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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Microsoft Bob

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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).

Microsoft Bob logo
 
Perhaps worst of all, Bob's logo included a yellow smiley face for the "o" in the name. Bob eventually faded away, and even Microsoft executives agreed it had been a miserable failure.

The Net PC

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The Net PC was yet another small, overpromoted computing device aimed at home users.

 
3Com Audrey
 

3Com's Audrey.

Image courtesy of Retro Thing.

Like the thin clients used in corporate IT, Net PCs consisted of a screen, keyboard and pointing device with little built-in intelligence. They were designed to be placed unobtrusively throughout the home, providing a simple user interface for Web and e-mail access.

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

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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.

Push technology

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PointCast Network home page
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Vintage hype from the PointCast Network.

We're not talking here about pushing e-mail to mobile devices, which was made incredibly popular by BlackBerries. This is about companies like the PointCast Network, which launched its software with a hype storm in 1996. The hype focused on how this technology could "push" news and other information to computer desktops with no user intervention.

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.

Smart appliances

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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.

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