Don’t Believe the Hype: The 21 Biggest Technology Flops

Don’t Believe the Hype: The 21 Biggest Technology Flops by David Haskin

This is a very interesting collection of alleged over-hyped tech flops, put together by Computerworld. Some of these are specific products that clearly bombed (e.g., Microsoft Bob, the Apple Newton), while others are broad areas that may yet materialize into something extremely cool (e.g., virtual reality, smart appliances). In any case the main point is not just that the technologies flopped, but that they failed to live up to the hype. At the very least, it’s thought provoking with respect to design. Always easier to see misguided or over-anxious design in hindsight.

Here is the list:

  • Apple Newton
  • Digital audio tape
  • DIVX
  • Dot-bombs
  • E-books
  • IBM PCjr
  • Internet currency
  • Iridium
  • Microsoft Bob
  • The Net PC
  • The paperless office
  • Push technology
  • Smart appliances
  • Virtual reality


  • Apple Lisa
  • Dreamcast
  • NeXT
  • OS/2
  • Qube
  • Speech recognition
  • WebTV

They then put it to a vote of their readership, and the losers were (drumroll please)…

  1. Microsoft Bob
  2. Dot-bombs
  3. The paperless office
  4. DIVX
  5. Iridium

The follow-up article is actually as interesting as the initial, including rants and raves from their readership about flops that should have been included but weren’t (Windows Vista, Zune), those that were not viewed as flops at all by some significant cross-section of readers (OS/2, virtual reality), and those that were very controversial (Y2K, flop or success?!).

If I had a great deal more time on my hands right now, I’d love to dive into each of these legendary once-hyped technologies and discuss in greater detail. Meanwhile, your comments are welcome.

Support chat – From the sublime to the ridiculous

I want to say at the outset that I’m a big fan of online support chat. I wish it were more available. But most of all I wish it worked better. I don’t have concrete empirical data here, but it seems like more often than not I’m having some kind of problem getting what I need from an online support chat session. Even when it works properly from a technical perspective, I’m typically getting information that is of no actual use to me.

The following two examples serve to illustrate. The first one was saved a few years back (apparently for a moment of sharing just like this). My original question (not recorded) informed them that my XBox wouldn’t read any CDs or DVDs whatsoever.

Welcome to Microsoft XBox Support

The XBox Chat session has been accepted. This chat session is being recorded for quality monitoring; your IP address may be traced.

{Mylene} Welcome to the Xbox North America Customer Support!My name is Mylene.

{Charles Knutson} hi mylene

{Mylene} Hello Charles

{Charles Knutson} i take it you saw question/concern

{Mylene} I understand that you are having disc reading issues, right?

{Charles Knutson} yup

{Mylene} I’m sorry to hear that, Charles

{Charles Knutson} me too

{Mylene} you mentioned that none of your discs works

{Charles Knutson} correct

{Charles Knutson} no dvds, no xbox games

{Charles Knutson} none recognized when loaded

{Mylene} It seems that you’re experiencing a technical issue.

{Charles Knutson} you spose?

{Mylene} I suggest that you contact our Technical Support team to properly diagnose the problem with your console

{Charles Knutson} is this a script? or a real person?

{Mylene} I’m real, Charles 🙂

{Charles Knutson} uh, ok… if you say so mylene

{Mylene} You can reach our Technical Support team at 1-800-4MY-XBOX (1-800-469-9269). They are available 7 days a week, from 9AM to 1AM EST. The call is toll free in North America.

{Charles Knutson} i’m on it, eliza

{Mylene} ok

{Mylene} It was a pleasure chatting with you today. Thank you for inquiring about Xbox. If you need further assistance, please come back and visit us again. I hope you have a nice day!

The Support Professional has ended the session

If you look carefully, there’s only one single line that doesn’t look like it was clicked on from a pull-down menu by someone who didn’t know anything at all about the XBox, but could put two and two together and determine that disc reading problems might be a technical issue.

