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June 11, 2014updated 22 Sep 2016 1:25pm

The 6 biggest failures in tech revolution

Great ideas that didn't make it. And terrible ones.

By Jimmy Nicholls

Techies love the word revolution. Whilst in the real world tends it usually means slaughter, pillage and eventual autocracy, in Silicon Valley it sounds more like fame, glory and piles of cash.

Yet just like real revolutions, there is a tendency for things to go wrong, often with disastrous consequences. For every iPod there is a Newton, for every XP a Vista, and for every Facebook a MySpace.

But what are the worst tech revolutions of the last fifty years? We trawled the archives to seek out the answer, and here is what we found.

1) Quadraphonic sound

Record player with vinyl

Superficially the logic behind four-way sound seems, well, sound. Stereo had successfully been adopted throughout the 1960s by vinyl, contributing to some of the decade’s most original recordings, and it seemed reasonable to assume two more speakers would be another improvement.

But despite the good intentions, the technology floundered, being expensive and hard to implement both from a producer and from a listener’s point of view, arguably resurfacing at the end of the 1980s as surround sound, as home theatres became more common.

2) Segway

Boys on segways

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The stereotype that America was the land of the fat and home of the lazy reached its apotheosis when a New Hampshire firm launched a solution to the problem of having to walk between places: the Segway.

Unveiled in 2001 with much hype, some of which was undoubtedly ironic, the creator Dean Kamen told Time magazine that Segway "will be to the car what the car was to the horse and buggy", with venture capitalist John Doerr predicting the firm would be the fastest to ever reach $1bn in sales.

Both predictions would prove unfounded, with several chief executives hastily abandoning the project and the company’s quiet over its finances seen as an indication it was not profitable. Despite its new owner Jimi Heselden being killed in an accident involving the vehicle in 2010, the company limps on, presumably with no delusions about its revolutionary capacity.



Format wars are as esoteric a grudge match as you can get, but that hasn’t stopped them being hugely remunerative for the winner. Now that all the important formats are digital it’s unlikely we will see a repeat of such battles, but it was only a few years ago that the last one was being savagely fought.

Starting in 2006 there were two pretenders to the throne of the humble DVD, a generation largely spared a similar confrontation because of the DVD Forum’s success in laying down standards. Attempts to reach a similar compromise floundered as Blu-ray adopted Java while HD DVD opting for Microsoft’s HDi.

The result would largely be decided by the growing business alliance on the side of Blu-ray, with the movie studios Paramount and Warner Bros eventually adopting both formats despite exclusively backing HD DVD to begin with. Toshiba eventually abandoned the format in 2008, signalling an end to the conflict.

4) Virtual Boy

Virtual Boy

Nintendo’s Virual Boy (Credit: Wikipedia)

When Nintendo released its new virtual reality games console in 1995, the gaming company could seemingly do no wrong. Its Super Nintendo and Nintendo consoles had been tremendously successful, ushering in staple franchises that are still with us today.

Yet the quest for virtual reality gaming proved to be premature, with critics slating the system for its poor graphics and ergonomics, and some even complaining the system made them feel sick. As with many attempts to create an immersive gaming experience, the technology did not quite live up to the ambition, and Nintendo did not even bother releasing the console in Europe.

5) Apple Newton

Apple Newton and iPhone

Apple Newton alongside an iPhone (Credit: Blake Patterson)

Before Apple created the iPod, it had a number of false starts. Most famous among these is the Apple Newton, an early example of a personal digital assistant. Unfortunately for the firm it would never quite take off, and they cancelled the device and OS in 1998, five years after its launch.

In many ways a prelude to today’s obsession with mobile phones, the Newton was an early example of mass pen computing, in which the principle input tool was a stylus rather than a keyboard and mouse. Like many left-field technology releases, it proved to be too far ahead of its time, with some saying Apple only recouped a quarter of what they had invested.

6) Internet appliances

Ergo Audrey

3Com Ergo Audrey

The hype the internet generated in the late 1990s infamously ended in the dotcom bubble bursting, with many companies collapsing. Many developers foresaw the need for devices exclusively tailored to surfing the internet, which resulted in the creation of so-called internet appliances from the likes of Sony, Nokia and MSN.

But consumers rejected the new line of products, with many computers being sold at a similar price capable of surfing the internet and much more besides. Nowadays the likes of Google’s Chromebooks seem to have taken up the mantle, though in 2014 it’s hard to think of many programmes we use which are not run online.

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