The frontier of the technology industry is frequently cruel to its pioneers. Consider these five products: Magnavox Odyssey, Xerox Star, Commodore Amiga, Apple Newton, Gateway Destination. Familiar? All five (OK, four of them) were the progenitors of markets that are booming today?video games and PCs of various flavors. But where are they today? Even the companies that created these
markets are niche players?at best?in those thriving markets. The ideas behind these products were innovative and good, but they were just ahead of their time in one way or another.
Here are the five honorees in the category of Good Idea, Bad Timing.
Journey to Nowhere
In 1972, Magnavox created the TV video game console with its release of the Odyssey, the forebear of today’s Sony PlayStation and its ilk. The Odyssey was the brainchild of engineer Ralph Baer, who worked for a New Hampshire aerospace and defense company called Sanders Associates. The video game console was a concept Baer had been working on since 1966.
The Odyssey had several ingenious features. The graphics were of course primitive, but Baer’s team worked around that problem by issuing a set of plastic overlays that players could stick on their TV screens?a different overlay for each game, such as a tennis court or a haunted house. And an optional “rifle pack” allowed for shooting gallery games. The toy rifle included a photoreceptor cell, which meant players could cheat by firing the gun at any nearby lightbulb.
The Odyssey cost less than $100 and had neither a CPU nor memory?each cartridge simply changed the box’s wiring pattern. Magnavox sold several hundred thousand units but was swamped in the marketplace by Nolan Bushnell’s more advanced Atari game console in the mid-1970s.
A Star Is Born (Then Dies)
The Xerox Star Personal Computer
Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) created the first GUI in 1981. So why didn’t Xerox’s first GUI system take the world by storm, as Apple’s computers did shortly?
The usual answer: price/performance.
PARC displayed its Xerox 8010 Information System, better known as the Xerox Star, at a Chicago trade show in 1981. Star was actually the name of the interface, which included such GUI fundamentals as the metaphorical desktop workspace. Alas, the system ran slower than syrup in the deep freeze, and its retail cost of $16,595 did little to compensate.
IBM’s first PC (sans GUI) hit the scene at less than $5,000 a few months after the Star appeared. Today, of course, IBM is still a top player in the multibillion-dollar PC market.
And Xerox makes copiers.
Sound and Fury
The Commodore Amiga
Today, multimedia is a given. Two decades ago, it was on the cutting edge. Commodore Computers led the charge with its 1985 commercial launch of the Amiga. (Commodore had acquired Amiga Computers the previous year.)
The Amiga’s claim to fame was its video and audio editing tools. Even the earliest units had NTSC (National Television Systems Committee) and PAL (phase alternation line) connectors, allowing them to output edited video to camcorders, VCRs and the like. The first model featured a 7MHz Motorola 68000 processor with as much as 512 kilobytes of random-access memory.
Surprise: The Amiga isn’t dead?technically. Although Commodore is defunct, a U.S. company called Amiga Inc. is still updating the Amiga operating system and has created specs in hopes of finding friendly manufacturers to release the first new Amiga hardware in six years. A small but loyal fan base of Amiga nuts is holding its breath.
Gravity Bonks Newton
The Apple Newton MessagePad
Personal digital assistants. That’s the phrase both Apple Computers and Go Corp. were using back in the early ’90s when they launched their respective handheld units.
Newton suffered from several handicaps. It was bulky and expensive for a handheld. However, Apple’s biggest faux pas was probably the classic error of promising more than it could deliver. Larry Tesler, part of Newton’s original development team, is on record saying the product’s fate was sealed when the marketing department insisted on promising Newton users faultless handwriting recognition. Apple was locked in a first-to-market race with Go, creators of the PenPoint operating system, and wanted to create as much buzz as possible. Unfortunately, early purchasers found the system’s handwriting recognition unrecognizable.
Apple pruned the Newton from its product offerings in 1998. Go Corp. also went away, leaving the market to Pilots and Visors.
(Still) Waiting for Convergence
The Gateway Destination PC/TV
The concept behind our last honoree may still be ahead of its time. Or its time may never come at all. It’s the Gateway Destination, a big-screen combination of PC and television introduced in 1996. Gateway’s effort will stand as a representative for this class of device, which has seen earlier iterations like Apple’s 1990s MacTV.
The concept makes some sense. After all, PC users frequently clamor for a bigger monitor, and the Destination’s 31-inch screen fits that bill. Screen resolution on early models was limited to 800-by-600 pixels, but that is good enough for most PC applications. However, Gateway dropped the product, except for educational markets, in 1999.
Why didn’t the Destination arrive? The $3,500 price tag played a part in its demise. More simply, consumers apparently were just not sure they needed one. Of the Destination’s competitors, Compaq has also pulled the plug on its high-end PC Theater. Philips Electronics has had some success selling a TV/PC convergence box called the DVX8000 through a different channel?audio/video specialty retailers.