My reference to “eliza” was an inspired spur-of-the-moment shout-out to Joseph Weizenbaum’s computer program ELIZA from the 70’s. ELIZA was a rudimentary natural language processing system inspired by a typical psychologist who adds no information but simply listens reflexively (“I’m mad at my mother.” “Tell me about your mother.”)

I have to say that I was probably initially put off by the name “Mylene.” With apologies to actual people out there named Mylene, it sounded suspiciously like a feminized version of “mylar,” which is the magnetic coating on floppy disks. I’m always a bit suspicious that I’m talking to a natural language processing script anyway, especially when the answers come way too canned.

The next example is actually the last two of four interactions with the same system just today. In the first two, I try to ask for help for certain problems and find that after one response the rep vanishes, a canned message suggests I’m not there, and then my link disappears. Very frustrating. By the third interaction I abandon my original question and turn my attention to their online chat system.

Charles Knutson: I think your online chat system is broken… rep keeps saying he/she sees no action and then hangs up on me without answering my question… Can I get a non-canned answer from the rep this time so I know I’ve got a live person and not a natural language processing script?

[Brenda H – A representative has joined the session.]
Thank you for contacting AT&T. A Representative will be with you momentarily.

Charles Knutson: hi brenda

Brenda H: Welcome to AT&T Premier Support, my name is Brenda H. I am reading your question and will be right with you.

Charles Knutson: are you there?

Charles Knutson: i’d like to first establish that I’m interacting with a real person… are you there?

Brenda H: I’m sorry about the disconnects. How may I assist you today?

Charles Knutson: ah, thanks

Charles Knutson: are you still there?

Brenda H: I haven’t noticed any activity from you in the past few minutes, if you need to copy any of the information provided to you please do so now. I will be closing the chat window shortly unless you have more questions.

Charles Knutson: dang it!!! don’t hang up on me again

Brenda H: Thank you for using AT&T Premier Support. Have a great day. This chat window will close shortly. If you need to copy any of the information provided to you, please do so now. If you require more assistance, please feel free to log back in and another agent will assist you.

By the fourth try I’m mostly having fun, and seeing just how silly this can become. I was either disappointed, or not disappointed, depending on your point of view. 🙂

Charles Knutson: This is my fourth try at some help. EVERY time, i ask my question, get one response, type away, and then get a message saying that the rep doesn’t see anything, i keep typing, and then it disconnects on me. I think you may have a bug in your system. Since this may be the only thing you see from me before you hang up on me, could someone please fix this? I’m very frustrated by this system.

[Debbie S – A representative has joined the session.]

Thank you for contacting AT&T. A Representative will be with you momentarily.

Debbie S: Welcome to AT&T Premier Support, my name is Debbie S. I am reading your question and will be right with you.

Debbie S: I apologize for the inconvenience.

Debbie S: How may I assist you today?

Charles Knutson: you can report this bug to the people who manage that

Debbie S: I haven’t noticed any activity from you in the past few minutes, if you need to copy any of the information provided to you please do so now. I will be closing the chat window shortly unless you have more questions.

Debbie S: Thank you for using AT&T Premier Support. Have a great day. This chat window will close shortly. If you need to copy any of the information provided to you, please do so now. If you require more assistance, please feel free to log back in and another agent will assist you.

You get the idea. I hope you enjoyed this. If not, we value your input. Online operators are standing by 24 hours a day to assist you.

As far as you know.

Politicians press for antispyware law yet again

Politicians press for antispyware law yet again by Anne Broache

I don’t know the current status of this proposed federal legislation. But the article is relevant and the issue is huge.

Among other things, the proposal would make it unlawful to engage in various means of “taking control” of a user’s computer, to collect personally identifiable information through keystroke loggers, and to modify a user’s Internet settings, such as the browser’s home page.

The bill would also broadly prohibit collection of information about users or their behavior without notice and consent, and it prescribes specific notice requirements. Exemptions from the regulations would go to Web cookies, law enforcement and national security activities, and software intended to prevent fraud.

