While it’s a fact that some lame-o ideas flat-out just won’t die, no matter how long in the tooth they are – VHS tapes, dial-up Internet and DRM, anyone? – the inverse is also true. Sometimes, truly groundbreaking ideas pop onto the scene long before the mainstream is ready to embrace it. Rather than praising the success stories, this article takes a look at the lesser known forefathers that made best sellers like the iPad and Hulu Plus possible. Grab a seat and raise a toast to these technologies born before their time; without them, modern life wouldn’t be as comfy and convenient as we know it.
Image credit: edibleapple.com
Let’s get started with the 800 lb. gorilla in the room: tablet computers. Contrary to what Apple would have consumers and the worldwide courts believe, tablets didn’t begin with the iPad. The concept has been around in pop culture for a long, long time – in fact, Samsung recently pointed to the appearance of a tablet in 2001: A Space Oddysey when Apple tried slapping the Galaxy Tab with an injunction request in the U.S. While it’s true that the iPad thrust tablets into the limelight, the Apple portable wouldn’t have even been created without the legion of unsuccessful tablets that came before it.
Plenty of people – including the group mind at Wikipedia – consider the Microsoft Tablet PCs that popped up in the early 1990s as the father of the tablet. Pfah! Tablet-like computers have been around much longer than that. As our evil twins at MacLife.com point out in their excellent “5 Tablet Blasts From the Past” article, Samsung’s GRiDpad popped up in 1989, and Apple itself failed with the Newton MessagePad before the iPad and the Apple Graphics Tablet (which interfered with radio signals and raised the FCC’s hackles) way back in 1979. Admittedly, the Graphics Tablet and the early 1980s Pencept tablets needed to be hooked up to a separate computer in order to work, but hey, it still kinda counts. Every tablet failed in varying degrees of spectacularness, however, until Steve Jobs hypnotized the world with the iPad in 2010.
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PCs that boot instantly are the holy grail of computing. Even if you think tablets are more of a novelty than a useful piece of hardware, you can’t deny that their speedy boot times are awesome. News flash: fast boots have been around a lot longer than iPad 2 and ASRock, n00bcakes. In fact, the oddly innovative HP Omnibook 300 sported even faster boot times than Apple’s flagship tablet way back in 1993.
How’d they do it? By keeping nearly everything – including Word, Excel, and the entire Windows 3.1 operating system – off of the hard drive and running it from ROM memory, instead. The nifty trick created a boot time that was really, truly damned near instantaneous. The 2.9 lb. portable PC packed in a couple of other interesting features, too; it contained a mouse that popped out of the notebook’s casing and, in a pinch, it could run on 4 AA batteries. Unfortunately, with a starting price of just a hair under $2000, the Omnibook 300 never really took off.
These days, it’s difficult to remember a time without batteries. Sometimes, it seems like everything but the kitchen sink requires a two or ten of the expensive little electricity tubes in order to run. Thomas Edison was in the battery business way back in 1900, and Alessandro Volta invented the first real battery in 1800. But even though batteries seem to have caught on right away, some controversial archaeological evidence suggests that the first battery may have been created over 2,000 years ago in Mesopotamia.
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Archaeologists have found a number of “Baghdad batteries” near – duh – Baghdad, Iraq. The terracotta jars have a hollow copper cylinder inside, which houses an iron rod in its center. A stopper at the top of the jar keeps the iron rod from contacting the copper, but it isn’t watertight; the copper tube can fill with liquid. This odd design led an archaeologist named Wilhelm Koenig to speculate in the 1940 that the ancient Mesopotamians used to fill the jars with lemon or grape juice to create an electrochemical reaction and electroplate gold on to silver objects.
After World War II, an American named William Gray whipped up some replicas and filled them with grape juice. Lo and behold, the Baghdad battery responded by spitting out 2 volts of energy. Other archaeologists dispute the theory and argue that the Baghdad batteries aren’t batteries at all, but were instead used to hold scrolls. We’re not scientists, but the idea of ancient Mesopotamians screwing around with electricity and rocking gold plated jewelry is just too juicy to give up on, so we’ll toss our hat in Koenig’s ring.
Remember the last time you rushed out to your local music store to pick up a hot new cassette tape by one of your favorite artists? Yeah, us either. The digital revolution has taken the music world by storm, leading to the meteoric rise of iTunes, Pandora, and the lawsuit-churning arm of the RIAA. Before that, the 1990s were ruled by gargantuan CD sales. None of it would have been possible without James Russell, who created the first digital-to-optical playback device way back in 1970 – and was promptly ignored by music companies.
Russell’s primitive CDs were photosensitive platters encoded with one micron-wide “bits” of binary data, which were read by a laser and converted into audible sounds by a computer. Russell and Battelle, his employer, began shopping the technology around to potential licensees in 1974, including recording industry giants Sony and Philips. They didn’t bite, but in 1979, the two companies began internal development of digital audio discs. Sounds familiar, eh? A little too familiar: in 1988, Optical Recordings Co. – which held the rights to Russell’s patents – received a $30 million infringement settlement from Sony and Philips. Unfortunately, Russell never saw a dime, but music lovers around the world still owe him their gratitude.
Image credit: The Seattle Times
The face of suck. Image credit: garrickvanburen.com
What, two articles that talk about CueCat in the span of a month? Yep. That’s how crappy it was. Those QR codes popping up in ads, newspapers, magazines and soda cans owe a big debt of gratitude to that creepy little plastic white Cat. Not because it paved the way for QR codes; oh no, that technology was around before CueCat, even if it didn’t become popular until recently. QR codes owe CueCat some thanks because CueCat showed everyone how not to do scannable bar codes.
