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12 technology fails that were way ahead of their time
Sometimes a piece of technology comes along that blows everything away, and makes rival executives think ‘Why didn’t anyone do that before?’
Quite often though, they did, it’s just that some technology fails were so far ahead of their time that nobody noticed. Here are 12 technology fails that were leaps ahead of the gadgets we use today.
1. The Tablet Computer, in 1993
This one is a bit of an anomaly, because unlike every other technology fail on this list, the early flop and the eventual breakthrough were made by the same company: Apple Computers.
Everyone knows about the iPad, the tablet that started the boom for touch screen computers five years ago, but back in 1993 Apple was pushing another tablet: the Newton. It was about the same size as an iPad now and came with a stylus, just like certain rival Android tablets, so where did it go wrong? Well, its handwriting recognition wasn’t great for one – Forbes recalls a Doonesbury cartoon strip from the time mocking it where “I am writing a test sentence–Siam fighting atomic sentry” was altered to “I am writing a test sentence–Ian is riding a taste sensation.”
Despite selling a few hundred thousand units, the venture still turned a handsome profit for Apple. As part of the venture they bought 43% of ARM to make the chips included for $2.5 million. 15 years later it sold its shares for $800 million…
2. The mp3 Player, in 1996
Sticking with Apple, it’s pretty easy to forget in this age of streaming music that a dedicated mp3 player was ever a thing, but while the iPod would become the dominant force in digital audio for the decade, the first commercially available mp3 player was actually pushed out in 1996. The Audio Highway Listen Up MP3 Player (not as catchy as ‘iPod’ is it?) held 60 minutes of music that had to be downloaded from the Audio Highway store. It sold for $299… well, kind of. Only 25 were ever made, and Apple would refine the idea just five short years later.
Does the creator, Nathan Schulhof feel bitter about it? Not at all, telling Valley Magazine in 2007: “When I see kids using the iPod, it makes me feel really good. I think that I’ve made a difference . . . The MP3 player is the biggest [highlight of my career]. I’m so proud of that. I didn’t make it popular. Apple did a wonderful job. Apple was the first one that really got it right. With iTunes, they give the whole complete package and really make it easy.”
3. The smartphone, in 1996
There are a number of possible contenders for the first smartphone, but our pick is the NOKIA 9000 Communicator just because the Finnish company decided the best way of combining a phone and computer would be to strap the two together in a flipcase.
Still, it was perfect for the professional long before BlackBerry would appear on the scene, combining a cellphone, email, web browsing, faxing (remember that?), word processing and spreadsheets into a device that (just about) fit in your pocket. But when closed, it looked a bit more familiar…
NOKIA kept plugging away at the Communicator series, and it sold pretty well in Europe, but failed to catch on in the US. The last version was the E90, released in 2007, with a full color screen, 128MB of RAM and was a far cry from the original which packed a 33MHz processor and 8 megabytes of RAM that had debuted over a decade earlier.
4. The smartwatch, in 2004
It’s 2004, and the smartphone is gradually gaining popularity a few years before the iPhone launches. Microsoft sees a gap in the market for a smartwatch. Nicknamed the SPOT Watch due to the technology it ran on, it sported a monochrome 90×126 display, giving it roughly the same resolution of the original GameBoy. That’s where the similarities end though, as unlike Nintendo’s all conquering handheld, the SPOT Watch failed to impress anyone.
In the days before mobile data was fast, reliable and everywhere, Microsoft built a network of FM radio signals to provide data. This was patchy at best, and meant the watches were incompatible with other hardware.
The other problems will sound quite familiar to anyone watching the smartwarch race unfold now: they were bulky, expensive with patchy battery life and didn’t provide any experience you couldn’t get just by looking at your phone. Glad we’ve got all those problems sorted now…
5. Gaming motion controls, in 1993
We would mention the Power Glove here, but that’s been done to death, so let’s look at the precursor to Kinect, The Sega Activator.
This octagonal ring would plug into the Sega Genesis, and emit eight infrared bars that would match your movements. Just like in this video:
Only what actually happened was that you had eight buttons that you could hit, doubled to 16 by the fact that you could punch high or kick low to activate them. Only three games were officially supported, and although you could play any game with it, was Sonic the Hedgehog anymore fun by having to punch the air to jump?
Sega quietly discontinued the $80 peripheral due to poor sales.
6. Downloadable Games, in 1994
Sticking with Sega, another technology fail from the former gaming titan was Sega Channel, an early foray into downloadable games, long before Steam took over the PC scene. Given games were temporary though (when you turned off the console, all progress would be lost), in some ways it was more like streaming a game nowadays.
