Great stuff that almost was


Computerworld has this article about the Top 15 Vaporware Products of All Time. Here’s an abbreviated list of stuff we waited breathlessly for or completely ignored that almost but never quite happened.

15. Ovation – In 1983, Ovation Technologies, a startup founded the year before, announced an integrated package that promised to include word processing, spreadsheet, database management, and communications software. By 1984, though, the company declared bankruptcy, having burned through about US$7 million in investor money without releasing a single product.

14. Duke Nukem Forever – May of 2009 will mark the twelveth anniversary of 3D Realms’ first official announcement of Duke Nukem Forever’s release, which was supposed to be in mid-1998. That optimistic announcement came before the developer’s decision to switch game engines–something the company would go on to do repeatedly in the ensuing years, while occasionally rewriting most of the existing game design from scratch.

13. Amiga Walker PC – After Commodore went bankrupt in 1994, the Amiga brand and technology were purchased by the German company Escom Technologies and marketed as Amiga Technologies. In early 1996, the company announced a plan to sell an upgraded version of the Amiga 1200 computer with a strikingly designed dark purple case that stood on four tiny feet–hence the Walker name. Nobody bought one.

12. Sega VR – Sega had decided to create the Sega VR as a virtual-reality add-on to its wildly popular Genesis system. Although the twin-LCD headset made the player look like a cross between Battlestar Galactica’s Cylons and Knight Rider’s KITT, it was one of the sleeker-looking VR headsets of the day. And, by all accounts, that was the best thing about it.

11. Glaze3D Graphics Cards – In 1999, the Finnish company Bitboys Oy announced the first two cards using its Glaze3D architecture, with even the less-powerful of the pair promising render speeds that were spectacular by the standards of the day. They weren’t playing leapfrog so much as doing long jumps. The not-so-secret secret behind the Glaze3D family’s amazing performance numbers was that the chips relied heavily on embedded DRAM, bypassing the bottlenecks that came from using external memory.  For two years, the company missed release dates. Of course, during those two years the rest of the industry didn’t sit still.  Bitboys went on to produce processor designs for the mobile graphics market, and ATI acquired the company in 2006.

10. Atari 2700 – Take the insanely popular Atari 2600 gaming system, put it in a new cabinet, add spiffy new controllers, and call it the Atari 2700. The end result should be a license to print money. The cabinet designers skipped the dated 1970s look of the faux-wood panel and went for a then-futuristic sleek, wedge-shaped design with matte and glossy black finishes, topped with a built-in storage container for the controllers at the top. The controllers themselves were innovative for the time, featuring built-in select and reset buttons (providing even less motivation to get off the couch), a touch-sensitive fire button, and a joystick that doubled as a rotating, 270-degree paddle. The killer feature: The controllers were wireless. In quality assurance testing people noticed that the controllers had a broadcast range of 1000 feet. Since the controllers didn’t have unique identifiers beyond “left controller” and “right controller,” playing a game would affect any Atari 2700 unit within that radius. To top it off, the electronics were based on garage-door openers, so interference with other remote-control devices was a possibility. In the end Atari decided that redesigning the system and the controllers would be too expensive, and it scrapped the 2700 project.

9. Secure Digital Music Initiative – In late 2000, the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI) offered a $10,000 prize to any person or group that could, among other things, successfully remove the watermarks on four music files they provided, within a three-week time limit. A team at Princeton led by computer science professor Ed Felten did just that. The SDMI threatened to sue Felten, citing the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), when the group learned that he planned to discuss his research at the 4th International Information Hiding Workshop the following year.

8. Action GameMaster – The portable game system was supposed to not only play its own cartridges but also handle NES, Super NES, and Sega Genesis games (with the help of adapters), as well as CD-ROM games, via another adapter. Contributing to the kitchen-sink approach were a TV tuner add-on and car and AC adapters. The company, which was likely banking on a flood of orders that never came, disappeared soon after.

7. Infinium Phantom – Slated to be, in essence, a PC running the embedded version of Windows XP, which would allow gamers to play PC games–but the primary hook was Phantom’s on-demand system, where subscribers could download any game they wanted over an Internet connection. In 2005 the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) gave notice that it would bring charges against former Infinium CEO Timothy Roberts. The SEC filing several months later revealed that Infinium had lost over $62.7 million in three years, with only $3.5 million going to actual development.

