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Top 10 technology flops

Every few years, some new technology comes along that everyone's sure will become the next big thing. And then, nothing happens. Here are my top 10.

Every few years, some new technology or application comes along that everyone's sure will miraculously conquer every obstacle in its path and, in some ludicrously short time period, make existing technology obsolete. And then, long after all the media hype fades away and investors' checkbooks disappear, well, nothing happens.

So what? Who cares? Why bother talking about our industry's bombs, the next big things that weren't? Well, for one thing, it's interesting to note how hungry we all are for news about new technology. It gets us excited. We complain about media hype, but love the hype.

It's also fascinating how existing technology has this way of hanging on by its fingernails way past the point of its predicted obsolescence. More importantly, we learn more from mistakes than we do from successes. That's part of the scientific method: hypothesis, test, learn, repeat until you get it right.

Lastly, those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. Those are all good enough reasons for me. So here are my top 10 technology flops. But first, some ground rules. I stuck to the last 50 years or so. And I avoided specific company products. We've heard enough about the IBM PCjr, Apple Newton, Microsoft Bob, and OS2 to last 10 lifetimes.

Manned space travel. At the 1964 World's Fair I saw a mechanical enactment of a space shuttle docking with a space station. Aside from a few moon launches, that's exactly where we stand--43 years later.

Bubble memory. In the late '70s, every major electronics company was working on this nonvolatile magnetic memory technology. Then came hard disks, and nonvolatile semiconductor memory--EPROMs and then Flash--sealed its fate.

Superconductivity. There was a time when superconductivity was going to speed up everything from computers to transportation. Today, superconducting magnets are used in MRIs and other niche applications, but that's about it.

Digital watches. Come on, tell the truth; back in the '80s you thought plain old analog watches were finished. Heck, we all did. Then retro came back. Go figure.

Gallium arsenide. In the '80s, lots of experts thought GaAs would supplant CMOS semiconductor technology in computers. But CMOS' remarkable scalability has limited gallium arsenide to relatively niche applications.

Head-up displays. The technology has been around forever, but, for some reason, has not caught on in commercial applications. It's been available in limited car models for more than a decade, but I've never seen one.

Pen computing. How many of you remember Momenta, GRiD, and GO / EO? In the early '90s, just about every PC company had pen computers, but they failed to catch on. Now they're back in Microsoft's Tablet PC platform. I guess time will tell.

Information appliances. During the Internet bubble, it seemed plausible for everything from refrigerators to wrist watches to connect to the Internet. Yes, I know those smart devices all exist, but why?

Speech recognition. This has to be the biggest disappointment of all, especially for Star Trek fans. But here we are, still banging away on our keyboards. At least biometrics is starting to gain some traction.

Virtual reality. Yes, I know we have Second Life and it's still the early days of VR. Nevertheless, the technical issues are way tougher than with speech recognition and we've been waiting for decades for that to become mainstream.

Here are a couple of honorable mentions that didn't make the cut:

Iridium satellite. A poorly planned, mismanaged, $6 billion disaster. But, it's turning out to be a boon for the firm that bought it for $25 million.

HD Radio. After more than a decade, everybody's transmitting, but nobody's listening. It'll catch on eventually, when it comes standard in all AM/FM tuners.

Last word
Some of today's flops still have a shot, even a good shot, at becoming mainstream. But they sure are taking longer to get there than expected. So they're only flops today, and only in terms of our, or maybe just my, expectations. In particular, virtual reality and speech recognition will almost certainly become part of our lives. For now, we wait...and observe.