You’d place the Sega Channel into the cartridge slot, and then connect it to the TV via an RF connector. It was a subscription service, and quite a pricy one too – $14.95 per month plus a $25 activation fee. Downloads would often fail requiring a restart, and while initially there were 50 games on the service at a time, this eventually dropped to 35 before it was discontinued in 1998 – four years after appearing in the US as a joint venture between Time Warner Cable and Tele-Communications Inc.
In the long-run, the cleaning up of the broadcast signal paved the way for better services and true online gaming later. As IGN said in a retrospective, “…the very fact that you’re enjoying broadband internet right now could well be thanks to SEGA.”
7. Online gaming, in 1994
Another technology fail available for the Genesis, though this time it wasn’t Sega’s flight of fancy but a third party, who would later make a Super Nintendo version as well. X Band was a modem which would allow multiplayer gaming with people across the world long before Xbox Live made it mainstream.
It had its issues, but 700,000 gamers signed up over the service’s lifespan. Unfortunately this wasn’t enough, and the cost of running the subscription service ($4.95 per month for 50 connections and $7.95 for unlimited), poor latency (Mortal Kombat 3 was particularly unplayable), plus the need to hack the games to make them playable without publisher support meant that the service closed in April 1997.
8. QR codes, in 2000
Moving on to something totally different, this curious looking specimen is the CueCat. Of all the concepts on the list, this is the most baffling – but that’s partly as its a precursor to QR codes, which are still to take the world by storm.
Still, the CueCat would allow you to scan barcodes, which would then lead your computer straight to a URL hidden within. If your TV was connected to your PC via audio cable, advertisers could also play a sound to give you a URL shortcut. Because who didn’t have their TV connected to their PC in the year 2000 on the off-chance advertisers wanted to show them a cool Geocities site?
You can probably see where this is going. Despite attracting $185 million of funding (!), the CueCat flopped big time. Although it has found a second life as a useful tool for scanning ISBN codes for book-loving social network LibraryThing, according to Wikipedia. So there’s that.
9. Video on Demand, in 2004
Founded the year before YouTube, but far less successful, this is Akimbo. A set-top box that was sort of an early pre-cursor to Hulu, but went bust just three short years later.
The box cost $300, you had to pay a monthly fee and yet another fee for content downloaded. Because each provider was allowed to set their own price, some charged as much as $9 for a half hour show, packed with ads. Where do we sign?
Turns out people don’t like paying a fortune for video on demand, even if it is convenient, and Akimbo wasn’t necessarily that either. Pixelation, out-of-sync audio and distortion were pretty common. After a year and a half at retail, just 140 active set-top boxes were in the wild, and around 60 of those belonged to employees – or maybe ex-employees. The company made big lay-offs before finally dying in 2008.
10. The wearable computer, in 2002
Before Google Glass, how else could you let the world know you had more money than sense, and no concept of style? Well you could have been first in line to buy a Xybernaut Poma Wearable PC, back in 2002 for $1,500.
What did you get for your money? Well, a 309 gram Windows CE computer with a 128Mhz processor and 32MB Ram, along with a 800×600 eye monitor. You could control it with an optical mouse, at which point most sane people would probably decide to just buy a laptop.
If not though, you could use the device to run pocket versions of Internet Explorer, Outlook, Windows Media Player and Word, which all came preinstalled, explaining where some of that $1,500 outlay went. But not exactly why it wouldn’t be better served in your wallet. Or made into origami cranes.
11. The digital camera, in 1992
It’s something of a surprise that the first digital camera wasn’t made by Canon or Nikon, but Logitech. Technical limitations made it something of a curiosity rather than a tool for serious photographers, however.
Not only did the Logitech Fotoman cost $980 – which is a lot, but at least saves money on developing photos in the long run – it only took photos in black and white, and at a disappointing 320 x 240 resolution. The 1mb of internal memory could only hold 32 shots, and there was no way of previewing the photos without returning to your computer.
Still, there’s no denying that digital cameras are here to stay – even if they’re increasingly integrated into our smartphones – and in that respect Logitech were trailblazers – all the way back in 1990!
12. Social networking, in 1997
Before MySpace, before Facebook, before even Friendster and Friends Reunited, there was Six Degrees. It worked on the principal of the six degrees of separation, letting you add friends and family to the site, and the post messages to people in your first, second and third degree circles.
At one point it had 3,500,000 members and was worked on by 100 employees, selling in 1999 to YouthStream Media Networks for $125 million in 1999. That turned out to be a mistake, when the site closed two years later – it faced the same problem many social networks face: where’s the money?
But the model of social circles was mimicked by every social network from Bebo to Google Plus for the next decade, until Twitter and its ilk disrupted everything again.
Have we missed any technology fails that were ahead of their time? Let us know in the comments.