The Hall of Stupid High-Tech Products
The Apple III
The computer that needed a nosebleed to work
The Apple III, introduced in 1980, was designated as the successor to Apple’s wildly successful Apple II system. It had a nice keyboard, a powerful operating system (SOS) that recognized subdirectories and supported installable device drivers (something the PC would not have until the release of DOS 2.0) and an Apple II emulation mode that allowed you to run many Apple II titles. The only trouble with the system is its memory chips tended to come loose from the motherboard. The solution? Apple released a service bulletin that advised you to pick the unit up and drop it from a height of two inches! I actually performed this operation for an irate customer and will never forget the expression on their face. (The computer worked afterwards, though.)
The Macintosh Portable
While not very portable, it was useful for securely anchoring boats
Introduced in 1989 and the “brainchild” of Apple engineering head Jean Louis Gasse. No one bought it. Powered by a lead acid battery (like the one your car), it weighed 16 pounds. (Nominally. By the time you included all the things you actually needed to move around with it, you were pushing 20). It cost about $7K fully loaded. Holy Osborne, Jean Louis! You can read more about Jean Louis in “In Search of Stupidity.”
The Apple Newton Message Pad
With sand biting de ignition interface
The brainchild of Pepsi salesman and Apple CEO John Sculley, the Newton might have been computing’s Palm Pilot. Unfortunately, Sculley, who didn’t know any better, allowed the Newton to incorporate a hand writing recognition system any honest developer could have told him was doomed to fail. (Think about it. Can YOU even read your own handwriting? Never mind other people?) Palm came along a few years later and did this right. Ironically, Palm OS was developed on a Macintosh platform.
IBM PC Junior
with infamous chiclet keyboard
Since you couldn’t type with it, the system’s lack of a telepathic interface proved a severe handicap.
Softram from Syncronys
The Jerry Seinfeld of Software. It did nothing
Syncronys sold over 700K units of this “ram doubling” package for $29.95. All the product did was tweak a configuration setting in Win 3.X, a change a user could accomplish manually in about thirty seconds. After this discovery, the company “recategorized” Softram as “placeboware.” The FTC declined to prosecute anyone for fraud under the theory that the difference between a computer and a car salesman is that a car salesman knows when he’s lying.
Otherwise known as Ed Esber’s Folly
The product that helped destroy one of the largest software firms of the 80s. You can read the tale of this all-time software turkey in In Search of Stupidity: Over 20 Years of High Tech Marketing Disasters.
The Osborne Executive
The computer that destroyed Osborne Computer Corporation
This was by no means a bad system, but its launch was a disaster for one of the fastest growing computer companies of the early 80s. Announced months before availability, news of the Osborne Executive brought sales of the Osborne One to a screeching halt and killed a $100M company. Compounding the problem were reports that the Executive was going to be an IBM PC compatible (it wasn’t; it was a CPM box), an impression Adam Osborne helped fuel. The complete story of the Executive can be read in John Dvorak’s Hypergrowth: The Rise and Fall of the Osborne Computer Corporation. Out of print, but used copies are available. Recommended reading.
The Worst Computer Game of All Time
The game that destroyed the American game console industry
(or at least the early 80s version of it)
When Atari published this all-time turkey in 1982, they sold a million of them! Unfortunately, they manufactured six million cartridges (at least). The game was so awful it dragged Coleco and Mattel into the same landfill pit they threw all the unsold/returned ET cartridges. The only thing worse than this game is the ride at Universal Studios, which features hordes of singing polystyrene ET relatives urging us to “phone home.” After I took my daughter through this dud of a ride she wanted to GO home! You can read more about ET in In Search of Stupidity: Over 20 Years of High-Tech Marketing Disasters.
The computer that cost Texas Instruments $500M
The TI-99/4A, built around Texas Instrument’s own 16 bit processor, should have been a success. It supported color, had advanced technology such as built-in sprites and TI was the co-inventor of the microprocessor along with Intel. Unfortunately, TI launched the system to the accompaniment of what may have been the most inept marketing campaign ever seen for a “home computer.” TI then compounded its problems by engaging in a disastrous price war it had no hope of winning with computer maker Commodore. You can read more about the TI-99/4A in In Search of Stupidity: Over 20 Years of High-Tech Marketing Disasters.
The Coleco Adam
The computer that broke the Cabbage Patch Kid’s hearts
The Adam was the brainchild of toymaker Coleco, which hit a financial home run in the 80s with the Cabbage Patch Kids and the Colecovision game console system. The Adam was a fascinating system on paper; an 8-bit computer for the home that used the business-oriented CP/M operating system. The Adam was a seeming bargain, with Basic, color, a tape drive (for loading programs) and even a printer for only about $600. Alas, the computer was very late to market and had serious quality control problems when it shipped. The Adam ended up wrecking Coleco’s finances and the company exited high-tech for good. You can read more about the Adam in In Search of Stupidity: Over 20 Years of High-Tech Marketing Disasters.
The PC XT 286
Short computers got no reason to live
By 1984, IBM owned about 90% of what we today call the “desktop” market for personal computers. Today, well, it doesn’t and the XT 286 helped contribute to this current state of affairs. This system was perhaps IBM’s funniest flop, an AT motherboard shoehorned into a PC XT case. Unfortunately, you couldn’t fit any of the AT’s expansion cards into this gobbler of a system; they were too high! IBM said this was a deliberate design decision, but we have talked to two people who worked in Boca at the time and they swear that no one at IBM realized this until after the units were shipping. The XT 286 quickly became landfill bait. You can read more about this system in In Search of Stupidity: Over 20 Years of High-Tech Marketing Disasters.
