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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Dot-bombs

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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.

Pets.com sock puppet
 
The Pets.com spokespuppet.
If there's one enduring symbol of the dot-bomb era, it was Pets.com's wretched sock puppet advertisements, which figured prominently during the 2000 Super Bowl broadcast. Other advertisers for that year's big game included forgettable (and forgotten) companies like LifeMinders, OurBeginning.com and the cheerfully named Epidemic.com.

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.

E-books

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Sony Reader
 
Sony Reader. Image courtesy of Sony.
E-book readers started being sold about 10 years ago and are still being developed. The most recent entrant into the market is the Sony Reader. But they're still a flop.

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.

IBM PCjr

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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
 
IBM PCjr. Image © Jim Leonard (OpenContent License applies).
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 you 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 similar fate as PCjr.

Internet currency

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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.

Beenz logo
 
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.

 
Flooz logo
 
Unfortunately, consumers inexplicably 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

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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.

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