would license anybody, including relatively unknown South Korean manufacturers Samsung and Goldstar. They flooded the market with $99 recorders when a Betamax went for $499.
The format wars was won on price, not performance.
Ditto, that. My favorite part of the dotcom bust was the great commercials. The marching band, attacked by wolves; the surgery patient with money out the wazoo and yes, the pets.com sock puppet.
Hey, it also came with a cassette recorder so you could save your basic programs to tape. The only ROM cart I had was the videotex one that I used to connect to CompuServe with.
I like my PS3
(if you have not figured it out by now, I love new tech) :-)
unfortunatly SONY has never learned the format wars lessons.
They just repeat the same mistakes hoping for a different result.
I never upgrade. If I build a new machine next year I'll consider Vista.
I used the unit that I purchased (from an infomercial, BTW), for my family, for Xmas '97, almost exclusively for my personal internet access right up until I left to come over here (Iraq), in Jan. of '06.
I spent many an hour on this forum, kicked back in my recliner, with my wireless keyboard and 25" "monitor".
Granted, it won't support alot of video and some audio but it still allows a user to do most everything else on the WWW.
As an "entry level" purchase, which is how it was designed and promoted, I don't think WebTV was a flop at all.
I kind of liked the Cuecat, too. The Packard-Bell thing was on my first computer. It was called the Packard Bell Navigator and can be seen on the same website where you found Bob.
Ack! Does Ted Danson know you stole his camera??
Yes, yes, of course you’re right. But since Betacam was developed from Betamax, calling Betamax a bust is a bit of a stretch.