Previous versions of the bill drew support from a number of high-tech companies, including Yahoo, eBay, AOL Time Warner, Dell, Microsoft and EarthLink.

The FTC has also lamented not having the ability to levy large monetary penalties on spyware purveyors. The Spy Act would put in place such an increase, allowing the FTC to seek fines as hefty as $3 million for the most egregious violations.

Obviously technology laws emerge as inappropriate usage emerges. So effective legislation will always trail intrusive technology. But this one has seemed so obvious for so long. If some guy pulls a pickup truck onto my front lawn and dumps a load of garbage, there are laws to prosecute him. But if he does the same thing to my computer’s hard disk, there’s little or nothing we can do.

MySpace Finds 29,000 Sex Offenders

MySpace Finds 29,000 Sex Offenders by Gary D. Robertson, Associated Press has found more than 29,000 registered sex offenders with profiles on the popular social networking Web site – more than four times the number cited by the company two months ago, officials in two states Tuesday.

“I’m absolutely astonished and appalled because the number has grown so exponentially over so short of time with no explanation,” said Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who also had pressed the company earlier for sex offender data.

Let me offer a potential explanation. Broadly speaking, there are two types of social networks on the Internet: 1) Those that offer an online mechanism for interaction between people who already know each other in the real world; 2) Those that offer complete strangers an opportunity to meet other strangers on the Internet.

In the first category are sites like FaceBook and LinkedIn, which are philosophically founded on the principle that relationships must exist before online links can be established. In those environments, it’s considered very bad form to solicit a link with someone you’ve never met in person.

In contrast, the second category includes chat rooms of all shapes and sizes as well as sites like MySpace that actively encourage (or at least fail to discourage) individuals to expand their personal network to include many people that they’ve never met.

If you were an Internet predator, which type of social network would you frequent?!

MySpace declined to comment on the figure, focusing instead on its efforts to clean up its profile rolls.

“We’re pleased that we’ve successfully identified and removed registered sex offenders from our site and hope that other social networking sites follow our lead,” MySpace chief security officer Hemanshu Nigam said in a prepared statement.

I would suggest that other networking sites that require (or at least attempt to enforce) that individuals know each other before forging online relationships will have far less cleaning up to do than MySpace.

Students give up social networks for Lent

Students give up social networks for Lent by Katie Hawkins

Lent was over a few months ago. But the story’s so compelling I couldn’t let it go.

For some, it’s chocolate. For others, it’s coffee or cigarettes. But as this Easter approaches, some young and devout Christians are anxious to return to what they gave up for Lent: Internet sites Facebook and MySpace.

“Some of my friends think it’s silly, since people usually give up food,” said 16-year-old Emily Montgomery, who says she’s given up her access to MySpace. “I wanted to give up something that’s really hard for me.”

A definite sign that social networking is here in a big way.

Graham said giving up Facebook has helped her distinguish between her real friends and those of “convenience.” Montgomery says she now plays tennis and focuses on schoolwork more often, and Chiu has been studying, reading the Bible and spending time with friends.

“It’s a nice change,” said Chiu. “The human interaction is so much more personal than anything you could have on the Internet.”

Virtual friends… Real friends… Virtual friends… Real friends… For this generation it’s a non-trivial issue to say the least.

True stories from the TSA

From natch dot net:

When he finds the MintyBoost! charger he gives me the evil eye.

Now if I was stupid I would have shut down the airport when I saw such a device. It doesn’t look like *anything* they sell at Walmart.

He asks what it is. I tell him it is a battery charger for my iPod. He asks if I made it myself, to which I reply that I purchased a kit over the internet. He says that he can’t let me on the plane with it. I explain to him that I have flown with it 4-6 times a month for a year now and nobody has questioned it. He says, “Not on my watch and not with my people.”

Read it for yourself:

This sort of thing just can’t be scripted.

