The Top 15 Vaporware Products of All Time

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3. Silicon Film EFS-1

At the end of the Digital Imaging Marketing Association (DIMA) show in February 1998, a company called Imagek announced its Electronic Film System unit, the EFS-1, to a small group of journalists. The EFS-1 aimed to fulfill the dreams of many professional photographers: In principle, the EFS-1 would act as a replacement for a 35mm film cartridge in any camera, allowing anyone to use their existing, familiar photo equipment to take digital pictures.

Despite the considerable engineering challenges that the company faced, Imagek expected to have a working demo unit a few months later, and a sub-$1000 unit on store shelves a few months after that.

Observers greeted the announcement with some skepticism, and to no one's surprise Imagek missed its target dates. However, it did release specs, some of which were admittedly modest: The (e)Film cartridge had a 1.3-megapixel CMOS sensor, able to fit 24 1280-by-1024-resolution uncompressed images in its on-board memory before the user needed to offload them to a computer or a CompactFlash card via the included (e)Port carrier. (The entire hardware and software package was now collectively referred to as the EFS-1.)

Because of the sensor size, the captured image would be only about 35 percent of the camera's full frame. And forget universality for the time being: The EFS-1 worked with just seven Canon and Nikon cameras.

Aside from a name change (to Silicon Film), some Web site updates, and a few sample images, nothing new came out of the company until the 2001 PMA show, when Silicon Film publicly demonstrated the EFS-1, exactly three years after the initial announcement.

Skeptics were less inclined to mutter "vaporware," but the projected June release date passed with no product to be seen. That September, Silicon Film suspended operations when Irvine Sensors, a 51 percent shareholder of Silicon Film, withheld further funding over problems with European environmental standards. Irvine Sensors' press release also obliquely noted "present market circumstances," which may have been a polite way of referring to the falling prices and increasing quality of digital cameras, including SLRs.

Silicon Film's last gasp directly addressed that last point: The EPS10-SF, announced the following year, produced 10-megapixel images while supporting more cameras and providing a 2.5-fps burst rate and an LCD preview screen. And then the company was gone.

2. Project Xanadu

In 1960, Ted Nelson first came up with the term "hypertext," which he envisioned as something different from what it has come to mean.

Hypertext as implemented now is unidirectional; you can link to a document without the document owner ever knowing. If the other party moves or renames the document, the link breaks. Nelson's hypertext--which he now calls "deep electronic literature," to avoid confusion--was meant to be bidirectional, so that two linked documents would stay linked, regardless of how they were moved or copied. More to the point, such a setup would allow for side-by-side comparison, version management, and an automatic copyright management system in which an author could set a royalty rate for all or parts of a document; linking would initiate the necessary transactions. In 1967, Nelson came up with a name for his project: Xanadu.

The first working code for Xanadu was produced in 1972, and since then the project has largely been marked by near-misses and flirtations with bankruptcy. It is still remarkable for a number of reasons, however.

First, of course, is Nelson's tenacity: He and his shifting teams haven't stopped working on Xanadu for nearly fifty years, making it one of the few existing computing projects to span longer than the entire history of personal computers and computer networking.

Second is that, even with the advent and popularization of hypertext as we know it, especially on the Web, Nelson's ambitious vision hasn't wavered. (He says the Web as it is "trivializes our original hypertext model.") Third is that, even after all this time, with his undeniable influence on the way we work and play today, he is still, as he puts it, "not a tekkie."

It's also worth noting that Project Xanadu isn't completely vaporware. Nelson released the Xanadu source code in 1999, and XanaduSpace 1.0 released last year.

1. Apple W.A.L.T. and VideoPad

Image courtesy of Jim Abeles
Before there was an iPhone--in fact, before there was an "i" anything--Apple attempted two ventures into "portable" communications. Developed between 1991 and 1993 in conjunction with BellSouth, Apple's W.A.L.T. (Wizzy Active Lifestyle Telephone, easily the worst name the company has ever come up with) was a tablet that doubled as a PDA; its killer app was the ability to send and receive faxes from the screen. The W.A.L.T. was never released to the general public.

Tenacious as ever, Apple offered up the possibility of a new portable videophone/PDA concept at 1995's MacWorld Expo. The Newton-like VideoPad three-in-one prototype combined a cell phone, PDA, and videophone, and (get this) sported an integrated CD-ROM drive. While the idea of holding a phone with parts of a CD-ROM unit sticking out of the sides was a little questionable, it was more ambitious than the W.A.L.T. It too failed to pass the prototype stage, however, and Apple would stay away from telephones until 2007. Of course, we all know what happened then.

See the next page for a few honorable mentions (including Apple's Copland OS).

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