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The 15 biggest technology failures

Gadgets that didn't revolutionise the world

We've rounded up the top 15 big ideas that were supposed to revolutionise technology, but beyond a few prototypes they never actually appeared. In some cases we’re glad they didn't.

Atari 2700

Someone at Atari had a great idea: Take the insanely popular Atari 2600 gaming system, put it in a new cabinet, add spiffy new controllers, and call it the Atari 2700.

The end result was almost a licence to print money. The cabinet designers skipped the dated 1970s look of the faux-wood panel and went for a then-futuristic sleek, wedge-shaped design with matte and glossy black finishes, topped with a built-in storage container for the controllers at the top.

The controllers themselves were innovative for the time, featuring built-in select and reset buttons (providing even less motivation to get off the couch), a touch-sensitive fire button, and a joystick that doubled as a rotating, 270-degree paddle. The killer feature: the controllers were wireless.

Advertising and packaging were created, but the Atari 2700 never reached store shelves. In quality assurance testing people noticed that the controllers had a broadcast range of 1,000ft. Since the controllers didn't have unique identifiers beyond 'left controller' and 'right controller', playing a game would affect any Atari 2700 unit within that radius. To top it off, the electronics were based on garage-door openers, so interference with other remote-control devices was a possibility.

In the end Atari decided that redesigning the system and the controllers would be too expensive, and it scrapped the 2700 project. The 2700 didn't exactly vanish without a trace, however. The cabinet design was slightly retooled for the Atari 5200, and the 5200 controllers also used elements of the 2700 controller design. The wireless functionality wound up in an Atari 2600 add-on, which relied on essentially unusable fat-bottomed versions of the classic 2600 joystick.

Secure Digital Music Initiative

In the late 1990s, the MP3 format and Napster (the original, bad-boy Napster) had the music industry running scared. While the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) was in the middle of its lawsuit against Diamond Multimedia over that company's Rio MP3 player, a consortium of computer, consumer electronics, and entertainment companies got together to form the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI).

The goal was to create a new digital music format that would incorporate watermarking files as a means of digital rights management (DRM), as well as a standard for audio players so that they wouldn't play SDMI-compliant files that the owner didn't have the right to listen to. This arrangement would, theoretically, provide the safety net required for the music companies to start distributing music digitally.

In late 2000, the group offered a $10,000 prize to any person or group that could, among other things, successfully remove the watermarks on four music files they provided, within a three-week time limit.

A team at Princeton led by computer science professor Ed Felten did just that. The SDMI threatened to sue Felten, citing the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), when the group learned that he planned to discuss his research at the 4th International Information Hiding Workshop the following year. The Electronic Frontier Foundation backed Felten by suing the RIAA, SDMI, Verance (one of the companies whose watermarking technology was cracked), and the US Justice Department on First Amendment grounds.

Felten presented the paper at the 10th USENIX Security Symposium a few months later, but by then the SDMI's prospects had dimmed, and it soon dissolved altogether.

  1. The gadgets that didn't revolutionise the world
  2. The Amiga Walker PC and Sega VR
  3. Glaze3D Graphics cards
  4. The Atari 2700 and the Secure Digital Music Initiative
  5. Whatever happened to the Action GameMaster
  6. The Apple Interactive Television Box
  7. Taligent and Microsoft Cairo
  8. The saga of Silicon Film EFS-1
  9. What happened to Project Xanadu?
  10. Honourable mentions

NEXT PAGE: Whatever happened to the Action GameMaster?


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