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Sometimes you build it, and they end up not coming
The tech industry has seen more than its share of products and services that are ahead of their time. All of them flopped, but all of them also influenced the industry. This list should serve as a warning to those who think that being the first to think of something will lead to any easy road to success.
Over 30 years ago, TV viewers in Columbus, Ohio, experienced television's future: QUBE, an interactive service from Warner Cable. Viewers with a QUBE box had access to 30 channels (ten more than most competitors), and several interactive features activated by a special remote control. Subscribers could buy pay-per-view movies (a TV first), respond to polls and see the results almost instantly, bid on auctions, and even play rudimentary video games.
Why didn't QUBE change television forever? Because the QUBE pilot service cost significantly more to offer than customers would charge. By 1983, Warner Cable was $875 million in debt, leading to a contentious and ultimately failed partnership with American Express.
1987: Digital Audio Tape
In 1987, Sony introduced the DAT format, expected to be the death knell of ordinary cassettes, to replace analog tapes. Though offering a unique combination of digital audio quality and easy recording, DAT never quite took off.
While audio professionals and concert bootleg traders quickly adopted DAT, it was never popular among ordinary listeners: DAT recorders remained pricey, and CDs fulfilled most digital audio needs. Perhaps the DAT's more interesting legacy is that it prompted early efforts by the music industry to legislate against digital copying: then-Senator Al Gore's proposed bill would have mandated using an early form of DRM to prevent DAT machines from copying copyrighted music.
In the late '80s, every Mac came with Hypercard, a program that let you build individual "cards", organized into "stacks", linked together by clickable buttons; it's easy to see these as the prototypes of pages and Web sites. But HyperCard stacks stayed on the user's computer; there was no networking involved.
HyperCard enjoyed a minor heyday, but once the concept made the leap to the network, HyperCard quickly became outdated. Bill Atkinson, who developed the software, once contemplated: "I grew up in a box-centric culture at Apple. If I'd grown up in a network-centric culture, like Sun, HyperCard might have been the first Web browser."
1991: Philips CD-I
Sure, CDs were good for storing music -- but they could also do so much more, like provide interactive educational and entertainment content, via your TV set! To meet that vision, Philips released the CD-I console to the world and waited for the customers to line up.
They singularly failed to do so. The CD-I didn't really stack up well against existing game consoles or media players, and sales remained low despite Philips' paying for infomercials in heavy rotation. The CD-I eventually slid into the kiosk market, where it also failed. Much of its functionality eventually showed up not on set-top boxes but in home computers, and, with the advent of larger hard drives, ultimately left the CD altogether.
In 1992, I discovered this new technology that let you find information on the Internet. I could easily look up information about my college class schedule, find answers to my reference questions, and more, all from my dorm room! The system, called "Gopher," was going to change the way the world worked.
Released around the same time as HTTP, Gopher was another method for organizing and finding documents on the Internet. Though briefly more popular than the Web we know, Gopher, which offered lists of folders and files that look similar to an FTP browser window, lacked the visual flair of the Web. In 1993 the University of Minnesota, which invented the protocol, threatened to start charging for it, and users fled.
1993: Apple Newton
The Newton is the quintessential before-its-time piece of technology: its utter commercial failure is undeniable, but its descendants are undeniably omnipresent.
The reasons for the Newton's flop are numerous: it was too big and too pricey, and its handwriting recognition software was spectacularly unreliable. The Newton's more successful imitators are equally numerous, and just about every PDA and smartphone can trace its lineage directly back to the Newton -- including Apple's iPhone, which, like most of its competitors, now accepts input from a keyboard, dispensing with handwriting recognition altogether. Curiously, Newton's handwriting-recognition technology was ultimately ported to Mac OS X, where it's known as "Inkwell." It hasn't really taken off there, either.
It's hard to say why LiveJournal, which combines blogging and social networking in an era defined by those trends, remains an also-ran. Started in 1999, LiveJournal should have a market capitalization somewhere north of Google's by now. But LiveJournal never became a giant of the Web 2.0 era, perhaps due to a combination of management missteps and a user base that's, well, slightly too passionate. The site's Wikipedia page details some dramatic blowups, among them the controversial addition of advertising on non-free accounts, a year after management promised not to put advertising on the site.
Six Apart, which makes MovableType blogging software, purchased LiveJournal in 2005; two years later, they sold it to a Russian company, SUP.
2003: Danger Hiptop
The Danger Hiptop was not the first smartphone -- that honor probably goes to the Palm Treo -- but it was certainly a slick early contender. The first time I used one, circa 2005, I was shocked at the quality of the mobile browser. It was briefly even beloved by celebrities, like inescapable mid-'00s gossip fixture Paris Hilton.
The Hiptop had largely fallen off of most people's radar until 2009, when it got a lot of negative publicity resulting from one of its other innovations: it backs up all of your data in the cloud, where it was lost by Microsoft, Danger's new owner.
Remember the Great Friending of 2003, when everyone sent out Friendster Friend requests trying to amass the biggest list? Remember how once you finished your profile, there wasn't much else to do? Friendster's buzz quickly died down, and we continued with our lives.
Friendster hasn't gone away, however. In 2011 it reinvented itself as a social gaming site that's hugely popular in Asia. Don't worry, Friendster hasn't deleted your user account or friendlist; you can still sign in using your existing email account and password.