Start with the hardware necessary to scan the codes; whereas anybody with a smartphone can now kickstart a QR code, accessing CueCat codes could only be done with that goofy cat-shaped device manufactured by Digital Convergence. The company did a decent job of getting the units out to the public, but unfortunately, they did an indecent job of collecting personal data from users; they kept track of consumers by utilizing the unique serial identifier tied to each device and the log-in data needed to use it.
When tech-savvy CueCat users began blocking the data CueCat transmitted to Digital Convergence, the company responded by pointing to its user agreement, which stated the CueCat readers were simply on loan rather than the property of the end user – giving users no right to “declaw” the CueCat. People just stopped using them, instead. Smooth move, Digital Convergence. It didn’t help that the CueCats themselves felt cheap and were a pain in the neck to use.
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The mouse? Who the heck can picture computing without that old standby? Aside, um, from keyboard shortcut junkies and Apple users hooked on the whole Gestures thing, of course. But believe it or not, the mouse wasn’t accepted as an integral part of the PC experience when it was created way back in the mid sixties.
Douglas Engelbart and Bill English of the Stanford Research Institute created the first mouse, and it was literally a lumbering monstrosity compared to today’s sleek laser-sporting peripherals; it was built out of a large brick of wood, with two perpendicular metal gear wheels inside and a small button in its upper-right corner. Why the upper-right corner? Who knows? Maybe Engelbart had a strong pinky.
The duo dubbed the device “mouse” thanks to the tail-like cord that snaked out of the bottom of the peripheral to attach to a computer. Telefunken introduced a version that used a ball, rather than perpendicular gears, shortly thereafter and shipped a mouse with every computer it sold, but the mouse didn’t hit the mainstream until 1984. That’s when the Apple Macintosh hit the mainstream and thrust the Lisa Mouse into the limelight. Even then, there were doubters: at the time, John Dvorak said "There is no evidence that people want to use these things.”
As download speeds get faster and cable bills skyrocket, more and more people are turning to streaming services like Hulu Plus, Netflix and Apple TV to fill their video viewing needs. Each of the services has had its fair share of hiccups, to be sure – what the hell are you doing these days, Netflix? – but they’ve all seen relatively decent success, unlike some of their interactive TV forefathers.
First up is Qube, a service that Warner Communications rolled out in the Columbus, Ohio area in 1977. Qube had a lot of things going for it; it offered a ton of channels for the time period, with 30 in total; those 30 channels were split between 10 normal channels, 10 on-demand pay-per-view movies and events – a cable first – and 10 channels that showed off the platforms interactive abilities, two of which would go on to become MTV and Nickelodeon. Watchers could, for example, answer surveys and polls to provide instantaneous feedback while watching a presidential debate.
Qube was incredibly well received and soon expanded to several other cities, but it was also incredibly expensive to implement and run. High operating costs caused Qube’s demise and almost took Warner Cable down with it. Check out this link for a full history of the interesting experiment.
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Then came Akimbo. Introduced in 2004, Akimbo offered the same basic service that Hulu does today: streaming, on-demand television. It required a $230 set-top box and a broadband connection; those were the first two strikes against it in the world of 2004. The third strike and most deadly strike was a lack of engaging content. Netflix and Hulu still struggle with content providers worried about devaluing their content; in 2004, the traditional music industry was in the midst of being demolished by the digital music revolution and television producers were worried Akimbo would bring the same troubles to their neck of the woods.
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While Akimbo managed to snag a deal with Turner Broadcasting to bring CNN and Cartoon Network shows to the service, and it also offered a selection of educational content by A&E, the History Channel and National Geographic, most of the shows available were foreign or only of interest to ultra-niche groups, such as yachters or billiards fans. Users also had to pony up a $10/month subscription fee, and “premium content” cost extra while being simultaneously chocked full of ads. As innovative as streaming video was at the time, those limitations and price concerns kept Akimbo from ever really taking off. The company shut down the service in 2007 and closed its doors in 2008.
Thanks to tablets, netbooks aren’t selling at quite the same “Get ‘em while they’re hot” pace of a few years back. While the little laptop’s time in the limelight may have been brief, it came on the shoulders of a line of spectacular failures.
The rumored yet never released Palm Foleo. Image source: Engadget
Remember that failed Newton tablet that we mentioned earlier? The Apple eMate 300 netbook ran the same Apple Newton OS. As if that wasn’t a bad enough omen, the eMate 300 was the portable computer of choice for Batgirl in the craptastic “Batman & Robin” movie. Apple pulled the plug on the entire Newton line in 1997, when the eMate 300 was barely a year old. On the other hand, Psion’s diminutive netBook is remarkable not because it failed so hard in the early 2000s – which it did – but because it started slinging cease-and-desist letters to manufacturers, suppliers and even enthusiast websites that used the term “netbook” when it became popular in 2008. The US Patent Office put a halt to that pretty quickly, a surprising move considering the USPTO’s track record.
Let’s end this shindig on an ironic note: one of the most spectacular netbook failures never even came to market and serves as a highlight of the now-defunct Palm’s stunningly poor business sense. Palm announced the Palm Foleo, a Linux-based subnotebook computer, in May 2007. Palm envisioned it as being the perfect companion device for smartphones, and like the Omnibook 300, it was supposed to sport an instant boot feature. Unfortunately, Palm was already in the first revolutions of its death-spiral down the toilet drain, and the Foleo was canceled a scant three months after its announcement as part of the company’s decision to focus on smartphones and PDAs. The irony? The netbook craze took off just after the death of the Foleo. If the PC had made it to market, it would’ve been the first netbook available during the feeding frenzy – and possibly made Palm oodles of money. Oh, well.
So, what did we bungle? What did we forget? Which little-used gadget is going to be the next technology to hit it big? Let us know in the comments!