From AirPower to Zune, a decade of tech and companies that died
Even the last VCR manufacturer lasted until 2016. But the bigger surprise may be what's still around.
Lori GruninSenior Editor / Advice
I've been reviewing hardware and software, devising testing methodology and handed out buying advice for what seems like forever; I'm currently absorbed by computers and gaming hardware, but previously spent many years concentrating on cameras. I've also volunteered with a cat rescue for over 15 years doing adoptions, designing marketing materials, managing volunteers and, of course, photographing cats.
ExpertisePhotography, PCs and laptops, gaming and gaming accessories
While they inspire a bit of nostalgia -- and frequently skeuomorphism -- yesteryear's gadgets are the compost of technology, the old crap out of which new products grow. As part of the natural product cycle, it's hard to describe them as really "gone."
Other times, new products absorb their predecessors. As they became ever more powerful over the past decade, phones killed devices like the MP3 player by slowly, but inexorably subsuming the capabilities of single-purpose gadgets like the MicrosoftZune player and the Flip camcorder. While we might mourn our old friends, we get over the loss pretty quickly.
A variation on that theme are technologies that fail as consumer products but become absorbed into commercial devices.
Kinect sensing camera and mic array moved from Xbox gaming to the enterprise in 2017, for instance, as Azure Kinect. I don't really consider that "dead."
Even so, the biggest surprise of my 10-year trudge through Google Search wasn't what we'd lost, but what's still plugging along each year on my endangered list. Blockbuster Video. Curved TVs. MySpace. Snap Spectacles. Android tablets. They may be sharply diminished or struggling and assumed to be gone, but they're not quite dead yet.
Isn't it iconic?
There are some companies, products and technologies that simply reflect the tech zeitgeist of an era, regardless of their lifespan, actual impact or how we felt about them. They need little explanation.
But some of the dead I feel compelled to eulogize. Or speak ill of.
Old companies never die, they just become patent portfolios
OnLive was one of the pioneers in cloud gaming when it launched in 2010, but arguably failed simply because it arrived before its time. Game libraries were too small, we hadn't yet become inured to (or fatigued by) subscription pricing, there were a lot more problems with network bandwidth and stability (though they remain issues even today for new platforms like Google Stadia and Microsoft xCloud), and gaming was primarily for the hardcore who prefer the better performance on a local system.
By 2012 it had hit too many financial bumps to remain independent or continue as originally envisioned, and in 2015, Sony bought it and immediately shut it down. As a service it wasn't viable, but its technology patents were extremely valuable for Sony's nascent PlayStation Now platform, which at the time streamed games from the cloud to its consoles.
And occasionally, the first time you see a new product you just know it's never going to be viable as a saleable item -- but that it's a great proof-of-concept of technologies that will eventually end up in other products, whether via the sale of the companies' patents to a bigger entity or reverse engineering by another player. That's how I felt when I saw Lytro's brilliant light-field technology in its awful first camera in 2011; Google acquired some of the brains behind that in 2018.
"Never shipped" is a crown usually donned by crowdfunding campaigns, frequently part of take-the-money-and-run stories, such as Lily (the selfie drone), Ossic X/SonicVR (3D audio headphones), Goji Smart Lock and the iBackPack (a connected backpack).
There's also a special subset of insanely stupid product ideas that somehow get funded but either never ship or sputter out a couple miles above the launchpad, leaving the rest of us with our schadenfreude to keep us warm. The Kuvee Wi-Fi wine bottle and Juicero Wi-Fi juicer are two recent standouts. (Unfortunately, there's always a few that sneak through and make it to production, like Licki. Because sticking a pacifier-like tongue in your mouth to groom a cat is just insane.)
Google gets a section of its own, thanks to its (and parent company Alphabet's) notorious reputation for sinking a lot of money and resources into big, hype-tastic products and projects for which it then loses interest in, like a kid with ADD. Google's tagline should be "don't get too attached." There's even a web site devoted to the Google graveyard.
Google's assassinated products are sometimes a part of categorical executions, as well. Take low-cost VR: Google and
attempted to deliver cheaper solutions than full-on headsets like the Oculus Rift and Quest, HTC Vive and others; essentially, letting you roll your own headsets by popping your phone into a visor. Just this year, Samsung's Gear VR, Google's Daydream platform and its own Cardboard headset fell victim to the increasing physical complexity of flagship phones and a largely uninterested reception by the public.
Intellectual property protection has been a big deal for tech startups over the past 30 years, whether you believe it an economically essential defense, legal overreach to insulate obsolete business models, or somewhere on the continuum between. The 2010s continued the litigating-out-of-existence trend that took down Napster, Grokster, RealDVD and a host of others during the previous decade. Some which fell during the last 10 years include LimeWire peer-to-peer file sharing, Grooveshark streaming music on demand and Aereo's unbundled over-the-air-TV streaming; nonprofit streaming TV startup Locast is currently on the legal defensive. (Disclosure: CBS, the parent company of CNET, was a plaintiff in some of these litigations.)