9 Technologies That Were Ahead of Their Time

Sometimes you build it, but they don't come. Here's a list of duds with potential, good intentions, and occasionally a legacy.

Early Entries

The tech industry has seen the rise of products and services that are 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.

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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 plus a number of interactive features activated by a special remote control (pictured above). Subscribers could buy pay-per-view movies, participate in polls, bid on auctions, and even play rudimentary video games. Why didn't QUBE change TV forever? Cost, which never came down even as it rolled out to other cities.

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

1987: Digital Audio Tape

Since analog LPs and 45s were being replaced by the digital CD, shouldn't analog cassette tapes also have a digital replacement? Sony's DAT format, positioned to kill the ordinary cassette, offered a unique combination of digital audio quality and easy recording.

DAT was quickly adopted by audio professionals and people who traded concert bootlegs, but never drew ordinary listeners; DAT recorders were pricey, and CDs met most digital audio needs. However, DAT inspired the music industry to push for legislation forcing use of early DRM to stop DAT systems from copying copyrighted music. Neither the bill nor the format 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. HyperCard let you easily build individual "cards" organized into "stacks" and linked by clickable buttons; see the prototypes of pages and Web sites? But HyperCard stacks stayed firmly on the user's Mac. Robert Cailliau, who teamed with Tim Berners-Lee to design the World Wide Web, drew on his HyperCard experience.

Once the concept made the leap from one computer to the network, HyperCard quickly became outdated. Bill Atkinson, who developed the software, ruefully observed: "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-1

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

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.

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. The Newton's more successful imitators are equally numerous, starting with the original Palm Pilot, but nearly every PDA and smartphone traces its lineage to the Newton -- including Apple's iPhone. 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: Live Journal

Blogging and social networking have defined the Internet landscape in the '00s; you'd think that LiveJournal would have a market capitalization somewhere north of Google's by now. Despite its large and passionate user base, it never quite became a giant of the Web 2.0 era.

The answer may be a combination of management missteps and a user base that's a little too passionate. The "Controversies and criticisms" section of the site's Wikipedia page reviews some dramatic blowups, such as advertising on non-free accounts after management promised not to put ads on the site.

LiveJournal was purchased in 2005 by Six Apart, which makes the MovableType blogging software; two years later, it was sold to a Russian company, SUP -- 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. It was briefly even beloved by celebrities, notably inescapable mid-'00s gossip fixture Paris Hilton.

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

Remember the Great Friending of 2003, when everyone sent Friend requests to amass the biggest list? What next? The answer: Facebook's status update, which provides a reason to check the site regularly, update your status and check on others. Friendster remains hugely popular in Asia, where it claims to have more members than any other social networking site.

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

Slideshow courtesy

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