17 Notably Bad Products from Great Tech Companies

Thursday Sep 24th 2009 by David Strom
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As these products demonstrate, even the best tech companies can lay an egg on occasion.

No one is perfect, and even some of the most successful and long-standing computer companies occasionally have stinkers of products.

Here are my nominations to the list of the all-time losers. Feel free to add your own thoughts and products too.

Microsoft

Let's start off with Microsoft, which is no doubt the most profitable software company on the planet. Yet even they have faltered over the years.

1) Bob (1995)

Notable for: The venom generated by such a simple product and also as one of the projects that Melinda (Mrs. Bill) Gates worked on.

bad tech products from great companies

Probably the most notorious is Bob, which was supposed to be a friendlier alternative to clicking on the program icons in the program manager in Windows 3.1. The trouble stemmed from the fact that Bob was too cartoonish and really didn't do much. Bob became the butt of many jokes and numerous parodies.

2) Microsoft Windows ME (2000)

Notable for: One of the worse versions of any Microsoft operating system since DOS 4.

bad tech products from great companies

ME was perhaps called Mistake Edition but it did introduce the system restore feature, which was essential because most of the people that installed it soon uninstalled it due to compatibility problems with software, drivers, and hardware.

3) Microsoft Groove

Notable for: Bringing Ray Ozzie to Microsoft, where Ozzie is now chief software architect.

bad tech products from great companies

Ray Ozzie, one of the developers behind Lotus Notes, started Groove. Microsoft acquired the company in 2005. The software creates collaborative workspaces that originally used its own client software. Much of its functionality has been incorporated into Sharepoint and Office Live services.

4) Home router MN-500/700 (2002)

Notable for: Showing that once and for all, Microsoft never will be a router/networking vendor. Stick to keyboards and mice.

bad tech products from great companies

Even though Microsoft is predominantly a software vendor, they do try to sell the occasional piece of hardware, and this one was a total dog: a home wireless router akin to the thousands of products from Linksys, Netgear and numerous other vendors. At the time, Cisco had yet to purchase Linksys and wireless networks were just beginning to replace wired ones in the homes. Still, this wasn't a fit for the company and the router soon disappeared from sight.

IBM

There are so many products it is hard to even know where to start, but certainly 1984 wasn't a banner year for the company. Here are four products that stand out from that moment of time:

5) Lotus Symphony (1984)

Notable for: The first integrated "Office" program well before Microsoft Office came to be.

bad tech products from great companies

Before Lotus Software was a part of IBM, they developed an integrated word processing/spreadsheet and database program called Symphony that was a total disaster. It ran in DOS, it was big and bloated (it came on a dozen floppy disks), and it lacked many of the features of stand-alone word processing and database programs of its era. Curiously, IBM has re-used the name for a currently shipping product that is based on the OpenOffice suite of software.

6) PC Jr. (1984)

Notable for: The worst keyboard ever. But it was wireless before Bluetooth came into creation.

bad tech products from great companies

IBM tried to make a computer for the masses that had an unusable keyboard and was twice the price of products from the competition. Notice the dual cartridge game ports on the right side of the chassis – they were the PC equivalent of the 8 track tape players and suffered a similar fate!

Next Page: the first "portable" PC

7) TopView (1984)

Notable for: Before there was OS/2 or Windows, there was TopView.

bad tech products from great companies

This was IBM's answer to Microsoft Windows, the ability to run multiple programs in DOS. Being DOS, it was only character based, and it took so much memory to run properly that there was little left over to run programs – back in the day, we only had 640 kB at our disposal.

8) 5155 Portable PC (1984)

Notable for: The first portable PC that wasn't really all that portable.

bad tech products from great companies

Back then Compaq was just getting started. One of the items that helped the company was IBM's entry into the portable – or "luggable" space. These nearly 30-pound behemoths had two floppy drives and nine-inch monochrome displays. I remember when this PC came it out it was the first IBM product that our Information Center wouldn't buy, and led us to convince our upper brass that the Compaq equivalent was superior Ironically, while IBM was developing these dogs, Apple released its first version of the Macintosh in 1984 (remember Ridley Scott's SuperBowl commercial that only ran that one time?)

bad tech products from great companies

Some other notable failures from IBM include OfficeVision and Systems Application Architecture and AD-Cycle. All three were big efforts from Big Blue in the 1980s to standardize its software tools across a wide range of operating systems on PCs, midrange and mainframes. I remember breaking some of the first stories on these products, and wondering how IBM could afford to have thousands of developers working on them. Well, that was a very different IBM from the one that is with us today, to be sure. All three of these efforts failed to gather any real market traction and have largely disappeared.

