Revolutionary Tech Failures
Over the past decades a number of technologies have come along that are considered to be revolutionary, both in the adoption by the public and the effect on the lives of users. Broadcast radio was considered to be revolutionary because it provided people with instant access to news and weather information which helps keep people safe. DVD players were considered to be revolutionary because the amount of content available on DVD so vastly surpassed what was available on VHS. Before DVD’s hardly anybody ever owned an entire season of a television series available for viewing at anytime. Even VCR’s before were considered to be revolutionary because they put people in charge of their TV viewing.
For every technology that changed the lives of users there are a few revolutionary flops. These technologies were developed from well intentioned ideas and hyped but didn’t find any acceptance in the market.
Network Computer (NC)
In the mid 1990’s at the start of the rise of the dot com boom, Sun Microsystems and Oracle announced the Network Computer. In a time when a decent quality would run over two thousand dollars, the NC was a computer designed to be less expensive and easier to use. The NC had no technology from Intel or Microsoft which many at the time thought to be colluding to keep the price of PC’s high. NC’s had no disk drives software was distributed through the Internet and stored on flash memory.
The NC died a very quick death after being announced. Sun Microsystems and Oracle simply had no experience marketing to consumers. Oracle and Sun being companies that catered to the corporate market didn’t have any way to sell the Network computer to the corporate world or outside of it.
The cousin to the Network Computer which also started in the days when the dot com bubble was inflating was the Internet Appliance. There were a number of devices classified as Internet appliances, inexpensive devices which allowed people to use the web and e-mail without the complexity of a PC. The most well known of the Internet appliances was the WebTV which had a simple web browser and e-mail client in a box that used a television set as a monitor. The Internet connection was a dial-up account from WebTV Networks. One of the problems with WebTV was that the hardware was a closed system which means upgrading hardware meant buying another WebTV box. Users who bought the first generation WebTV terminal were stuck with a 28.8 kbps modem until they bought a whole new box. Anybody wanting to make the switch to broadband service couldn’t do it with a WebTV box.
With the rise of rich media on web pages in the early 2000’s (such as flash animation) which requires a computer came the decline of the WebTV. When WebTV first hit the market the cost of a decently powerful PC was around two thousand dollars. As the prices of PC’s have come down and the performance has increased there is almost no need for alternative devices in order to access the Internet. In the past few years using the Internet is more than just surfing web pages and e-mailing. Applications such as instant messaging and downloading music require computers. Internet appliances had their place a decade ago but have become irrelevant.
The Segway Scooter
Promoted by inventor Dean Kamen the Segway Scooter codenamed the Ginger as the most revolutionary thing to happen in urban transportation since the automobile. What Kamen unveiled at the end of 2001 was actually a rechargeable electric scooter that the rider stands on and leans forward or back to go forward or reverse. Pitched at urbanites who live near to where they work, the segway is designed to relieve urban traffic congestion. There were promises of transportation utopia by getting single people out of cars and onto scooters.
No sooner that the Segway came to the market, cities started banning them. Many state concerns about pedestrian safety. While municipal bans doesn’t help the Segway, the price tag is helping to kill it. Buying a Segway requires spending at least $4000.00, for just a tenth of that price one can a very nice bicycle.
Somewhere in the late 1990’s somebody thought it would be a good idea to create a device with a display screen that people would use to read their books on. Electronic Book readers would store a hundred of books bought online as electronic files. E-books were supposed to provide avid readers an easy way of keeping several books in one place ready to be read. Publishers would benefit from not having to take a loss on printing books that ended up not selling.
Firstly there were many competing e-book readers that came on the market and without a common standard there was confusion even among the tech savvy. Many avid readers felt that they weren’t ready to read from an electronic device and many stated that they preferred the feel of paper books in their hands. Ultimately it was book stores that had the most to lose if people could buy books online instantly.
The idea of Internet service provide by a municipal government has it’s origins in the small towns with satellite college campuses in the Southern United States. The towns were small and remote enough that the costs that would have to paid the mainstream telcos and cable companies to bring broadband service was too high and there would not be enough subscribers to justify offering service. Town councils ended up becoming Internet providers with the colleges and universities defraying the cost of bringing high speed Internet to town. By using WiFi consumers share some of the cost by having to buy WiFi cards for their own computers. The town councils only had to buy high powered WiFi transceivers.
What was once a concept conceived and implemented to bring high speed Internet access to college students that need it was embraced by city halls in the largest cities that have the best broadband access in North America. Cities that have WiMax and fixed point wireless in addition to cable and DSL, also have city hall in the Internet access business. It’s not hard to imagine how hard it is for a company that offers broadband using one of these emerging technologies having to compete against the municipal government that they pay taxes to.
For users of municipal WiFi networks the dream of free Internet access provided by city hall doesn’t match reality. Connections to Municipal WiFi networks may work well at the coffee shop downtown, but results that people get using their home PC’s are much more disappointing. This is because WiFi was designed for creating small area networks not as a broadband delivery technology. Even though the transceivers that are usually mounted on street lights and power poles are high powered, if a building is in the way the signal is blocked.
Supporters of Municipal WiFi make the argument that broadband access should be considered to be an essential municipal utility like water and sewer service. Access to clean water and sewer service are essential to sustain health and life. High speed Internet service on the other hand is a discretionary service like a wireline or cell phone or cable TV. It’s hard to imagine life without it but not necessary.