(New Scientist Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Technologies before their time
Six extinct innovations that might have ruled the world
Right track, wrong tunes
The little MP3 player that couldn't
Imagine a portable music player that holds just a single hour of content, interrupts your listening with 30-second advertisements, and whose store offers none of your favourite songs. And all this could be yours for the bargain price of $299.
If this doesn't sound like much of a deal, keep in mind that back in 1996, pairing an MP3 player with a dedicated music store was a radical idea. Before the Listen Up player and Audiowiz store were introduced by Audio Highway?- a start-up in Cupertino, California?- downloading music was possible. But if you wanted to listen to that music on the go, your best option was to burn the songs onto a CD. The seamless coordination of today's iTunes store, which lets you browse, buy and download your music to your iPod in under a minute, was unimaginable.
The inspiration for this new model, says Audio Highway's then-chief executive Nathan Schulhof, came from the try-before-you-buy shareware often used to sell software at the time. "I thought you should be able to do the same thing with music," he says.
The press swooned. Among other awards, Schulhof's invention grabbed top honours at the 1997 Consumer Electronics Show, the Oscars of gadgetry. It seemed to be on the road to global domination. And then?- nothing. The Listen Up player vanished, to be reinvented four years later when Apple's iPod became the definitive king of MP3 players.
What happened? Simply put, Schulhof's technology was a few steps too far ahead of its time. In 1996, less than 1 per cent of the world was online and most computers did not have USB ports. That meant Listen Up users had to connect it to their computer by way of a parallel port, and then link the computer to the internet by way of a modem that could only digest 28.8 kilobits per second. Downloading 1 hour of content this way would have taken about 2½ hours. The Listen Up could hold at most 32 megabytes?- the equivalent of about 20 songs.
You're not listening
By the time the iPod arrived in 2001, technology had caught up with content: though it was about the same size and cost as the Listen Up, the iPod could hold 5 gigabytes. Even if it could have held 1000 songs, however, there was a much more fundamental problem with Audio Highway's player and store. "At that time you couldn't get the mainstream music," Schulhof says. His firm just didn't have the resources to enter into the kinds of deals that would have let it sell popular music to customers. Most of the content on AudioWiz was news and audiobooks - not enough to entice most people to shell out $299, especially when even that meagre content featured advertising slots.
It took a heavy hitter like Apple to wrangle the tunes people wanted. When Apple's iTunes Store launched in 2003, Steve Jobs had already negotiated the rights to sell music. "They were the first to do it right," Schulhof concedes. "They just had better content."
Schulhof's device may have slipped into the mists of history, but at least he got a slice of the Apple pie. Exactly how much is sealed in various court documents, but Schulhof's name appears on a number of patents related to iPod and iTunes-like functions, though Apple never officially licensed his patents. An agreement with the company prevents him from discussing the matter.
But there can be no doubt about his bragging rights. "I'm a visionary, and sometimes visionaries have things ready before the public is ready to make a change," he says. According to his website, he is the "Father of the MP3 industry"?- an industry now worth billions. Jacob Aron
The personal computer that wasn't
Unable to connect you
The social network that almost had it all
Imagine trying to print a document in 1977. Are you at home? If so, forget it - your only hope of finding a printer is at work, where there might be a single dot-matrix device shared by the whole building. Sitting in front of your terminal, you will have to painstakingly key in complex lines of code to initiate printing and get the formatting you want. Don't even think about generating pictures or different colours. Now you're in for a long wait - with an output of less than 200 characters per second, the printer would have taken more than half a second just to print this sentence.
The company that released us from this torture was Xerox PARC, the Silicon Valley research incubator. Run by the company that pioneered photocopying, it also gave the world Ethernet networking and laser printers.
In 1977, drawing on its unofficial maxim "the best way to predict the future is to invent it", Xerox PARC assembled the brightest graduates in the US to produce the Xerox 8010 Information System. Also dubbed the Xerox Star, it was like nothing anyone had ever seen. A 17-inch bitmapped display provided a window-based graphical user interface, pioneering the desktop metaphor we now take for granted. Alongside a keyboard, users could manipulate objects on the screen with something called a mouse. Ethernet connectivity brought with it file servers, networked printers and email, precisely the tools you needed to retrieve files and be freed of keying text into a command line. For printing, the system was a game-changer. This was the first high-powered desktop computer.
After more than four painstaking years of perfecting these features, the Xerox Star was launched in April 1981. "It was completely different and so much better than what had been before," says Terry Roberts, one of the system's user-interface designers. "We believed we were changing the world."
That was when Apple got interested. "They were just gobsmacked," recalls Dave Curbow, then a software engineer at Xerox PARC. Steve Jobs turned "gobsmacked" into a profit, selling computers with software inspired by the Xerox Star for $2,500.
