The Top 15 Vaporware Products of All Time

These big ideas were supposed to revolutionize technology, but they never actually appeared. In a few cases, you'll be glad they didn't.

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2. Project Xanadu

In 1960, Ted Nelson first came up with the term "hypertext," which he envisioned as something different from what it has come to mean.

Hypertext as implemented now is unidirectional; you can link to a document without the document owner ever knowing. If the other party moves or renames the document, the link breaks. Nelson's hypertext--which he now calls "deep electronic literature," to avoid confusion--was meant to be bidirectional, so that two linked documents would stay linked, regardless of how they were moved or copied. More to the point, such a setup would allow for side-by-side comparison, version management, and an automatic copyright management system in which an author could set a royalty rate for all or parts of a document; linking would initiate the necessary transactions. In 1967, Nelson came up with a name for his project: Xanadu.

The first working code for Xanadu was produced in 1972, and since then the project has largely been marked by near-misses and flirtations with bankruptcy. It is still remarkable for a number of reasons, however.

First, of course, is Nelson's tenacity: He and his shifting teams haven't stopped working on Xanadu for nearly fifty years, making it one of the few existing computing projects to span longer than the entire history of personal computers and computer networking.

Second is that, even with the advent and popularization of hypertext as we know it, especially on the Web, Nelson's ambitious vision hasn't wavered. (He says the Web as it is "trivializes our original hypertext model.") Third is that, even after all this time, with his undeniable influence on the way we work and play today, he is still, as he puts it, "not a tekkie."

It's also worth noting that Project Xanadu isn't completely vaporware. Nelson released the Xanadu source code in 1999, and XanaduSpace 1.0 released last year.

1. Apple W.A.L.T. and VideoPad

Before there was an iPhone--in fact, before there was an "i" anything--Apple attempted two ventures into "portable" communications. Developed between 1991 and 1993 in conjunction with BellSouth, Apple's W.A.L.T. (Wizzy Active Lifestyle Telephone, easily the worst name the company has ever come up with) was a tablet that doubled as a PDA; its killer app was the ability to send and receive faxes from the screen. The W.A.L.T. was never released to the general public.

Tenacious as ever, Apple offered up the possibility of a new portable videophone/PDA concept at 1995's MacWorld Expo. The Newton-like VideoPad three-in-one prototype combined a cell phone, PDA, and videophone, and (get this) sported an integrated CD-ROM drive. While the idea of holding a phone with parts of a CD-ROM unit sticking out of the sides was a little questionable, it was more ambitious than the W.A.L.T. It too failed to pass the prototype stage, however, and Apple would stay away from telephones until 2007. Of course, we all know what happened then.

Honorable Mentions

Apple Copland

While "Pink" continued to slowly run aground as Apple/IBM's Taligent, Apple still found itself needing an operating system that took a great leap forward from System 7.5. Code-named Copland, this new operating system was to include preemptive multitasking (the type of multitasking we enjoy today, versus the less-efficient cooperative multitasking that earlier versions of the Mac system software offered); a full-color, shaded interface (up to that point, Macintosh GUIs still echoed their black and white origins); and multiuser capabilities. As time progressed Copland picked up more planned features, such as QuickDraw GX, themes, and user interface improvements, while the development team's productivity dwindled, bogged down by the increasing requirements and the need to get a growing number of developers up to speed.

In 1996, Apple--most notably, CEO Gil Amelio--was referring to Copland in public as the forthcoming System 8, and the usual prerelease hype--including trade-show demos, T-shirts, and other swag--got into gear. Apple eventually had to give up on the unworkable Copland, with its technologies only starting to appear in Mac OS 8. Apple got its great leap forward a few years later with Mac OS X.

Sky Commuter Cars

What are the persistent, defining visions of the future? Marauding mutants, to be sure, but also jetpacks and flying cars. Though the jetpacks are (mostly) on hold, researchers continue to tease us by working on various kinds of flying cars, envisioning a utopia of uncluttered roadways and conveniently forgetting the first 20 minutes of The Fifth Element.

One such attempt was the N2001C--the Sky Commuter car, a personal vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) plane designed by Flight Innovations. The details are sketchy, but the upshot is that after more than $6,000,000 in funding, the project was shelved. An eBay auction claiming to be of the last Sky Commuter prototype in existence caused some excitement (and raised some skeptical eyebrows) in January, but you can see one yourself by taking a trip to the Halsons Helicopter Museum in Tennessee.

Oh, well. No Sky Commuter, but at least there's still the Falx Stalker or the Transition (a light aircraft that folds its wings to drive on the road) to look forward to.

XtremMac MacThrust G4

In 1999, Swedish company Xtrem promised the XtremMac MacThrust G4--an overclocked Macintosh (a rarity in the Mac world) that could hit 1.2 GHz. There was just one problem: The fastest PowerPC G4 processor at the time was a mere 500 MHz. Xtrem claimed that it could achieve the incredible speed increase by exploiting existing features in Apple's hardware, and, of course, by cooling the daylights out of the CPU.

Xtrem missed its August shipping date, and then its January shipping date. By February the company had relaunched its Web site and retrenched on specs: The new XtremMac would hit only 1.066 GHz. Meanwhile, Mac G4s had climbed to 733 MHz, and the few Mac users who weren't skeptics collectively shrugged. If it ever got released, no one noticed.

This story, "The Top 15 Vaporware Products of All Time" was originally published by PCWorld.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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