Nine Technologies Ahead of Their Time

Sometimes you build it, and they end up not coming.

The Tucker Sedan

In 1948, the Tucker sedan introduced a host of technical innovations to the automobile world, including disc brakes, seat belts, fuel injection, and a padded dashboard. But it wasn't enough to make Tucker into the next General Motors; a host of technical and legal problems ensured that only a handful of cars would be built before the company collapsed.

In more recent decades, the tech industry has seen the rise of products and services that are similarly ahead of their time. Some of them represent great ideas that couldn't really be implemented well with contemporary technology; others are brilliant plans that weren't turned into viable businesses by the first person or group to come up with them. All of them flopped, but all of them also influenced the industry. This list should serve as a warning to those who think that being the first to think of something will lead to any easy road to success.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

1977: QUBE

More than 30 years ago, TV viewers in Columbus, Ohio, got first crack at the future of television: QUBE, a new interactive service from Warner Cable. With the cable industry still in its infancy, viewers with a QUBE set-top box had access to 30 channels (ten more than most of its competitors), along with a number of interactive features activated by a special remote control (pictured above). Subscribers could buy pay-per-view movies (a TV first), respond to polling questions and see the results almost instantly, bid on auctions, and even play rudimentary video games.

So why didn't QUBE change television forever? It all came down to the bottom line. The QUBE pilot service cost significantly more to offer than customers would charge, and those costs never came down even as it was rolled out to multiple cities. By 1983, Warner Cable was $875 million in debt, which led to a contentious and ultimately failed joint venture with American Express. Warner Cable's operations eventually were transitioned to a more standard setup in which the viewer could only sit on the couch and passively watch.

(For a detailed history, check out "When Cable Went Qubist" by Ken Freed.)

Picture courtesy of

1987: Digital Audio Tape

It made sense, if you didn't think about it too much: Since analog LPs and 45s were being replaced by the digital CD, which was similar in that it was disk-shaped, why shouldn't analog cassette tapes have a digital replacement as well? Thus, Sony introduced the DAT format, which was expected to be the death knell of the ordinary cassette. It offered a unique combination of digital audio quality and easy recording.

But things didn't quite work out as expected. While DAT was quickly adopted by audio professionals and embraced by those who traded concert bootlegs, it was never really popular among ordinary listeners the way cassette tapes were: DAT recorders remained pricey, and CDs fulfilled most people's digital audio needs. Perhaps the DAT's more interesting legacy is that it prompted one of the first efforts by the music industry to legislate against digital copying: a bill proposed in the U.S. Congress by then-Senator Al Gore would have mandated the use of an early form of DRM to prevent DAT machines from copying copyrighted music. Legislative pressure ended when CBS, the company doing the most lobbying for the move, was bought by Sony, but the format still never took off.

Picture courtesy of Wikipedia

1987: HyperCard

The "H" in HTTP stands for "Hyper", and that echo in the name of this program that came bundled with every Mac starting in the late '80s is meaningful. With HyperCard, you could easily build individual "cards", organized into "stacks", and linked together by clickable buttons; it's hard not to see these as the prototypes of pages and Web sites. The difference was that HyperCard stacks stayed firmly on the user's computer; there was no networking involved. Still, Robert Cailliau, who collaborated with Tim Berners-Lee to create the World Wide Web, had HyperCard experience and clearly knew what to do with it.

HyperCard still enjoyed something of a heyday, and even served as the foundation for a number of popular multimedia programs and games; the French automaker Renault even used HyperCard as the basis for their inventory system. But once the concept made the leap from one computer to the network, HyperCard quickly became outdated. Bill Atkinson, who developed the software, ended up ruefully contemplating what might have been: "I grew up in a box-centric culture at Apple. If I'd grown up in a network-centric culture, like Sun, HyperCard might have been the first Web browser."

Picture courtesy of Wikipedia

1991: Philips CD-I

Sure, CDs were good for storing music -- but they could also do so much more, like provide interactive educational and entertainment content, via your TV set! To meet that vision, Philips released the CD-I console to the world and waited for the customers to line up.

They singularly failed to do so. The CD-I didn't really stack up well against existing game consoles or media players, and sales remained low despite Philips' paying for infomercials in heavy rotation. The CD-I eventually slid into the kiosk market, where it also failed. Much of its functionality eventually showed up not on set-top boxes but in home computers, and, with the advent of larger hard drives, ultimately left the CD altogether.