On the digital road in Oregon: All your crab are belong to us

Spent the week before last with my family in Oregon for my oldest daughter’s wedding, and I wanted to share a handful of my geekiest travel moments. As a backdrop, everything was pretty much a blur leading up to the wedding on Saturday the 5th, plus family gatherings on Sunday, so we mostly stowed our devices. But Monday we had a day to just relax and recreate a bit, followed by a long drive home to Utah, giving our latent digital proclivities a chance to emerge.

Netarts Bay: “All your crab are belong to us”

Monday morning we ventured out into Netarts Bay with nine family members in two boats in search of crab. Most pitiful crabbing adventure we’ve had in 15 years, yielding… (drumroll please) …a single keeper. Considering the cost of renting boats, bait, traps, shelfish licenses for the 14-and-older set, this little fella represented the most expensive crab meat on earth, somewhere around $120/pound. On the way home we stopped at the grocery store and bought three more cooked crabs just so we could all enjoy some fresh crab for dinner (and paradoxically lowering the overall cost per pound of the crab meat by a significant amount).

The digital moment came when I watched the boat navigated by my oldest son approach about two dozen seals sunning themselves on a sand bar. As the boat approached, my son stood up and began taking pictures with his phone. Maybe the phone camera thing is already vanilla by now, but it still seemed strangely out of place on a crabbing trip, on the bay, with a light fog rising from the water to see the captain of the boat hoisting aloft… his cell phone! The coup de grace was him subsequently “texting” some of his pictures to my phone. (Begging the question of whether you can actually “text” someone a picture… According to my teenagers, you can!)


Pacific City, Oregon: “We get signal!”

After our fun but non-productive crabbing adventure, we headed south with a temporary stop at Cape Lookout (more pictures by my son).


During this trip both my oldest sons were texting mysterious “friends” on their cell phones. But north of Pacific City we lost all connectivity. The amazingly geekish moment came when I pulled out my Treo to check something just as we approached Pacific City from the north. I saw the signal strength return to my phone, felt a surge of positive emotion, and simultaneous heard spontaneous cheers from my two oldest sons (16 and 18), each independently exulting at the return of their cell phone connectivity. Apparently they had been suffering texting withdrawals for the previous 20 minutes and were now connected again to the real world. I turned to my wife and muttered, “We get signal!” The pitiful part is… she got the reference (see below if you don’t).

Baker City, Oregon: “Main screen turn on”

We were in the mountains of eastern Oregon Tuesday morning at sunrise, heading south under arbitrarily constrained Oregonian speed limits. As I looked to the right I discovered an amazing sillhouette of our van and trailer in the weeds on the west side of the road. With everyone sound asleep, and me just grateful for the arrival of daylight, I did what any red-blooded geek would do… pulled out my Treo and started taking pictures out the passenger side window while driving (approximately) 65 mph on I-84. The effect is actually pretty cool (IMHO).



BTW, if you know anything about how a sundial works (or that the sun appears to move east to west across our earthly sky during daylight hours), you can perceive a time lapse between these two photos, evidenced by the changing length of our shadow. Some with more technical savvy than me could probably calculate the time period during which i was jeopardizing my sleeping family by driving down the freeway pulling a trailer while taking pictures out the passenger window with my Treo.

Somewhere in the Middle of Nowhere, Western Idaho: “You know what you doing”

Some time after sunrise but before business hours I remembered promising my number two daughter (the not married one) that I would transfer funds from my bank account to hers for reasons that are as yet shrouded in mystery. Nevertheless it had to be accomplished before Tuesday’s business hours. I was at that moment a passenger in a van now piloted by my wife, hurtling eastbound through western Idaho at speeds of (approximately) 75 mph.

Despite severe sleep deprivation and an actual opportunity to catch a few z’s, I first fired up my Treo and enabled the Bluetooth capability for dial-up networking. I then pulled my PowerBook G4 from my computer bag (yes… nearby… where it should be), clicked on the phone icon in the task bar, and found myself connected to the Internet. Cool. I launched Firefox, logged into my bank’s web-based automatic teller, and transfered $100 to my daughter’s account for reasons that remain fuzzy (but I’m confident she’ll reimburse me very very soon…). Satisfied at having fulfilled my fatherly duties, and somewhat happier for having had an excuse to open my Mac, I dozed off into a well-earned sleep…

Just a few digital highlights from our grand left coast adventure.