The PC Convertible
Let’s see. This was supposed to be a portable system, but to print or use a modem you needed to buy an optional accessory. Enough said. It helped keep the PC Junior and the XT 286 cozy in the landfill.
The Ipod Battery
For a time it was rarer than diamonds
OK, you’ve bought your sleek, white, ultracool $400 Ipod and have just enjoyed the heck out of it. But alas, your hard working battery, after about 18 months of draining and recharging, has given up the ghost and gone to that big, environmentally-friendly recycling dump in the sky. So you take your Ipod to one those sleek, ultra cool Apple stores and ask to have the battery replaced. And Apple tells you “tough luck, dude, we don’t sell those. But we’ll refurbish the unit for $250. But it’s cheaper to go out and just buy another Ipod.”
So you get really, really mad, like Casey Neistat, and you go home and create a neat little video of yourself spray-painting means things about the Ipod all over the streets of New York City. And then Apple promptly capitulates and announces it will replace the battery for a more reasonable $100.
And you wonder just why Apple thought it could ever get away with this in the first place? The motto was “Think Different,” not “Think Stupid.”
The NeXT Cube
I’m tooo sexy for your wallet
Steve Jobs is one of those persons you either want to hug or slap. The NeXT cube bears this observation out. The Cube was Steve Job’s intended comeback after being unceremoniously booted out of Apple after the original Macintosh showed signs of being a flop. In many ways it was, like the Mac, ground breaking. Enclosed in a sleek black magnesium sheath and sporting the NeXT OS, a UNIX-based OS with an object-oriented shell that also included an amazingly powerful development environment, the NeXT was in many respects a breakthrough system. But, showing he had learned nothing from his insistence on not including a cursor diamond on the original Mac keyboard and making it difficult to add a hard drive and extra memory to the original Mac, the only removable storage medium on the NeXT was a non-standard 256MB magneto optical drive. A single platter cost well over a $100 bucks and at that price few publishers were interested in developing software for the NeXT. Making things worse was the cost of the Cube: $10K! Jobs should have known better; he’d been in upper management during the Apple Lisa debacle. Apple had tried to charge $10K per unit for the Macintosh’s immediate ancestor and had quickly learned this was not a price point the market would accept. Few people bought NeXT boxes and the company exited the hardware business to focus on its software. NeXT and Jobs were saved from oblivion by Apple’s purchase of the company and its software. You can read more about this system in In Search of Stupidity: Over 20 Years of High-Tech Marketing Disasters.
Don’t mess with Bill, leave my Billy alone
In 1996, Business Week published this photo of Michael Cowpland, then CEO of onetime software giant Corel, on his wedding day with his trophy wife draped over their Lamborghini (these days, Michael is rumored to drive a Chevy or Toyota). The title of the article was “Crazy Like a Fox-Or Just Crazy?” The focus of the article was Corel’s purchase of WordPerfect Office from Novell. In the article, Cowpland proclaimed the willingness of Corel to go head-to-head in mortal combat against Microsoft and its cash cow Office suite.
How did it all turn out? Well, when the article was published, Corel’s yearly revenues were about $400M and its share of the suite market under 4%. Today, Corel’s revenues in 2002 were $126.7M with net losses of approximately $96M! Market share? Oh, about 2%.
It is an axiom of business that it is pointless to throw yourself headlong into the jaws of an entrenched monopoly in a commoditized market (at least if you expect to make money in the endeavor), a state of affairs which precisely described the business software suites market. Cowpland and Corel’s behavior wasn’t crazy: It was stupid. (Cowpland was forced out of Corel in 1999.)
You can read more about Corel Office in In Search of Stupidity: Over 20 Years of High-Tech Marketing Disasters .
Don’t show this picture to your stock portfolio
In honor of the Google IPO, we decided it was time to induct TheGlobe.com into the museum! The story by now should have a familiar ring. Two smart young geeks come up with a great idea for a web site that includes a search engine, advertising, communities, and other neat stuff. They sell the concept to the public via an IPO and get rich!
Which is sort of what happened at TheGlobe.com. When the company went public in 1998 the stock opened at an incredible $87 bucks per share , then climbed to $97, making TheGlobe.com founders Todd Krizelman and Stephan Paternot instant rich guys. The stock then spent the next several years tanking before the TheGlobe.com stopped spinning, permanently.
But not to worry! Now we’ve got Google and Sergey Brin and Larry Page. And an exciting IPO that is going to sell you stock that basically has no voting rights, so if the geeks screw up with your money you’re basically not going to be able to do a damn thing about it. But you’re going to buy the stock, right? Yeah, you will. We know you will.
Enter the Matrix
“I’m going to be honest with you, Mr. Anderson. The game sucks.”
In 1982 Atari introduced “ET,” already honored in these hallowed halls as the worst computer game of all time. We hate for our exhibits to be lonely , so we’ve decided to give “ET” a playmate to keep it company. When “Enter the Matrix,” a game based on the smash hit “The Matrix” movie was announced, millions of computer geeks and neo-goths salivated at the prospect of dodging slo-mo bullets and oogling girls in skintight leather outfits while saving humanity in the comfort of their own virtual homes. Alas, when the game was released it had lousy graphics, illogical game play, and was about as much fun as the mosh pit in Zion. Though the game was actually developed by Shiny, we think that Atari sticker on this Wal-Mart remainders version is very apropos. ET apparently DID finally phone home and told everyone how Earthlings have still not learned that a hot-media tie-in doesn’t mean squat if the game you create is no good.