But despite the Star's head start?- it was two years ahead of the Apple Lisa, three before the first Macintosh, and four before Windows ?- it failed. The Xerox Star's innovations had made it prohibitively expensive: a single workstation cost at least $16,500, while a fully networked installation could set you back $75,000. "We couldn't offer something both good and affordable," Roberts says. "Xerox chose to offer something high-quality. Apple decided to go for the low end."
Apple's machines only had a third of the memory, their screens were half the size and they did not have hard drives at first, while the basic Xerox Star came with a luxurious 10 megabytes of disc space.
Unfortunately for Xerox, the company's attorneys had been too busy during the development of the Star to patent any of the hardware, and in the early 1980s software patents were such a nascent field that nobody thought to protect the operating system, either. With the Star's technology laid open for all to share, Apple eventually took the best parts and won out.
Without the Star, there would have been no convenient way to print from your desktop. Xerox cleared the path to the home office. Steve Jobs knew everyone would want their own Star, and thanks to Xerox, he had no difficulty in delivering their wish. Jamie Condliffe
Type friendster.com into your browser today, and you'll be taken to a social networking site for gamers. Should you by any chance have forgotten who won the social networking battle, the blue button in the top right corner of Friendster's home page reminds you by inviting visitors to log in with Facebook.
Friendster wasn't the first social network?- that honour goes to Six Degrees and a few niche communities built, for example, to track down your classmates?- but it was the first attempt to rule the world. It came close. Just four months after its public launch in May 2003, the site boasted a few million members, and by 2005, it had roughly 17 million. But Friendster spent much of its eight-year existence limping down the mountain it had climbed so quickly. By 2006, The New York Times had already deemed it a failure. Friendster in its original guise finally admitted defeat last year when it relaunched as a gaming site.
What went wrong? Ironically, Friendster's problem was its popularity. One of the site's key features was showing users how they were connected to strangers via mutual friends, but calculating those connections took considerable processing power. The more people joined, the more the site strained under the computational load of their visits. By late 2003, it was not uncommon for your Friendster page to take more than half a minute to load.
Even as Friendster's engineers struggled to keep the site running smoothly, its founder, Jonathan Abrams, was preoccupied with a different problem?- fake profiles. Early versions of Friendster allowed only individual profiles. If you wanted to form a community, to connect with other students in your dormitory or people with an undying devotion to U2, you were out of luck, says Alice Marwick, a social media researcher at Microsoft Research New England in Cambridge, Massachusetts. As early adopters will, users took matters into their own hands, creating personas known as "fakesters" representing buildings, groups or other entities. By friending "Perkins Hall" or "U2", you could connect with other people who linked to these profiles. Before long, Friendster profiles included God, Drunk Squirrel, Giant Squid and Homer Simpson.
Instead of seeing the need and trying to satisfy it, Abrams tried to quash the problem. He found the fakester phenomenon "infuriating", Marwick says. Friendster hunted down and deleted fakester profiles without notifying their creators?- a campaign that was dubbed "fakester genocide" and prompted an angry backlash. In so doing, it committed the cardinal sin of alienating its core users, says Danah Boyd, also at Microsoft Research New England. Once the exodus began, it was hard to stem the tide. "If all your friends are jumping to MySpace, you're probably going to follow them even if you personally haven't had a problem with Friendster," Marwick says.
Social faux pas
These kinds of lessons proved crucial for the next generation of social networking sites. For example, MySpace welcomed the creation of group pages?- whether these promoted dogs or musicians?- a category Facebook later refined as fan pages. Mark Zuckerberg also famously restrained Facebook's early growth to avoid the problem of overload.
The rest is history. First MySpace conquered Friendster. Then Facebook, with more than 800 million users today, climbed to the top of the food chain. Facebook may eventually fail too, Boyd says, but not for the reasons Friendster did. And the site won't be so easy to topple. "Facebook is no longer simply a social network," Boyd says. "It has become baked into the very essence of everyday life."
In October 2003, Abrams declined a $30 million buyout offer from Google. Talk about a social blunder. Cassandra Willyard
The missing link
Fundamental to the internet, it didn't evolve
No one knew what to do with HyperCard. As best as anyone could figure, the software, created in 1985 by Apple engineer Bill Atkinson, was a kind of virtual Rolodex. You could jump between one virtual "card" and another by pointing a cursor at, and clicking on, underlined text on the first card. It was a neat trick, but Apple had no clear plan for how to use the software. In 1987, the company bundled it with all new Macintosh computers and let users figure it out for themselves.
Meanwhile, near Geneva in Switzerland, a young CERN physicist called Tim Berners-Lee was labouring to design a system that could share information with the world. How could he link together the discrete information on the internet's computers?
