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The 10 silliest technology blunders

iPod? No, that's never going to work

We look at the 10 silliest tech blunders that have left companies kicking themselves over missed opportunities.

3. Sony and Toshiba agree to disagree over HD

Few format wars have been as costly to their participants as the fight over a new high-definition disc standard. In one corner stood Blu-ray, championed by Sony. In the other corner was HD DVD, led largely by Toshiba.

From 2002 onward the two sides wrangled, each signing up allies to support its own competing, incompatible format. In 2008 Sony slipped the knife into Toshiba by paying one of its biggest backers, Warner Brothers Studios, a reported $400m to drop HD DVD in favour of Blu-ray Disc.

Interestingly the same parties had battled in the mid-1990s over a new high-res format for movies. Back then they settled their differences, combining the best of both specs into something called Digital Versatile Disc, better known as DVD.

The missed opportunity to come out with a single HD format sacrificed years' worth of sales for every company involved. Had the two sides joined forces in 2002, high-def discs would be the dominant delivery medium for movies and shows now.

Instead, today DVDs still outsell Blu-ray titles by 10 to one, and the future belongs to streaming media and video on demand.

4. Digital Research: the other Microsoft

This one is a classic. In 1980, when IBM was looking for somebody to build a disc operating software for its brand-new IBM PC, Microsoft was not its first choice. In fact, none other than Bill Gates suggested that Big Blue approach Gary Kildall of Digital Research, author of the CP/M operating system.

The legend is that Kildall blew off IBM to go fly his plane. The real story is that Kildall was flying to deliver a product to another customer, leaving his wife to negotiate with IBM. Dorothy Kildall didn't like parts of the deal IBM was proposing and sent the executives packing.

Big Blue went back to Gates, who with his partner Paul Allen whipped out MS-DOS, based on Tim Paterson's QDOS (the Quick and Dirty Operating System), which was itself based on CP/M. IBM ended up offering both Microsoft's DOS (for $60) and a version of CP/M ($240) to buyers of the original IBM PC. The cheaper product won.

Before DOS, Microsoft's biggest products were versions of the BASIC programming tool. After DOS, well... you know the rest. Would Microsoft have grown into the monolith it is today without the IBM contract? We'll never know.

5. Xerox Goes in an Alto direction

Here's another classic tale. More than a decade before the Macintosh and Windows PCs, before even the MITS Altair, there was the Alto, the world's first computer with a window-based graphical user interface. Invented at Xerox PARC, the Alto had a mouse, ethernet networking, and a what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSIWYG) text processor.

But in 1973 the personal-computer market didn't exist, so Xerox didn't really know what to do with the Alto. The company manufactured a few thousand units and distributed them to universities. As legend has it, in 1979 Steve Jobs visited Xerox PARC, saw the Alto, and incorporated many of the Alto's features into Apple's Lisa and Mac computers.

Shortly thereafter Xerox finally realised its mistake and began marketing the Xerox Star, a graphical workstation based on technology developed for the Alto. But it was too little, too late.

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NEXT PAGE: The recording industry plays the same old tune

  1. The missed opportunities that have left some tech companies kicking themselves
  2. Sony and Toshiba disagree over HD
  3. The recording industry plays the same old tune
  4. Newspapers don't predict Craigslist
  5. Microsoft saves a rotting Apple


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