Crash test dummies
The recent tale of a 2,500-year-old mirror being dropped on a Chinese television show echoed around the globe and set me thinking about other things that crash - and burn. So this week's column examines the five leading technology flops of all time - 'stuff' that craved post-it-note ubiquity but proved to be rubbish.
Some sources contacted for my twisted hit parade suggested products ranging from Vista to Apple's Newton PDA and doomed bubble firms such as boo.com. But I prefer to take a broader view, highlighting technologies rather than brand-name buys (I don't want to be sued, after all). Nonetheless, I have stolen from Future Hype author and sceptic Bob Seidensticker in my quest for the biggest bombs - the elite Betamax set.
5. Smart home Seidensticker singles out smart homes for a special mention, saying a home in which all appliances can be controlled from numerous interfaces has been predicted since the 1970s. I remember British TV obsessively showing footage of the smart house belonging to a 70s racing driver. Nobody else seemed to own one - he was miles ahead of the pack and still seems to be. It looks like the smart house is a dumb idea. Seidensticker snipes: 'Is the garage door up? Is the oven on? You could find out from your bedroom or from work and control them if necessary. Unlike AI [artificial intelligence], solving the technical challenges isn't especially difficult, but finding a market has been.'
4. Web TVs The acid test for a tech flop is whether anyone has adopted the item in question. Try to think of a single soul you know who owns a Web television. One disgruntled cyberspace voice grumbles about buying a Web TV for his father.
The saintly son thought it would be a way of generating his interest in the internet. Theoretically, dad could surf from his chair, view pictures of his grandchildren and so on. But the device proved no simpler or cheaper than a dedicated PC. 'I got the unit back about a year ago. It was hell to give away. Gave it to my mother-in-law, but she gave it back a few months later, unused.'
3. eBook reader Save some trees culled from sustainable forests, download new texts cheaply and save yourself a trip to the shop. Hmm. Those attractions ascribed to that perennial hot contender, the eBook, aren't exactly compelling, are they? Worse, an eBook is not cheap and chews up batteries. No wonder hardly anyone embraces eBooks except in the shape of extended PDF texts. When you see someone staring at a small illuminated screen, it invariably belongs to a mobile phone or an iPod.
2. Videophone Long ago, I received a flame from a public relations wasp about my refusal to drool over, or even condone, the videophone, which, she assured me, was already a proven success.
Yeah yeah yeah. Where are all the videophones? This dazzling device has gained so little traction it makes the eBook seem a resounding success. For exhibitionism, there's always the webcam.
1. Artificial intelligence What tickles me about AI is the grandeur of the gap between the field's potential - sophisticated robots talking down to us - and the reality: irritating Japanese mechanised pets we cannot even cuddle. But we keep kidding ourselves that the rise of the robot is just around the corner. In 1997, a computer finally won a chess game against the world's best grandmaster. 'This milestone had been repeatedly predicted to be 10 years away since the 1950s,' Seidensticker writes, adding, 'AI has consistently overpromised and underdelivered.' Right. My only gadget that makes an overt claim to intelligence - a 'smartphone' - is a vehicle for speech that has nothing to say, unless you count its repertoire of beeps, cheeps and jingles.