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Top technology blunders remembered

Some good ideas that ended up being not so good

September 2, 2012
By MICHAEL D. MCELWAIN - Technology writer ( , Weirton Daily Times

Last week we discussed some early examples of technology. Before discussing the birth and development of the PC, let's shift gears for a moment and use the time this week to talk about what's more immediate.

Can you feel the excitement?

This time of year is always exciting for the techESC crew because there is a plethora of product launches, announcements, sneak previews and promises made.

There's a new, larger, Kindle, a new iPhone with a bigger screen and Microsoft is about to unleash Windows 8 on the PC, tablet and phone.

But despite all the hoopla, there is more than just a little trepidation heading into such events. The techESC crew has been down this road before where the promises and the real world experiences of past announcements never quite live up to all the hype.

As a public service announcement, and as a constant reminder that technology is never perfect, we now present a few of the blunders and flops that some corporate bigwig thought were good ideas but, somehow, all went terribly wrong.

Microsoft Bob/Clippy

Pushed out the door in 1995, Microsoft Bob was meant for the computer dummy. The idea was sound, but the implementation left something to be desired.

The user-friendly interface was an overlay on top of the Windows 3.1 and Windows 95 software and helped guide new computer users through the operating system with step-by-step handholding by cartoon characters. Bob seemed a little too dense and appeared to know less than the novice computer user. It was also used a large chunk of a computer's resources.

Bob quickly faded away, but some of his legacy lived on by the way of Clippy the animated paperclip used as an "office assistant" within Microsoft Office.

Clippy first came to light with Office 97 and quickly became a target of ridicule. Clippy would pop on the screen and make observations like, "It looks like you're writing a letter. Would you like help?"

The most damaging part of Clippy is that, by default, the Office assistant was turned on in the early versions of Microsoft Office. Users felt insulted by the suggestion of help and were annoyed that Clippy, or one of his (her?) cohorts like the Dot, Power Pup, Will or the Genius, would show up unannounced.

The feature was still there, but turned off, in Office XP and was removed completely in Office 2007. Even Microsoft spoofed Clippy in a campaign ad.

The Segway

This one had real potential, but with poor marketing and a price that most could not afford, the Segway went nowhere fast.

It is, perhaps, the most secretive device ever introduced to the public. The buzz was overwhelming. Corporate leaders from Amazon and other high-tech companies got a sneak preview of the "revolutionary" device and some proclaimed it would change society.

After almost a year of speculation including the thought that the inventor, Dean Kamen, had actually invented a personal levitation device all the questions were answered in 2001. Many people were bothered that the revolution turned out to be a glorified scooter.

The Segway turned out to be a self-balancing, electric vehicle armed with a series of gyroscope sensors and some computer might.

Top speed for the Segway was about 13 miles per hour and it did get some use in police departments and the U.S. Postal Service, but mainstream Americans did not embrace the personal transporter leading

Kamen to consider pulling the battery powered device's plug.

Y2K Scare

It was the technology snafu that was supposed to bring down civilization.

Spoiler alert - It didn't.

In the early days, computer code had to be tight and efficient. As a result, lots of computer programs, most notably by those of COBOL programmers, had a date in the code that was represented

by only two digits.

Systems that relied on that code were expected to hiccup on and after Jan. 1, 2000, because the "00" might be interpreted as the year 1900 instead of 2000.

Naturally, in the months leading to the year 2000, folks expected the worst and horded rice.

Planes could drop from the sky, computer experts warned. Medical records would be lost and power plants might shut down. Committees were named and code was frantically rewritten.

But, nothing significant happened, even in countries that invested little to fix the problem.

Some have speculated the problem was overstated in the first place, but whatever the reason, Jan. 1, 2000, came and went without a major hiccup and families all over the world had to dispose of a large stockpile of rice.

Nintendo's Virtual Boy

Unlike its Game Boy relative, the portable gaming console was in fact 3-D: Dreadful, debauched and deficient.

The Virtual Boy used a headmounted display to showcase the monochromatic images which meant no colorful games. They were just plain red and black.

In about a year's time, and after about 20 games, Nintendo halted production.

The oversized goggle-shaped box stood upon a mini tripod and came with one controller. On the back of the unit was an extension port for multi-player functions, but because of the short life-span of the product, it was never used.

Microsoft Vista

Ask someone about Microsoft Vista and you'll probably get some sort of negative response.

The operating system proved to be a blunder because it had so many hardware compatibility problems right off the bat.

Not only did users have to deal with incompatible printers and other peripherals, they also had to get use to the tweaked user interface. The double frustrations affected both the personal and business markets and many people continued to use the previous operating system Windows XP. And some users that purchased new computers even requested to have Vista removed and have their machines packaged with XP instead. The demand for XP was high enough that Microsoft kept it available until ony recently when it finally discontinued the service.

Released in early 2007 to the world, it received many negative reviews and word-of-mouth continued to hurt Vista even though it had improved upon the hardware problems.

It was a lot of little things that perturbed users. Some programs required to be run only in administrative mode, prompting an annoying dialog box every time a person would double-click the file to run it. Microsoft also put in additional DRM, short for Digital Rights Management by an agreement with Hollywood movie studios. In addition, many people found out Vista ran slower than XP.

But after the dust settled, many people felt Vista was a great operating system, but the early problems still plague the perception of the OS today.

Windows 7, released about three years after the release of Vista, is what Vista should have been like when initially released.

Some Others

There have been many innovations in the technology world and there has been its share of mistakes. Here are some additional tech concepts, products and ideas that were on the quick list and kicked around by the techESC gang: satellite radio, IBM allowing Microsoft to supply the OS for the IBM PC,'s sock puppet, Apple Lisa, HD DVD, Atari opening up its gaming platform to any company, Windows ME, Microsoft Zune, Real Player, CueCat, Apple PowerMac G4 Cube and Zip Disks.

(Michael D. McElwain is a technology writer and can be reached on Twitter via @mdmcelwain or at his e-mail address.)

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