Back in California, Apple was still struggling to capitalise on Atkinson's idea. HyperCard was proving extremely popular; the simple programming language allowed people to build their own custom applications. But Apple couldn't find any obvious uses for it, Atkinson says. "I remember one of the marketing slogans was 'HyperCard?- but what is it?e_SSRq" Berners-Lee and fellow CERN researcher Robert Cailliau answered the question soon enough. Inspired by Atkinson's software, Cailliau developed the hypertext transfer protocol that links the World Wide Web. Six years later came Mosaic, the world's first widely used web browser, and it had a lot in common with HyperCard.
Atkinson had always insisted that his software be freely accessible to everyone. That, he says, is precisely what allowed HyperCard to become an open exchange format for ideas. But what if Atkinson hadn't been so open-minded? Had he patented the hyperlink that drove his HyperCard software, you might now be reading this on Apple's i-Internet. Helen Knight
Out of sight
The internet run by newspapers
The message on your screen says: "Can you come over and babysit?" You type in your response, then check your bank account and the weather before leaving the house to return the blender you purchased online.
It might surprise you to learn that residents of Coral Gables, Florida, were engaging in this behaviour in 1980, a full decade before Tim Berners-Lee put the first web links on the internet. And they weren't using personal computers?- all of this was happening on their television screens.
The system was called the Viewtron, and it was the brainchild of Norman Morrison, vice-president of technology at US publisher Knight-Ridder. He saw it mainly as a way for newspaper subscribers to get an early peek at the next day's headlines. But the Viewtron also featured other aspects of today's addictive internet: you could use your television to play games, shop online and even communicate with other users by way of a proto-email system.
The technology should have been a runaway hit. But in 1985, after the Viewtron had attracted 5000 subscribers, Knight-Ridder and its partner, telephone company AT&T, pulled the plug.
Its downfall, simply put, was networking. Despite its apparent similarities with the internet, the Viewtron system was not a linked web of computers. Instead, everything Knight-Ridder sent to its users' TV sets was stored on a single mainframe computer in Miami Beach. "The eight disc drives were monsters," Morrison says. "Each one looked like a washing machine." For all their size, though, those drives stored only a few megabytes apiece and the system processed information at a rate equivalent to about 100 megahertz?- today, even a simple desktop computer is capable of far more. As a result, even the Viewtron's poor-quality graphics took an age to load, making screen navigation a chore.
No one was surprised by the Viewtron's demise: Morrison's group had begun to smell trouble when subscribers became more elusive, which coincided with the introduction of the personal computer.
"We kept thinking of the Viewtron as an analogue for a traditional newspaper," says Phil Meyer, who conducted the initial 50-family trial in Coral Gables. Own the pricey technology, Knight-Ridder thought, and it could control the market in computerised news delivery.
The PC changed all that. It simply offered more for less money, especially when, in 1983, internet provider CompuServe broke Viewtron's monopoly on electronic messaging with its introduction of email. "People had to spend $500 just to tie in to Viewtron and get nothing else," Morrison says. His team tried other pricing schemes, including monthly rental or per-hour rates, but nothing seemed to attract new customers. As PCs got cheaper, faster and more connected, the Viewtron just kept treading water.
Perhaps it all worked out for the best. Using the TV to pay your bills, after all, would be the worst kind of reality television. Joseph Calamia
Can't touch this
Pen-wise and pound foolish
If you own an iPad, you might have trouble remembering just how terrible tablets were a few years ago.
The first one was released to great fanfare. In 1992, Apple's chief executive, John Sculley, told a crowded room in Las Vegas that a new generation of portable handheld devices was about to change the world of personal computing. Their advanced handwriting recognition capabilities, he proclaimed, would make keyboards obsolete.
The following year, Apple released the first such device. Called the Messagepad, it ran an operating system called Newton, and the brilliant new input device that would replace the keyboard was a pen.
But the hotly anticipated device proved anything but revolutionary. Among myriad problems, it had terrible battery life and the basic model couldn't connect to a desktop computer. These failings paled next to the shortcomings of its handwriting recognition software?- the Messagepad's unique selling point?- whose deficiencies were immortalised in an episode of The Simpsons.
Despite repeated improvements to both the pen and the handwriting software, Apple just couldn't crack the code. Smelling blood in the water, the company's chief competitor, Microsoft, took its own shot at tablet computing with a pen-based version of Windows in 2001. Its device failed just as grandly.
Arguably, what really opened the way for the tablet juggernaut was jettisoning that troublesome pen. When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, one of the first things he did was cancel the Newton project and start again from scratch. His quest to find something more intuitive culminated in 2007 with the launch of the iPhone and then in 2010 the iPad - both slate-like computers controlled by touch alone. The devices have become two of the best-selling consumer electronics products in history and they have helped turn Apple into one of the most successful companies on the planet. Justin Mullins n
Which of today's technologies are headed for extinction? Tell us at newscientist.com/special/missinglinks
Hard of hearing
The little MP3 player that couldn't
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