35 Years of Tech Flops

A rundown of some technologies from the past 35 years that didn't light the world on fire.

The past 35 years are littered with the remains of technology failures and flops, losers and bad ideas. That's the Darwinian nature of the IT business: Dozens or hundreds of people, companies, products and ideas compete and only a handful emerge as winners. The rest? They're losers. Failures. Flops.

A harsh assessment? Sure. Some were important in their time. Some changed the shape and direction of the IT industry.

In a fairer, kinder world, we'd maintain monuments to these icons of IT. Instead, we bulldoze the monuments, grind them into gravel and use them to pave the road to the future.

There are far too many even to mention them all. But here's a sampling:

First came the big-iron makers who went head-to-head with IBM and lost: General Electric, RCA, Honeywell, Control Data, Wang and Amdahl. Burroughs and Sperry Rand survived by merging in 1986 to form Unisys. NCR was swallowed by AT&T in 1991, then re-emerged from the belly of the whale in 1996.

Then the first spunky desktop computer makers in the 1970s: MITS, IMSAI, Cromemco, Godbout, Processor Technology, Exidy and NorthStar. They would have been the dot-coms of their day, except they were steamrollered by the well-capitalized Apple, Commodore and RadioShack.

And the heavyweights of the Great Home Computer Scare of the early 1980s, forced out by the IBM PC: Atari, Texas Instruments, Timex, Coleco, Mattel, Commodore and RadioShack. That's right -- the big winners in one round got KO'd in the next.

Magnetic core memory, that huge advance over tubes, was overcome in a few short years by dynamic RAM. The first real portable computer, the Osborne I, was torpedoed by the cheaper Kaypro, which in turn was stomped by the PC-compatible Compaq luggable -- and they all disappeared with the arrival of the laptop.

Digital Research's CP/M, the dominant desktop computer operating system before the IBM PC, was washed away by Microsoft's MS-DOS. The Electric Pencil word processor was trampled by WordStar, which was crushed by WordPerfect, which was demolished by Word. VisiCalc, the original Apple II spreadsheet, lost to Lotus 1-2-3 on the PC, which later fell to Excel on Windows.

There were vendors that didn't get it: AT&T couldn't figure out how to market Unix. Xerox couldn't make real money on graphical user interfaces and Ethernet networking. Hewlett-Packard rejected the original Apple computer.

There were first-movers that didn't move: Apple's Newton handheld. Grid's GridPad tablet computer. Hitachi's three-inch floppy disk -- close, but no cigar. Apple's Lisa. And the first desktop microcomputer, the Kenback-1.

And leaders who lost their companies: Digital Equipment's Ken Olsen, Compaq's Rod Canion, Novell's Ray Noorda, Control Data's William Norris -- and Apple's Steve Jobs, the only one who lost it and got it back.

Strategies that flopped: Microsoft's mid-1990s efforts to ignore the Internet. IBM's late-1980s try at stuffing the genie of PC clones back in the bottle with its Micro Channel Architecture. The U.S. government's attempt to standardize its software with the Unix-like Posix specification. Next Software's plan to let only universities buy its heavily hyped workstations. Profit-free dot-coms. Copy-protection dongles. Push technology. Competing but incompatible 56K bit/sec. modems. The NetPC.

There were relationships that just failed to jell: Novell and WordPerfect. OS/2 and Microsoft. Bill Gates and videotaped depositions.

And teeth-grindingly misconceived products that should never have seen the light of day: Dogmatic, inflexible computer-assisted software engineering methodologies. The IBM PC Jr. Microsoft's Bob.

If you're a little depressed after reading this litany of losers -- well, don't be. That's how the IT business works. And there are plenty more failures, flops and losers where those came from.

Hayes, Computerworld's senior news columnist, has covered IT for more than 20 years. Contact him at frank_hayes@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

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