Novell

Today Novell is more known for its Unix offerings, but back in its day it was the pre-eminent software company for networking and communications. Here are two products that will bring back some memories:

9) Netware 4.0 (1993)

Notable for: The introduction of directory services.

bad tech products from great companies

Novell Netware v4 was the beginning of the end of the company's domination as a network operating system. At the time the company had more than 90% market share but they ignored the rise of the Internet. It didn't help that Microsoft took more careful aim at Novell and finally began selling network operating systems with better quality and features, although it would take several years before Active Directory was part of their network servers. I remember working with dozens of "Netware Loadable Modules" – their version of extensions that added all sorts of functionality to the network operating system, all from a simple command line. Now we have Linux and Windows. I guess that’s progress.

10) Novell Groupwise (1986)

Notable for: group collaboration software before there was Exchange.

bad tech products from great companies

Originally part of WordPerfect, Groupwise is still in use today in many organizations, where it competes with Microsoft Exchange as an integrated messaging platform. It had one legendary feature that allowed users to recall emails after they were sent – anyone who hadn't yet read the message would have it removed from their inbox without ever seeing the message. The product is still being sold, and there are a lot of people who are big fans – the current version does some neat tricks with you can combine data sources from calendars, email and contacts in some interesting ways, as you can see by the screen shot below.

For those of you that want a trip down memory lane, here’s a paper that I wrote for Novell comparing Groupwise' features with Exchange back in 1996. As one IT manager who once used Groupwise told me, "it was ahead of its time back in the 1990s, but looks dated and eclipsed by Exchange and other products now."

11) Compaq EISA bus (1988)

Notable for: First useful expansion bus architecture.

bad tech products from great companies

Back at then end of the 1980s, we had the "bus wars" of a group of nine vendors versus IBM. All of the major PC makers realized that the initial 16-bit 8 MHz bus wasn't going to cut it, and developed the "Extended Industry Standard Architecture" or EISA bus to carry us forward. Well, by the time anyone cared it was too late, and PCI and other bus extensions moved into play.

12) Dell SL320i (1993)

Notable for: Fire and smoke, dude!

bad tech products from great companies

One of the more notable mistakes that Dell made really had nothing to do with its PC, but the batteries that it used that could catch on fire, giving this model the notorious moniker of the "Ford Pinto of notebook PCs." It probably also ignited Dell's efforts at beefing up its support lines.

Next Page: Apple takes a fall

13) AT&T EO Communicatior 440 (1993)

Notable for: Pen computing and wireless too!

bad tech products from great companies

This was one of the early tablet computers and was packed with wireless support, too. It ran an early operating system called PenPoint, developed by the GO Corporation, which never caught on. Ironically, AT&T is now the hot ticket with its exclusive contract to sell Apple's iPhones. The same designer of the EO, Frog Design, was also involved in several Apple products too.

Apple

14) iMovie (1999)

Notable for: Its current version is sooo much worse that the original.

bad tech products from great companies

I have been a user of iMovie for many years and thought it was one of the best pieces of software that I have ever used for any purpose, which is high praise given how many different products that I touch. But when Apple updated the product a few years ago iMovie went from doyenne to dog overnight. It is an example of how to take a great piece of software and totally trick it out to the point where it is unusable, as well as removing features that made the product a joy. Why, Apple, why?

15) Newton MessagePad (1993)

Notable for: Lousy handwriting recognition, but hey, they tried.

bad tech products from great companies

In the early 1990s the PDA market was just starting, and Apple's attempt at delivering a device that would recognize handwriting quickly got enshrined in a series of Doonesbury cartoons because it couldn't really recognize handwriting very well. It also didn't help that it had a very short battery life and a high price tag, although it can still be found in a few odd places such as survey instruments. The product lasted until 1998, and then Apple got onboard the iPod generation to redeem itself.

16) Nokia Communicator 9000 (1996)

Notable for: First smartphone.

bad tech products from great companies

One of the first smartphones with a full QWERTY keyboard. This phone is probably more well known for its cameo role in a James Bond movie than for any ordinary user. RIM's BlackBerry wouldn't appear for a few more years, and now has a hefty share of the market.

17) 3Com Audrey (2000)

Notable for: It was cute and belonged in the kitchen.

bad tech products from great companies

Audrey was the original kitchen computer for people that couldn't deal with a full-blown PC, yet could still shell out $500 for a machine with a wireless radio and all 32 MB of RAM. (Gives you some perspective on $300 Netbooks, yes?) It had the unfortunate timing to launch before the dot-com crash, and to come from 3Com, which at the time was still trying to figure out how to sell consumer electronics (they had purchased a modem company and Palm too). The device lasted all of seven months before it sank.

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