Top 20 Tech Underdogs
12. Radio Shack TRS-80 Model I
Under dog to: Mostly Apple's vastly more glamorous Apple II. By comparison, the TRS-80 was the poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks. (Maybe Radio Shack should have worn its downmarket reputation as a badge of honor and done "I'm a TRS-80? TV commercials.)
Notable virtues: Radio Shack's thousands of mall stores made it the most widely-marketed computer of its era; spawned an impressive ecosystem of third-party software and hardware; became the subject of the first platform-specific computer magazines.
What made it an underdog: The Model I had a low-resolution black-and-white graphics and no sound; it was sheathed in a gray plastic case that looked clunky even in the 1970s; it had an embarrassing hardware defect known as keybounce. And it was marketed by Radio Shack, a company that was (and is) square to its core. Eventually, it was saddled by the derisive nickname "Trash-80," which makes me gnash my teeth to this day.
Random factoid: The world of the TRS-80 is the subject of Priming the Pump, a nifty recent book.
What it is: A connectivity standard originally developed by Apple in the 1990s and later adopted as an industry standard under the moniker IEEE 1394.
Notable virtues: FireWire 400's data transfer speed (400-Mbps) is theoretically slower than USB 2.0's 400-Mbps, but FireWire devices are often faster in the real world; FireWire 800 is faster still. It's excellent for digital video, too. And I know people who swear by FireWire hard drives.
What makes it an underdog: FireWire was originally a costlier technology to implement than USB, so fewer PC manufacturers included it, giving peripheral manufacturers less incentive to support it. Result: Vicious circle of middling industry support. FireWire 800 never caught on in the PC domain at all. (There's probably a good reason why it uses a different connector than FireWire-400, but I don't know what it is.) Branding confusion probably didn't help, either -- FireWire is a cool name, but IEEE 1394 is positively yawn-inducing, and Sony insisted on calling its version of the technology by still another name, i.Link.
Random factoid: According to Wikipedia, the Space Shuttle uses FireWire 800 "to monitor debris (foam, ice) which may hit the vehicle during launch."
10. Reverse Polish Notation
What it is: A method of arithmetic notation which places the operator after the numbers it affects -- such as "5 3 +". Achieved brief mainstream success in HP's desktop and pocket calculators of the 1970s and 1980s .
Underdog to: Infix notation -- what we all use even though we don't know what it's called -- which puts the operator in between the numbers ("5 + 3?).
Notable virtues: Once you understand RPN it's easy to parse and doesn't require parentheses; useful in programming languages and other computer science applications.
What makes it an underdog: Its unfamiliarity, basically; as with the Dvorak keyboard (see below), it doesn't matter if an idea is superior if it's not the one that's taught in schools, used in existing equipment, and otherwise pervasive.
Random factoid: Until I wrote this article, I'd always assumed that RPN was invented in Poland, but it was an Australian named Charles Hamblin who proposed it in the late 1950s. The "reverse Polish" means that it's the opposite of the prefix notation devised by Poland's Jan Lukasiewicz circa 1920.
9. The Dvorak keyboard
What it is: An alternative keyboard layout, patented by August Dvorak and Wiliam Dealy in 1936; no relation to composer Antonin Dvorak or venerable tech pundit John C. Dvorak.
Notable virtues: Dvorak was designed to be less tiring than QWERTY, and the people who like Dvorak swear by it; adopting it puts you in the company of celebrities such as Piers Anthony.
What makes it an underdog: QWERTY may stink, but it's the layout that nearly every device uses, and the one nearly everyone learns. And while today's operating systems support the DVORAK layout, you need to buy a special keyboard or pry off your PC's keys and rearrange them. There are even those who'll go so far as to unlock their iPhones to give them a Dvorak keyboard. In short, you need to work really hard to become a Dvorak user.
Random factoid: Lilian Malt's Dvorak rival the Maltron keyboard is the underdog of underdog keyboard layouts.
What it is: The venerable word processor, created by Alan Ashton and Brian Bastian, that was the industry leader in the mid- to late 1980s and early 1990s.
Underdog to: It started out as an obscure upstart in the WordStar era, but for many years it's played underdog to Microsoft Word.
Notable virtues: Version 5.1 was one of the single greatest versions of any application ever; still beloved by many for Reveal Codes and other features which provide precise control over a document's look and feel; still widely used by government agencies and law firms (the FTC's release on its new guidelines for bloggers makes reference to a document in WordPerfect's WPD format). For many years, WordPerfect was a lower-cost alternative to Microsoft Office, but Microsoft's cheapie Office Home and Student Edition seems to be a direct response to WordPerfect's budget pricing.
What makes it an underdog: Once a dominant product in a category loses its dominance, it's by definition an underdog. WordPerfect spent most of the 1990s suffering from ill-fated decisions by its owners: it was slow to hop on the Windows bandwagon, and slow to evolve from a standalone product into a component of a suite. Being sold twice in two years (first to Novell, then to Corel) didn't help, either -- especially since Microsoft was busy tying the bundling of Word on new PCs to sales of Windows.
Random factoid: In 2008, WordPerfect cofounder Bastian gave $1 million to fight California's anti-gay marriage Proposition 8 while his cofounder Ashton gave $1 million to support it.
7. Apple Macintosh
Underdog to: The PC, in all its guises over the past quarter-century, from the IBM PC to "PC compatibles" to Windows 7 machines.
Notable virtues: The first popular computer with a graphical interface and a mouse; exceptional industrial design; often early to adopt new technologies such as Wi-Fi; has usually sported an operating system superior to whatever Microsoft offered at the time.
What makes it an underdog: Well, the Mac's real period of underdoghood was in the late 1990s, when Apple was in dire straits and its market share seemed destined to dwindle to 0%. Even then, there were Mac fans who didn't abandon the platform. Today, you could argue that the Mac is a small dog, but one that's in robust good health. (Your average Mac fan has an aura of superiority, not one of fear and persecution.) But any top-notch product that's spent 25 years being dramatically outsold by its principal is an underdog in my book.
Random factoid: During the brief period in the mid-1990s that Apple Computer licensed other companies to make Mac-compatible computers, systems from companies such as Power Computing were under-underdogs, destined to stand in the shadow both of Apple's own machines and of the Windows PCs whose sales dwarfed those of any Mac.