The 10 Biggest Technology Flops of the Past 40 Years

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Microsoft Bob: 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 cartoonlike interface was meant to resemble an office or living room. Users were walked through tasks by silly-looking cartoon characters (something Microsoft persisted in doing with its Windows Help system long after Bob perished).

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

The paperless office: 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.'

Microsoft Bob

Microsoft Bob 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.

Audrey Net PC

Audrey Net PC

Virtual reality: 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 as providing surgeons with a way to practice tricky medical procedures, still exist.

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.

Source: Online poll at More than 30,000 votes cast

More Computerworld 40th anniversary coverage:

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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