Top 10 disappointing technologies

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Top 10 disappointing technologies

Pretty much every new product gets hyped as a potentially disruptive technology these days, and usually nobody outside of the company's marketing department actually believes it.

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Every once in a while, however, a product comes along that everyone from the executives to the analysts to even the crusty old reporters thinks will change the IT world. Sadly, they are often misguided.

Sometimes, the product really does set the industry on its ear, but all too often it falls flat on its face. This week, we look back at those that did the latter. Potential game-changing products that fizzled out.

Honourable mention: Biometrics

Iain Thomson: Biometrics was supposed to be the magic bullet that solved all our security needs. Look in any film where they are trying to be futuristic or high tech and you'll see people getting their body scanned as a security measure.

However, the reality has proved less than we were promised. Fingerprint readers are in wide circulation but they are easily fooled these days with cheap materials, or by more direct means. Taiwanese robbers reportedly cut the finger off a man whose car had a fingerprint ignition, something that led scanner manufacturers to install a temperature sensor in future models to prevent a repeat.

Facial scanning was also touted as foolproof, and then quickly found to be anything but. Even DNA fingerprinting is now being questioned, either because the chemistry is defective or the lingering possibility that an individual's DNA may not be unique. Hell, they still haven't proved that fingerprints are even unique.

Maybe one day we'll come up with the ultimate biometric solution but I have my doubts.

Shaun Nichols: One of the problems with biometrics is that people don't really want it.

As much as we love movies about cyborgs and futuristic bio-scanning systems, few people are comfortable with actually allowing machines to analyse and classify us on that sort of level. While locks that require a palm or thumb print are emerging for high-security applications, the 'big brother' implications of taking the technology to the masses are too much for most of us.

As Iain mentioned, there are also some rather unpleasant ways to thwart such systems. Iain noted the finger incident in Taiwan, and anyone who bothered to sit through the film 'Demolition Man' remembers the, well, 'creative' way in which Wesley Snipes was able to get through the retinal scanning machine. If someone is determined to get into my place of work or residence, I'd rather they do so by picking the lock than by hacking off a body part.

Honourable mention: Ubuntu

Shaun Nichols: We're no doubt going to catch some flack for this one, but deep down even the hard-core evangelists will agree that Ubuntu has thus far been something of a disappointment. While Linux has definitely caught on in the enterprise server and database market, the open-source OS has never really been able to move into the greater market.

Those who do use Linux as the primary OS for their home or work PC are still by and large tech-savvy users who comprise what used to be known as the 'hobbyist' market. The larger end-user crowd has not been able to warm up to Linux.

Ubuntu was supposed to change that. When the OS was launched, I remember all of my Linux-advocate friends predicting that this would be the product to make the jump and challenge Microsoft in the consumer and workstation spaces. Nearly five years after its release, Ubuntu remains popular amongst Linux users, but has yet to really pick up any sort of real momentum in the greater desktop OS market.

Yes, getting rave reviews from the Linux community is nice, but get back to me when the housewives and pensioners, not just the IT pros and college students, start dumping Windows for Ubuntu.

Iain Thomson: Shaun nearly killed me with this suggestion. He and I come up with these lists over a lunch in the office in a convenient room with decent soundproofing and I'd just taken a mouthful of Vietnamese pork sandwich when he mentioned his desire to put Ubuntu on the list. I narrowly avoided the need for a Heimlich maneuver.

But the more he explained his position the more I came to agree. Maybe it was just the overenthusiastic marketing or the fanboys who swarmed to the system but Ubuntu really was supposed to change everything, where as the operating system landscape looks very much the same these days.

Don't get me wrong, I like Ubuntu and have it running on a home system. But unless a major manufacturer starts preinstalling it it's going to be confined to the Linux enthusiast and the hobbyist market.

10. Virtual Reality

Iain Thomson: Few technologies have promised so much and delivered so little.

I tried out one of the first VR units in the early 1990s. It felt futuristic, but lacked a certain something. Comfort for one; you were encumbered with a massive VR helmet, a handheld grip for direction and that was it. Watching the VR rig in the film 'Disclosure' I wondered what the writers had been smoking.

VR is going to be possible one day, but that day is not now. It was massively overhyped, so much so that when it proved itself to be pretty useless companies dropped it like hot coal. The bursting of the internet bubble killed off most VR developers and the current economic climate is doing the same.

I suspect that VR using external hardware is a no-go for quite some time to come. Far more likely is the success of VR using wetware, direct implants to the cortical systems. However, that's decades away at the current pace of progress.

Shaun Nichols: Most sci-fi movies from the early to mid 90s have aged about as well as a head of lettuce. This is mainly due to the fact that they were all so centred on virtual reality. Movies like "Lawnmower Man," "Johnny Mnemonic" and "Strange Days" all get a chuckle now for their depictions of people sitting around in goofy helmets and punching imaginary keyboards.

Like many things on this list, VR was a great idea that just didn't have a ton of use. Other than novelty stands at shopping malls, the gaming uses were pretty limited, and the business applications for VR in its 1990s state were almost zero. Even today, the VR concept is limited to a couple screens and a good graphics card.

Perhaps some day when the required hardware and software is cheaper and more plentiful, someone will find some better uses for virtual reality. As for now, we seem to be doing just fine with a screen, mouse and keyboard.

9. Alternative search engines

Shaun Nichols: We're closing in on nearly a decade now of Google's reign atop the search world, and at this point, we've come to accept that the site is more or less the de facto way to search for information on the web. Yahoo these days is circling the drain, and although Microsoft continues to prop it up, MSN search has fallen far behind.