6. Apple Interactive Television Box – In 1993, Apple partnered with British Telecom (now BT) and Belgacom to produce a set-top box to go along with their interactive television services. The Apple Interactive Television Box was a modified 25-MHz Macintosh LC-475, and, rather modestly, allowed users to download and watch content (and fast-forward or rewind, similar to today’s TiVo-style recorders). Future plans included interactive game shows and educational content for children, as well as add-on hardware such as a mouse, a keyboard, and a CD-ROM drive. In 1994, selected households in Britain and Belgium placed the black set-top box sporting an Apple logo on top of their TVs, and trials began a year later in the United States. Apple quickly learned that consumers simply weren’t interested in interactive television. The trials ended, and the Interactive Television Box was shelved.

5. Palm Foleo – On May 30, 2007, Palm announced the Palm Foleo, a $499 Linux-based subnotebook designed to synchronize with a smart phone so that business travelers could, among other things, work on documents and e-mail without cramping their thumbs. Even such notable features as its 2.5-pound weight and its instant-on feature failed to muster more than a collective “Why?” from the digerati. Stuck somewhere between a PDA and a notebook in power and size, it seemed to be only an extra device to carry around, with too much feature overlap.

4. Taligent and Microsoft Cairo – Taligent, a joint venture between Apple and IBM. IBM, having recently parted ways with Microsoft over OS/2, had already started work on a microkernel called WorkplaceOS. Taligent merged the work on Apple Pink (an OO OS concept) and WorkplaceOS, with the intent of releasing a multiplatform operating system named TalOS. While the group did eventually release an object-oriented programming environment named CommonPoint for OS/2 and various flavors of Unix, the actual Taligent operating system never surfaced. The company was absorbed into IBM in 1998. In 1991, Microsoft launched the Cairo project which promised a distributed, object-oriented file system (Object File Store, or OFS) that indexed a computer or network’s file structure and contents automatically. Several versions of Windows NT came and went as Cairo continued development, shifting targets all the while. Eventually the company referred to Cairo as the successor to Windows NT Server, and then as a collection of technologies. Cairo development ended in 1996.

3. Silicon Film EFS-1 – February 1998, a company called Imagek announced its Electronic Film System unit, the EFS-1, to a small group of journalists. The EFS-1 aimed to fulfill the dreams of many professional photographers: In principle, the EFS-1 would act as a replacement for a 35mm film cartridge in any camera, allowing anyone to use their existing, familiar photo equipment to take digital pictures. Silicon Film’s last gasp directly addressed that last point: The EPS10-SF, announced the following year, produced 10-megapixel images while supporting more cameras and providing a 2.5-fps burst rate and an LCD preview screen. And then the company was gone.

2. Project Xanadu – In 1960, Ted Nelson first came up with the term “hypertext,” which he envisioned as something different from what it has come to mean. Hypertext as implemented now is unidirectional; you can link to a document without the document owner ever knowing. If the other party moves or renames the document, the link breaks. Nelson’s hypertext–which he now calls “deep electronic literature,” to avoid confusion–was meant to be bidirectional, so that two linked documents would stay linked, regardless of how they were moved or copied. More to the point, such a setup would allow for side-by-side comparison, version management, and an automatic copyright management system in which an author could set a royalty rate for all or parts of a document; linking would initiate the necessary transactions. In 1967, Nelson came up with a name for his project: Xanadu. The first working code for Xanadu was produced in 1972, and since then the project has largely been marked by near-misses and flirtations with bankruptcy. Project Xanadu isn’t completely vaporware. Nelson released the Xanadu source code in 1999, and XanaduSpace 1.0 released last year.

1. Apple W.A.L.T. and VideoPad – Developed between 1991 and 1993 in conjunction with BellSouth, Apple’s W.A.L.T. (Wizzy Active Lifestyle Telephone) was a tablet that doubled as a PDA; its killer app was the ability to send and receive faxes from the screen. The W.A.L.T. was never released to the general public. Tenacious as ever, Apple offered up the possibility of a new portable videophone/PDA concept at 1995’s MacWorld Expo. The Newton-like VideoPad three-in-one prototype combined a cell phone, PDA, and videophone, and sported an integrated CD-ROM drive. It too failed to pass the prototype stage, however, and Apple would stay away from telephones until 2007.

So what, if anything, can we learn from this list of potential yet unrealized products? Well we can always make our own list of categories, so how about this:

  • Capital is available and we have an idea that will snag some – 7, 8, 10, 11 and 15.
  • Sort of cool but poorly executed – 6, 12 and 13.
  • Too far ahead of it’s time – 1 and 5.
  • Amazing ideas that nobody understands – 2.
  • Programmers love this, consumers don’t care – 4.
  • Just missed the market window – 3.
  • We won’t release until it’s perfect – 14.
  • Self serving crap that nobody wants – 9.

Not much more to say except that Computerworld has the most annoying animated ads I’ve seen and I sincerely wish that the purveyors of that schlock were vaporware. But that’s just me.

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