Failed 1990s Tech: Why These 5 Gadgets Didn’t Survive

The 1990s were an important period for the technology industry, as quite a few things we take for granted today had their origins then and are worth big money now. Microsoft’s Windows and the Start Menu redefined how we interacted with our PCs, while the World Wide Web revolutionized the way we accessed the internet.

Despite all the good things that came out of the ’90s, some technology innovations ended up falling flat. There were multiple reasons for this happening: Some products and ideas were way before their time, while other gadgets didn’t work well, or just didn’t have a market for it. We’ll take a look at five gadgets from this period, and why they’re long since forgotten today.

1. Apple “Newton”

While we take our iPhones and iPads for granted these days, it is actually Apple’s second try at putting a personal information device in our hands. The first time it tried was in 1993 with a device called the MessagePad, ComputerWorld writes. Like our modern iPhones and iPads, the MessagePad’s Newton operating system had apps like a calendar, calculator, a currency converter, and a note taking app that should have been able to recognize your handwriting.

And that’s where the Newton software went wrong. Wired talked to Apple developers who worked on the project, and they said the handwriting recognition was barely ready when the device shipped. From the get go, MessagePad users were frustrated with its inaccuracies.

The comic strip “Doonesbury” made it worse, lampooning the Newton software over and over. While Apple would later get it right, the damage was already done. People saw little use for a $700 handheld when a $5 pen and paper combination worked just as well. The Newton project was scrapped in 1998 following the return of Steve Jobs as CEO.

2. Sony Minidisc

In 1992, Sony made a huge bet on the future in the post-cassette era. The compact disc had already begun to go mainstream, but the Japanese electronics maker placed its bets on something called the minidisc. Simply put, it was a small compact disc encased in a plastic shell and marketed as a higher-fidelity way of playing and recording music.

That was true, but what Sony failed to keep in mind is that the reason why it was so successful with its Walkman cassette players was due to their affordability, and the Minidisc was anything but. At launch, the player cost about $550, and an extra $200 for one that could record audio. At such a high price, it was well outside of most people’s budgets.

Unlike the Newton though, the Minidisc managed to survive another 20 or so years before finally being discontinued in 2013. However, at no point did it ever become the “Next Big Thing” like Sony once hoped.

3. Virtuality

Yet another failed 1990s technology that has since reinvented itself was virtual reality.  One of its most prominent 1990s proponents was Virtuality, which banked on VR as the future of gaming. The company began rolling out both sit-down and standing versions of VR games in arcades in 1991, bulky headpieces and all. But Virtuality’s technology just didn’t keep up with the software.

Instead of the quarter you paid for just about any other game in the arcade, Virtuality’s games cost upward of $3-5 for a few minutes of play. The graphics were blocky and lifeless, and animation of the characters was choppy. It’s likely the choppiness and lack of resolution caused a whole other set of issues, including headaches and nausea which are even a problem today.

With software the key problem, 1990s VR and Virtuality never recovered. By the mid 1990s most arcades had either scrapped or sold off their units, and VR in gaming would really not get going again for another two decades.

4. Video CD

Think that DVDs were the first time that electronics manufacturers attempted to cram movies onto a small disc? Think again. Yes, there was LaserDisc, but the discs were the size of records, and the players, even bigger. Some of the biggest electronics manufacturers including Sony and Philips came together in 1993 to release the Video CD.

While it worked, it did so poorly. The lack of storage space meant that the video file itself had to be recorded at low quality, resulting in resolution no better than VHS tapes. Long movies had to be split across multiple discs, and occasional picture distortion was an issue. All the issues added up to a technology that was way pricier than the VCR, yet not considerably better.

Even if it would have worked better, the writing was on the wall for the Video CD. By the end of the decade, DVD technology had been developed, and its considerably larger storage capacity and better image quality left it as the only viable disc-based video technology.

5. WebTV

The concept behind WebTV was noble: take the television and merge it with a computer in a way that even the most technologically illiterate could understand. However, actually getting it to work was a totally different thing, which tech giant Microsoft learned in a very expensive manner.

WebTV first launched in 1996, and gained instant popularity through late-night infomercials touting its internet surfing capabilities via your own television. It was billed as the next generation of internet consumption: the internet — and most notably the Web — were no longer confined to the PC. Microsoft saw it as the “next big thing,” and scooped it up for nearly a half-billion dollars in 1997.

That proved to be a mistake. While it definitely attracted its own loyal following, it was a small one. The Web was also experiencing a growth spurt of sorts, with all kinds of new technologies like streaming audio and video, and new web design methods. WebTV couldn’t keep up, and by the early 2000s Microsoft discontinued the service as subscriber numbers dwindled.

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