Picture courtesy of Wikipedia

1991: Gopher

When I was a newly minted college freshman in the fall of 1992, I discovered this wonderful new technology that would allow you to find information on the Internet. Easily browsing from site to site, I was able to do everything from look up information about my class schedule to find answers to my reference questions, all from my own dorm room! The system was called "Gopher," and it was clearly going to change the way the world worked.

Released more or less at the same time as HTTP, the Gopher protocol was another method for organizing and finding documents on the Internet, and for a while it was more popular than the Web as we know it. But the Gopher browser, which offered lists of folders and files that look sort of like an FTP browser window, lacked the visual flair of the Web, and when the University of Minnesota, which had invented the protocol, threatened to start charging for implementations of it, people fled to the Web in droves. As for me, in the spring semester of that freshman year, a friend of mine who lived across the hall in my dorm showed off this program called "Mosaic" he had just downloaded, and I never looked back.

Picture courtesy of the Online Library Learning Center

1993: Apple Newton

Was there any doubt that the Newton would be on this list? It's the quintessential before-its-time piece of technology: its utter commercial failure is undeniable, but its descendants are just as undeniably omnipresent.

The reasons for the Newton's flop are numerous: it was too big, it was too pricey, its handwriting recognition software was spectacularly unreliable, even becoming the subject of a series of Doonesbury comic strips. The Newton's more successful imitators are equally numerous, but the first was the original Palm Pilot, which had the clever idea of making the user learn a simplified version of the alphabet, rather than attempting to understand standard written characters. Still, just about every PDA and smartphone can trace its lineage directly back to the Newton -- including Apple's iPhone, which, like most of its competitors, now accepts input from a keyboard, dispensing with handwriting recognition altogether. Curiously, Newton's handwriting-recognition technology was ultimately ported to Mac OS X, where it's known as "Inkwell." It hasn't really taken off there, either.

Picture courtesy of Wikipedia

1999: LiveJournal

Blogging and social networking are the two trends that have most defined the Internet landscape in the '00s; therefore, you'd think that LiveJournal, which was born just before the turn of the decade and combines blogging and social networking, would have a market capitalization somewhere north of Google's by now. But despite LiveJournal's large and passionate user base, it never quite became one of the giants of the Web 2.0 era.

While it's hard to say why LiveJournal remains sort of an also-ran, it may be a combination of management missteps and a user base that's, well, a little too passionate. Check out the "Controversies and criticisms" section of the site's Wikipedia page for some of the more dramatic blowups. From the perspective of moneymaking, probably the most telling was the incredibly controversial addition of advertising on non-free accounts, a year after management promised not to put advertising on the site.

LiveJournal was purchased in 2005 by Six Apart, the company that makes the MovableType blogging software; two years later, they turned around and sold it to a Russian company, SUP. "Sold to a Russian company" is generally not the outcome that Silicon Valley entrepreneurs dream about.

2003: Danger Hiptop

The Danger Hiptop may not have been the first entry into the smartphone category -- that honor probably goes to the Palm Treo -- but it was certainly one of the slickest of the early contenders. I remember the first time I played with one, in 2005 or so; I was shocked at the quality of the mobile browser. It was briefly even beloved by celebrities, with inescapable mid-'00s gossip fixture Paris Hilton being a famous user.

There isn't any big mystery to the way that innovative products sometimes find themselves leapfrogged by their competitors, and the Hiptop is no longer the innovator that it once was. It had largely fallen off of most people's radar until this month, when it was got a lot of negative publicity as a result of one of its other innovations: it backs up all of your data in the cloud, where it was lost by Microsoft, Danger's new owner.

Picture courtesy of Hack a Day

2003: Friendster

Anyone who had Internet access early in this decade remembers the Great Friending of 2003, when just about everyone was sending out Friendster Friend requests and attempting to see who could amass the biggest list. But then came the question: what, exactly, does one do with this? Friendster's buzz quickly died down, and most of us went on with our lives.

So why does everyone waste huge chunks of time on Facebook, which, superficially at least, looks a lot like Friendster? My theory is that Facebook's greatest innovation was the status update: it gave you a reason to check in with the site regularly, both to update your own status and to check on the status of others. Friendster had no equivalent, at least at first, and it was Facebook that occupied the social networking spot in most of our hearts.

Friendster hasn't gone away, however; in fact, it's hugely popular in Asia, and claims to have more members than any other social networking site. Still, I have to wonder how many of those are like me, who occasionally get an email from Friendster with a reminder about a friend's upcoming birthday and think, "Wait, this still exists?"

(Picture is a screenshot of the author's Friendster profile, which still exists, apparently)

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