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Whatever happened to...? The tech that never took off

Whatever happened to MiniDisc, SPOT and the first iTunes phone? They were hyped to the heavens, yet they never hit the heights. We salute ten technologies that never took off

When we first heard about the MP3-playing Soundwave Transformer toy, our heads nearly exploded. We searched the Web for a place to buy it, we told everyone we knew about it, we hopped from foot to foot with excitement about it. We bounded out of bed to meet the postman first thing every morning until our Japanese import finally arrived. Then we played with it for about a day before it went in a drawer, never to be seen again.

Sadly, this sort of thing happens all too often. A new technology is talked up in swells of hype, anticipation and promise. Then it arrives... and everybody's lost interest. We've rounded up ten of our favourite technologies that never lived up to their promise or their press: it's the tech that never took off.

Sony MiniDisc

Sony MiniDisc

Sony introduced the MiniDisc in late 1992. It was brilliant. The advantages over tape and CD were obvious: it was smaller, the plastic cartridge was tougher, and it didn't skip when joggled. Sony even did the smart thing for once in licensing the technology to other manufacturers. The stage was set for MiniDisc to take over the world.

But it didn't. The much cheaper CD-R arrived shortly afterwards, and people started to get to grips with MP3, developed around the same time. There wasn't enough pre-recorded music on MiniDisc for the format to gain traction with the great unwashed. Then in 2001, the iPod dropped and it was game over.

Whatever happened to Sony MiniDisc?
Sony continued to develop new versions of the format with MDLP, NetMD and finally Hi-MD in 2004. But since then, Sony has concentrated on reviving its Walkman brand as digital music players. If you have a big stack of MiniDiscs, you can convert them to MP3, but the format doesn't have the retro cult following of vinyl.

Windows SideShow


One of the most intriguing-sounding features of Windows Vista in the run-up to launch was Windows SideShow. This allows Vista to power an auxiliary screen that could display basic information without booting up Windows. The Asus W5Fe was the first laptop to feature a mini status screen. While we were keen on the idea of performing simple tasks such as checking battery levels or even listening to music without getting our laptop out of its SideShow-enabled bag, manufacturers balked.

Whatever happened to Windows SideShow?
SideShow is included in Windows 7, but still needs compatible hardware. A search on this very Web site reveals just two SideShow-packing products: the W5Fe and a Logitech keyboard. SideShow has been very firmly put to one side.

One Laptop Per Child


The One Laptop Per Child Association's mission is to provide a tough, inexpensive XO-1 laptop to kids in the developing world. The project has been surrounded by debate and controversy since chairman Nicholas Negroponte announced it at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January 2005. Should the XO-1 use open-source software or run Windows? Is it a scam to sell American technology to African nations that have bigger problems? Will OLPC ever generate more sales than column inches?

Whatever happened to One Laptop Per Child?
The XO-1 has been shipped across the world, from Ethiopia, Rwanda and Sierra Leone to Haiti, Mexico and Uruguay, from Birmingham, Alabama to Papua New Guinea and Afghanistan. But when the company launched its second Give 1 Get 1 scheme in late 2008, only 12,500 laptops shifted, a shocking 93 per cent decline from the previous year's scheme. Hit by the recession and the coming of the netbook, OLPC has halved its workforce and budget, and there's still no sign of the XO-2.

Microsoft SPOT


Smart Personal Object Technology was launched in 2002 and involved adding software to "everyday objects, such as clocks, pens, key-chains and billfolds". Bill Gates showed a Smart Alarm Clock on stage at Comdex in autumn 2002. It sounds like a fantastic idea -- we want customisable gadgets allowing you to interact with your environment in a personal and portable way. We got a coffeemaker that tells you the weather.

Whatever happened to Microsoft Smart Personal Object Technology?
Third-party manufacturer Suunto discontinued its line of SPOT watches in 2008. The idea has basically been torpedoed by smart-phone apps.



In Diamonds Are Forever, Sean Connery's James Bond boards the Princess Margaret SR-N4 hovercraft on his way to Amsterdam. Viewed now, this seems like a quaint spot of retro fun, but in fact the hovercraft is still awesome. Hovercraft go anywhere, and don't hang about while they do it. By the time cross-Channel services ended in 2000, hovercraft could deposit you on a French beach in half an hour. Its fading from view is one of the sad instances of glamorous, thrusting British progress taking a step backwards, like the end of Concorde.

The father of the modern hovercraft was Sir Christopher Cockerell, whose work led to the first crossing of the English Channel on 25 July 1959.The first passenger-carrying hovercraft went from Moreton on the Wirral to Rhyl in Wales, in 1962. In 1966, cross-Channel passenger hovercraft entered service, with car-carrying services beginning two years later. Nowadays we're left with the Channel Tunnel, ferries and catamarans, which are slower but carry more cars. We can't see James Bond on a ferry, can you?

Whatever happened to hovercraft?
There is only one public hovercraft service left in the UK, from Portsmouth to the Isle of Wight. Some rescue services around the country also use small hovercraft.

