The new millennium was born amid an Internet bubble that soon burst, not a good omen for the technology industry. The sector rallied, however, and continued to produce a remarkable run of new gadgets.
But it had more than its share of flops, as well. Here are the 10 biggest debacles of the decade:
Aibo. About the size of a Chihuahua but a lot less annoying, Sony’s robotic dog was much beloved by some, but not enough. Sony filled the pets with personality through software that also gave owners the joy of raising a dog from puppyhood, sans the messy newspapers. The company continued to add features during the dog’s seven-year life span. Late models could sing, recognize faces and voices, and speak 1,000 words. The dog could even blog by posting photos from its built-in camera. But the price of about $2,000 discouraged a mass market for the herky-jerky pets. Sony discontinued Aibo in 2006 amid aggressive belt-tightening.
Audrey. The dot-com bubble had just burst when this cutesy Internet appliance from 3Com hit the market in 2000. The computer did what it was supposed to, which was access the Web, E-mail, and other Internet services. But Audrey didn’t do it any better than a mainstream PC and cost nearly as much at $500. The manufacturer hoped Audrey would launch an entire line of similar dedicated devices for different rooms of the house. She didn’t. But the idea won’t go away as PC companies release new touch-screen PCs aimed at the kitchen.
CueCat. This little feline launched as the missing link between print publications and the Web. The idea was that readers would scan a special code on the page and not have to type in a URL to find related information on the Web. But using the scanner, leashed to a PC, was even more awkward, and the CueCat soon died. Some users also had worried about privacy since each cat had a unique serial number. Millions of the scanners were later sold at auction; they can be readily found as cheap bar-code readers.
HD DVD. Backed by Toshiba and friends, HD DVD lost a battle that ran most of the decade to be the format for high-definition video disks. Sony and its movie studio pushed Blu-ray in an echo of the fight over Betamax and VHS tape formats, except that Sony lost that one. HD DVD actually had the early lead over Blu-ray, but movie studios eventually sided with the Sony group. Blu-ray is selling more players this holiday season (some can be bought for $100 or less). But the nasty format fight cost high-def disks crucial time in trying to be the successor to DVD, and Blu-ray faces growing competition from Internet downloads.
MSN Direct. Piggybacking on FM radio signals, Microsoft hoped it had the next big delivery system for delivering data to portable devices. The service broadcasts weather, traffic, and other data to clocks, display screens, and GPS navigators. Microsoft founder Bill Gates seemed particularly fond of watches that received the signals. Alas, cellphones and their networks offered stronger signals, wider coverage, and more flexibility. The MSN Direct data continues to broadcast, but the last watches were sold in 2008, and Microsoft recently announced the service would shut down at the end of 2011.
N-Gage. One of the more awkward attempts to combine devices, Nokia’s marriage of cellphone and game player didn’t work for either. For one, buttons that were arranged to enable phone dialing got in the way of gaming. But using it as a phone was particularly ludicrous with a speaker on the side that forced callers to hold the N-Gage sideways—like holding a taco to the ear, critics said. The game selection wasn’t great, either. So it was surprising that Nokia revived the N-Gage name for a service that offered games and related services to a number of its handsets. That idea didn’t fly, either. Nokia has announced the service will end next year and, we hope, bury the snake-bit N-Gage name.
Rokr E1. The marriage of music and cellphone seemed natural. So there was much anticipation when Apple, maker of the almighty iPod, was working with Motorola on the first phone with iTunes software. But the software was awkward to use on the phone, storage was limited by cost, and the combination bombed. Motorola also complained that Apple introduced the phone at the same time as the iPod Nano. In addition, maybe Apple had gotten the wireless bug and was thinking of something different. In fact, the company did a wee bit better on its own with the iPhone.
DVD-Audio. It seems nobody with dreams of a high-definition media can get along. While disk makers fought over the successor to DVD video, the same players fought over the successor to audio CDs. In this case, though, neither DVD-Audio or Super Audio CD won; instead, audio disks lost ground to Internet downloads, both legal and illegal. Still, audiophiles swear by the added channels and fidelity of the high-def formats. Players can still be found, and new releases trickle out. Maybe they’ll survive in niche markets, but nobody forecasts them going mainstream.
Ultra-Mobile PC. Imagine a computer as small as a paperback but trying to run Windows and other software that’s designed for today’s huge monitors. Sound like a nightmare? It was to the few manufacturers who bothered to try. The computers were too small to be practical and too large for a pocket. Their nascent market was smothered by bigger, more practical, and cheaper netbooks. Even today’s smartphones, with their limited Web browsing, do a better job than do the UMPCs. Only a few targeted applications in the business world are keeping the little computers on life support.
Vista. After years in development, Vista tried to do offer something that Windows had never managed—a safe, secure computing environment. The software instead was criticized for being bloated, buggy, and unfriendly to old hardware. It even beat out Windows Me, an earlier debacle, but one that could be avoided by most users. Vista, on the other hand, came installed on all new consumer PCs. That helped win the system some market share (and consumer resentment). Businesses had more choice and avoided Vista. Microsoft appears to have redeemed itself with the recent release of Windows 7, which cleans up many of Vista’s problems and adds well-received features.
[Dispelling myths about Windows 7.]