But it wasn't always that way. In the late 90s, search engines and services seemed to be popping up left and right. Services like Hotbot, Lycos, Northernlight and Alta Vista were all vying for market share and constantly working to top each other.

Then came the dot-com crash, and from the ashes Yahoo and Google emerged as juggernauts along with MSN. Lately, it's turned into a one-horse race, and as we learned from the reign of Internet Explorer, that is not a good thing in terms of innovation.

It is disappointing that there are so few, if any, services out there that are giving Google search a run for its money and really pushing the company to step up its game. As we are on the cusp of the release of Wolfram Alpha, here's hoping that it and other sites can really bring some competition back to the search world.

Iain Thomson: I'll admit I'm desperate for something to overturn Google in search technology. When Google went public I held off buying shares, and advised a few others to do the same, because I was convinced a better search technology would displace Google and the company was over-hyped. I was wrong, on the first count at least.

Since then we've seen some pretenders to the crown, some of whom lasted about as long as a snowflake in a blast furnace. Remember Cuil, the Irish search engine that would make Google look old? It died a quick death and I fear unless Wolfram Alpha is extraordinary it will suffer the same fate.

8. Voice recognition

Iain Thomson: I could rant about voice recognition for pages, because I really want it to work. The fact remains sadly that it doesn't.

The amount of processing power efficient voice recognition needs is huge, and it takes a huge toll on memory as well. At Intel's Nehalem launch the company showed off voice recognition and said that at last there was a powerful enough processor to handle such applications. I'd have believed it, had I not heard the same things from Intel a decade before.

The fact is voice recognition needs a revolution in intelligent software as well. It's no good having the hardware to drive the application if the software is so poor. Names, regional dialects and the usual lubricating grease of language seem beyond current software. Voice recognition seems to be one of the also-rans in technology for the moment.

Shaun Nichols: Not only was voice recognition a huge disappointment, it is also downright irritating. So much so that we recently named it one of our most annoying technologies.

Part of the problem is hardware. Getting a voice recognition system that works reliably is still a very expensive and time-consuming task. And when it doesn't work reliably, it is downright useless. Anyone who has ever had to deal with the voice recognition software for the local bank's phone line or a taxi service knows just how tough this can be. Lord help you if you're trying to operate one and you have a non-local accent.

I can see voice recognition being critical for such things as handicapped access, so I definitely think the technology should be developed further, I just wish more people would hold off on using it until someone can get it right.

7. Apple Lisa

Shaun Nichols: Steve Jobs has had precious few 'misses' in the course of his career as an executive, but the Lisa still stands as one of his and Apple's greatest failures. And it's a shame, because the system really was quite impressive.

Back in the time period between Apple's infamous 'raid' of Xerox PARC and the launch of the Macintosh, there was a little system called the Lisa. Originally designed as Apple's first foray into the graphical user interface world, the Lisa was an all-in-one system encased in a bulky plastic box.

The Lisa truly was an impressive system for the time, to a fault, even. Owning Apple's masterpiece system would set you back US$10,000. Not surprisingly, the Lisa did not sell too well and the company was sent back to the drawing board to develop the Macintosh.

Though the Mac benefited from the falling price of components, most developer accounts also suggest that the Mac team had to leave out some of the Lisa's best features (such as true multitasking) in order to keep the cost of the Mac down.

Iain Thomson: Lisa couldn't charitably be described as an Apple invention per se, it was a straight steal of Xerox's Alto machine, which the company correctly assumed would be too expensive to sell in volume.

Nevertheless Jobs wanted to build one, and what Jobs wants he usually gets. So the Lisa was built, although the name caused something of a stink. Officially Lisa stood for Local Integrated Software Architecture, but this was apparently a fit so that Jobs could name the system after his daughter. This led to people calling it 'Lisa: Invented Stupid Acronym.'

But the Lisa had more than a stupid name; it had a stupid price tag. For the price of eight Lisa's you could buy the average US house and it would be a brave IT manager who would suggest buying such an expensive bit of kit, particularly as there was precious little software to run on the thing.

In the end Apple ended up dumping nearly 3,000 Lisa's in landfill in Utah, such was the lack of demand.

6. 10GB Ethernet

Iain Thomson: We've been told that this is the year of mass 10GB Ethernet networking take-up for three years now, and it still isn't here yet.

The fact is that, apart from some industries, no-one's that keen. Sure the data centre market and high end computing have moved on but it's a hard sell to get a business to rip out a network infrastructure that's already working fine just to boost speed.

Ethernet is an old technology, but there's nothing wrong with that. What is wrong is expecting businesses to pay for something they don't need. Gig-Ethernet works just fine for most of us and I suspect I'm not alone in holding off increasing speed by a lousy ten-fold when 100GB is already online.

Shaun Nichols: Some technologies always seem to be in 'wait until next year' mode. The problem is that in the IT world, technologies have a very short shelf life, and if a company or group waits too long on something, they will find themselves with a product that has gone from 'cutting edge' to 'obsolete' without ever having really made it into the market.

10GB Ethernet suffers from a pretty big design flaw; for the overwhelming majority of situations, the Ethernet speed is not the biggest bottleneck. I know that in our office, few people would notice the switch to 10GB Ethernet, as the overwhelming amount of network traffic is web access, which is slowed by the internet connection to a speed which the current setup can easily handle.

I'm sure at some point, everyone will want to bump up network traffic speed in the enterprise, but by then, will 10GB even be considered an option?

Read on to page two for the top five!

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