Photo: Andrew Berridge

Amstrad Emailer

Amstrad Emailer

The Amstrad Emailer was a personal project of Alan Sugar, the man who in 2005 bestowed upon us the blistering insight that "next Christmas the iPod will be dead, finished, gone, kaput". The Emailer -- or Em@iler, if you will (we won't) -- was a landline phone that allowed you to send email from a keyboard built into the handset. It was a nice idea -- in 1995. The Emailer arrived in 2000. It cost £80 to buy and exorbitant usage costs could add up to £150 to your monthly phone bill.

Amserve, the subsidiary of Amstrad set up to deal with the Emailer, posted multi-million-pound loss after multi-million-pound loss. Amstrad CEO Bob Watkins quit after 25 years. Approximately no-one bought them, despite Sugar's massive publicity drive, including giving them to curtain-twitching Neighbourhood Watch co-ordinators to connect directly with police.

Whatever happened to the Amstrad Emailer?
Smart phones do everything the Emailer could do and more. If you desperately want an Emailer, they're a tenner on eBay. Surralan went on to be chairman of the board on dreadful telly moron-gallery The Apprentice.

Sinclair C5

We could dedicate an entire feature to Clive Sinclair -- the infamous Sinclair C5 makes him the poster boy for hyped failures. But we've already picked on the three-wheeled wonder in our top ten terrible tech products, so we're not going to give it another kicking.

Instead, we could choose the Sinclair QL, which beat the Apple Macintosh and Atari ST to market in 1984 by being sold before it actually worked. The Advertising Standards Authority took an interest in the three-month delay before orders were filled, and early models were riddled with firmware bugs.

Or we could go for the MTV1 Microvision pocket TV, built around a 2-inch Telefunken cathode ray tube and sold for about $400 in 1976. That was followed in 1983 by the clever-but-doomed Sinclair TV80 Flat Screen Pocket TV, which cost a much more palatable £100 but was torpedoed by LCD and sold only 15,000 units. Then there's the expensive and unreliable Sinclair Microdrive tape storage system, developed by a chap named Ben Cheese.

Oh heck, we're going with the C5. It was rubbish.

Whatever happened to the Sinclair C5?
We salute Clive Sinclair -- he may have had some bad ideas, but the guy was responsible for the ZX Spectrum, and he's a genuine British eccentric. We love those. Sinclair hasn't given up on mini transport -- his latest invention was the A-bike.

Apple Lisa

Apple Lisa

Lisa stood for either Local Integrated Software Architecture or Let's Invent Some Acronym, depending on which side you were on. The Lisa was more advanced than the early Macintosh being developed around the same time, packing protected memory, co-operative multitasking, a built-in screensaver, up to 2MB of RAM, expansion slots, protection against data corruption and the ability to have multiple documents with the same name. On the outside there's a paper tape calculator, numeric keypad and a larger, higher resolution display.

Released in early 1983, the Lisa was the first mass-market computer to use a graphical user interface. Steve Jobs thought this revolution would see 50,000 Lisas sold in the first year, but at $10,000 -- slowed down and bulked up by its very sophistication -- the Lisa took much longer to hit that figure. Lisa was similar to the Newton: the technology overreached the price and usability.

Whatever happened to the Apple Lisa?
It's in a hole in the ground. Seriously: 2,700 unsold Lisas were dumped in a landfill in Logan, Utah in 1987 as a tax write-off. Some of the Lisa's technology made it into the much more successful Macintosh. Speaking of which...

Apple Power Mac G4 Cube

Apple Power Mac G4 Cube

The Apple Power Mac G4 Cube was a rare misstep for Apple. Unveiled by Steve Jobs at Macworld Expo in July 2000, the Cube was a small desktop computer that came without a monitor. Unusually for Apple, it could be configured -- well, you could swap the graphics card. Jonathan Ive's design was critically acclaimed, but the Cube never sold well.

The original Cube shipped with a 450MHz PowerPC 7400 (G4) processor, 64MB of RAM, a 20GB hard drive, a slot-loading 5x DVD-ROM drive, and an AGP ATI Rage 128 Pro graphics card with 16MB of SDRAM. It cost $1,800, which many considered too expensive, especially as the Cube was plagued by small cracks in the casing. A price drop followed in February 2001, along with two new versions, but the Cube was put on ice less than six months later.

Whatever happened to the Apple Power Mac G4 Cube?
Jobs, Ive and Apple are doing just fine, thanks. The Cube is now something of a cult hit with modders and film and TV prop masters. Apple refused to give up on the idea of a monitor-less tiny desktop PC, and released the Mac Mini, which is still going but is also popularly considered too expensive.

Motorola Rokr E1

Motorola Rokr E1

Remember where you were when Apple announced it was launching a phone? Excitement was unbridled. Fanboys were whipped into a frenzy. And we all know the result... the Motorola Rokr E1.

The Rokr launched in late 2005 but wasn't a success, mainly because it was limited to 100 songs and had a clumsy interface. Motorola claimed Apple hamstrung the E1 with the 100-song limit and the launch of the first-generation iPod nano. In hindsight, it's easy to view the E1 as Apple testing the waters of the phone market ahead of the iPhone.

Whatever happened to Motorola Rokr E1?
The Rokr brand lives on, with the not-half-bad Rokr E8 -- sans iTunes.

What was your favourite technology that never hit the heights it deserved? Tell us about it in the comments. In the meantime, we're off to rescue Soundwave from that drawer.