Top 20 Tech Underdogs

16. Microsoft Zune

zune

What it is: Microsoft's line of portable media players, starting with a hard-disk MP3 player in 2006 and currently focused on the new Zune HD.

Underdog to: The audio players made by a Cupertino, California company named after a piece of fruit.

Notable virtues: The new Zune HD has plenty of them-a slick user interface, a solid subscription-music service, HD radio support, and more. It's not a pocket computer or an app platform, but on its own terms, it's neat.

What makes it an underdog: The fact that Zune was from Microsoft made comparisons to the iPod inevitable, and inevitably made the Zune look bad; Zune sales (at least until the HD came out) have been pretty pitiful; a bizarre and embarrassing bug prevented all the 30GB Zunes from working on December 31st of last year. Zunes have always seemed like responses to iPod trends that Apple has already largely moved on from-hard-disk players, then simple flash-based ones, then touch-screen ones that don't run third-party apps. Also, I think the name doesn't help-it reminds me of the easy-to-make-fun-of malt beverage Zima and sounds nerdy rather than cool-the gadget equivalent of being a kid named Poindexter.

Random factoid: The first Zune had the pre-release code name of Argo, which might not have been a bad final moniker.

15. Aldus Altsys Macromedia Adobe FreeHand

What it was: A venerable vector-illustration graphics package.

Underdog to: Adobe Illustrator (and, to a much lesser extent, CorelDraw).

Notable virtues: FreeHand had a reputation for having a much better interface than Illustrator; it also sported features such as multiple-page documents and soph

isticated text handling years before Adobe got around to adding them.

What made it an underdog: Well, any graphics package that competes against something similar from creative-app behemoth Adobe is an underdog almost by definition. FreeHand also faced the challenge of revolving-door ownership: It was originally produced by Altsys, who licensed it to Aldus until that company was bought by Adobe in 1994, whereupon Altsys got it back until it was acquired itself by Macromedia in 1995. Macromedia was bought by Adobe in 2005; it's no shocker that that company's main interest in FreeHand lay in trying to get its users to switch to Illustrator. Like Aldus's PageMaker, FreeHand lives on in old-software limbo: It's still for sale (and still used by loyal fans), but will never get another upgrade.

Random factoid: Just last September, FreeHandinistas founded a group called FreeFreeHand.org. Its goal: to assure a future for FreeHand by convincing Adobe (who the site doesn't mention by name) to upgrade it or open-source it. But if that doesn't work, the group says it would like to revive FreeHand's fortunes through legal action.

14. Powerline (HomePlug) Networking

What it is: A home networking technology that uses your house's electrical wiring to transmit data from room to room.

Underdog to: Wi-Fi and, to a lesser extent, plain old Ethernet via CAT5 cable.

Notable virtues: Exceptionally easy installation; reliable; with products that use the HomePlug AV spec, an impressive maximum theoretical performance of 189Mbps.

What makes it an underdog: You know, I'm not entirely sure. And neither are networking-gear manufacturers -- I've met more of them than I can count who like powerline and can't figure out why consumers don't. Wi-Fi has a hipness that powerline doesn't -- wireless is inherently cooler than wired-and Wi-Fi has the benefit of being a logical technology to build into laptops. (Powerline presumes that the devices that use it are sitting in a fixed location near a power jack.) Also, reviews of HomePlug AV products aren't always glowing.

Random factoid: HomePlug Command & Control, a variant designed for home automation applications, was ratified by the HomePlug Powerline in Alliance in 2007 but seems to pretty much be in limbo, as far as I can tell.

13. Sonic the Hedgehog

sonic
Who he is: The star of an eponymous 1991 Sega videogame -- and the company's corporate spokescritter to this day.

Underdog to: Nintendo's Mario (aka Super Mario, aka Dr. Mario), the much better known videogame star with whom Sonic maintains an apparently friendly rivalry. If Mario is the Mickey Mouse of the gaming world, Sonic is...well, let's say its Mighty Mouse. No, make that its Woody Woodpecker.

Notable virtues: He's really, really fast.

What makes him an underdog: He's associated with Sega, an underdog of a company that was forced to exit the hardware business in 2001 and become a software publisher. Also, he doesn't have the good fortune to have been created, as Mario was, by the greatest videogame developer of all time.

Random factoid: Sonic is most likely the only video game character ever to have a mammalian protein named in his honor.

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