Just imagine – you’ve got the perfect idea for the next big thing, you’ve done your research and you’ve got the funding. But the business fails, only to be replicated successfully a few years later when the market is ready for it. We’re going to chart ten inventions that didn’t take off when they were launched but are now seen as influential, perhaps providing the basis for future technology and proving that timing is everything.
Who knew that Microsoft actually invented the tablet a decade before Apple? At the turn of the century, Bill Gates predicted that his tablet would be “the most popular form of PC sold in America within five years” only for it to die a death soon after. The main issue was that Microsoft envisaged their tablet to replace the desktop as the customers’ main use computer. It was designed with the same operating system as a PC and had a price tag to match at around $2000. Apple came along later and designed their tablet with a different operating system, look and feel, realising that it couldn’t replace a laptop or computer, but would be an additional product.
“He [Steve Jobs] did some things better than I did,” reflected Bill Gates. “His timing in terms of when it came out, the engineering work, just the package that was put together. The tablets we had done before, weren’t as thin, they weren’t as attractive.”
Thomas Edison’s Electric Pen
The genius Thomas Edison held 1093 patents and invented the incandescent light bulb, one of the first motion picture cameras and, in 1875, the electric pen! The pen plugged into a battery and made small holes in the paper as you wrote. The idea was that it was easy to make copies by rolling ink over the original which would go through the holes. The pen didn’t sell well though so Edison sold the patent to Albert Blake Dick who mechanised it and turned it into the mimeograph (the first standard office copying machine). Later the idea of the pen was taken and combined with an ink depositor to make the tattoo gun.
Facebook logged over 17 billion video calls in 2017 and Skype was reported to have 300 million active monthly users in the same year. Add this to Apple FaceTime, Google Hangouts and all the other video calling and conferencing software that is being used and you have some very large numbers. They would no doubt totally impress and perplex the makers of the AT&T Picturephone which had its first public unveiling in 1964 at their exhibit at Disneyland California. The video below shows the inaugural call being made at the launch of commercial service in the first test city, Pittsburgh.
The company tried and failed to launch the product again and again throughout the rest of the century putting it down to the product being too intrusive, expensive and not good enough quality. As webcams started to become mainstream on computers we found that the ease of use and price were big factors in the original shortcomings of the video phone but actually that people were not afraid to be seen.
The Xerox Alto was the first ever computer launched in 1973 but it had no commercial success. It is still credited as paving the way for the information technology industry today but it is one school of thought that Xerox spent too much time and money on research and inventions and not enough on innovation and commercialisation (something that Apple are renowned to do well).
“Alto is the direct ancestor of today’s personal computers,” says Thomas Haigh, a Computer Historian. “It provided the model: GUI, windows, high-resolution screen, Ethernet, mouse, etc. that the computer industry spent the next 15 years catching up to.”
The 1990s, when we were all doing The Macarena, trying to keep our Tamagotchis alive and, most incredibly, using multiple search engines. Shout out to Lycos, AltaVista, Yahoo and everyone’s favourite knowledgable cartoon butler, Jeeves. But despite leading the search engine race for a period in the late nineties by being the first to understand natural language queries, Ask Jeeves (or any of the others) could not compete with Google who won the race with its superior technology, user-experience and advertising model.
Google now holds an 89.1% market share according to Statista.com. Ask.com is still there, rebranded now as a “question and answer site” as opposed to a search engine, although we’re not really sure the difference.