“For great justice.”

(Note: If the goofy quotes are mysterious to you, your life is probably incomplete, having been unexposed to the 1989 Zero Wing game. Click here for enlightenment.)

Why must my phone be in the off position?!

Got back from Hawaii this morning. Two flights out last week, two flights back last night and this morning. Four doses of airline-speak.

I have boarded, deplaned, stowed my belongings, found the card in the seat-pocket in front of me, and have been careful because items in the overhead bins do tend to shift during flight.

I have watched others pre-board, and pondered the unlikely event of a water landing.

I have returned my seat and tray table to their full, upright, and locked position.

I have been reminded that it is a federal offense to tamper with, disable, or destroy any lavatory smoke detector.

And I have turned my cell phone to the off position. Two questions: 1) Who in the world came up with this phraseology? 2) What precisely does it mean?

It’s bad enough that flight attendants do tend to overuse certain words that they do say repeatedly because they apparently do think that it sounds more officious and they do realize that we do have a choice of airlines and they do appreciate us choosing whatever airline this is. They really do…

But, I mean, what is this “off position”? Switches can be in an off position, but many electronic devices don’t have switches. They have some magic button that you hold until the device becomes dark and lifeless. Is said device now in the “off position”? Even more frightening, the average cell phone user has no idea that while their phone is “off” (meaning screen dark? or maybe silent ring?) it is still waking up periodically to check the availability of nearby cell towers, in case someone wants to call in. And with all due respect to the enormous amount of radio noise my Bose headphones must be generating, it can’t be within a couple orders of magnitude of what half the cell phones in the cabin are probably doing in the “off position.”

Now if they just did something like this… “Ladies and gentlemen, your cell phones generate radio signals even when they may appear to you to be off. Will you please do whatever magic incantation you have to do to your phone to make it so that the phone cannot receive incoming calls? When you have done that, your phone will be in radio silence, and will not interfere with any of the radio or telecommunication instruments in this big bird. Oh yes… and we do hope that you do forgive us if we put airline-speak in the off position.”

Blogging from the beach in Hawaii… without a laptop…

Didn’t work… AAARRRRrrrrggghghh!!! Tried, failed. It was going to be one of those uber-cool posts in which I prove my obsessive techno-tendencies beyond any reasonable doubt by sitting in a beach chair, on the Hukilau beach in Oahu, using nothing but my Treo, and blog about blogging on the beach because… um… ah… my wife will explain it to you.

Possessing a modicum of common sense, I made the attempt to login to my blog server on my Treo within the reasonably cool confines of our temporary beachside domicile. I could read the blog from the beach using the Treo web browser, but for an as-yet-undebugged reason, I could never successfully login to the server on the Treo. I thought it might have something to do with cookies, but that didn’t seem to be it after all. Scanned the meager offering of menu options for the Treo’s web browser to no avail. Tried resetting the password remotely (requiring a multi-step process involving a successful email adventure on said Treo), still no worky.

Finally my phone contorted itself into a state in which everytime I go to the web browser, the Treo reboots itself before doing anything else. Classic. I try to do something techno-cool (like blogging on the beach without a laptop) and by the time I get done trying, I’m in a worse state than I would have been had I never tried the uber-cool manuever in the first place. I hate that. And how do I fix my web browser when I can’t get to its menu options because it reboots my phone every time I try?! Sheesh.

Fortunately, the trip to Hawaii was not a total disaster. Weather was absolutely beautiful. Waves were great. Sand was sandy. Food was great. Polynesian Cultural Center was amazing. My visit to BYU-Hawaii in Laie was really fun. Pearl Harbor was moving. Wakiki was picture-perfect.

Oh yeah, and I was able to check my email a couple times a day on my Treo to help mitigate a potentially serious case of technical separation anxiety…

I think I need professional help.