Don't Believe the Hype: The 21 Biggest Technology Flops

We fondly recall 21 overpromoted products and technologies that utterly failed to live up to their hype -- and we give you a chance to choose the biggest flop of all.

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Virtual reality

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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.

The Runners-up

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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

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Apple Lisa
 

Apple Lisa. Image courtesy of Stan Sieler.

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Before the Macintosh, there was the Apple Lisa, released in early 1983. Unlike the Macintosh, the Lisa went nowhere fast.

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.

Dreamcast

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Sega Dreamcast controller
 

DC controller. Image courtesy

of PiaCarrot

(GFDL and CC
ShareAlike
apply).
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Sega was an important early player in the game console business, but its fortunes had faded by the late '90s. It hoped its Dreamcast system, launched in the U.S. in late 1999, would help it regain its place in the game console pantheon.

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.

 
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NeXT

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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.

OS/2

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OS/2 logo
 

This operating system wasn't a true failure, but its hype far exceeded its success.

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.

Qube

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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.

Speech recognition

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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.

WebTV

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WebTV logo
 

This flop is still around, and Microsoft remains its primary proponent. In simple terms, it consists of a set-top box that connects your TV to the Internet. WebTV Networks was founded in 1995, and Bill Gates was enamored enough with the concept to buy the company a few years later -- it's now called MSN TV. Among the reasons this idea never caught on was that set-top boxes don't have much intelligence, and the Web looks wretched on standard low-definition televisions. Undaunted, Microsoft continues to plug away.


Your Turn: Okay, we've put forth our candidates -- now you decide which is the biggest flop. You can vote on the next page.

Contributing editor David Haskin was once was an executive for a start-up offering highly publicized search engine technology. Unfortunately for him, the company folded several years before the Internet -- and search engine technology -- became popular.

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