Don't believe the hype: The 21 biggest IT flops

Overhyped 'Next Big Things' of the technology business

The paperless office

It's not known exactly when this dream of marketers and technology vendors emerged, although the Christian Science Monitor suggested in a 2005 article that the term "was probably first coined in a 1966 article in the Harvard Business Review in reference to the emergence of digital data storage."

Just as futurists in the 1950s boldly but inaccurately predicted that computers would cut our work days in half, offices without paper have turned out to be a pipe dream. A book published by MIT Press in 2002 called The Myth of the Paperless Office found that e-mail caused a 40 percent increase in paper use in many organizations.

True, the role of office paper has been changing recently. Most large organizations now depend on digital, not paper, storage of documents. And the Christian Science Monitor found that sales of plain white office paper are, indeed, levelling off. But even if office paper consumption is levelling, take a look around your office: Is it paperless yet? Will it be paperless anytime soon? We didn't think so.

Push technology

We're not talking here about pushing e-mail to mobile devices, which was made incredibly popular by BlackBerries. This is about companies like the PointCast Network, which launched its software with a hype storm in 1996. The hype focused on how this technology could "push" news and other information to computer desktops with no user intervention.

However, most users never became excited about push. Those who did take the technology for a spin found themselves inundated with news, weather, sports and more; it wasn't easy to filter what specific information was received. There was also a strong backlash from employers, which prohibited the use of push products for fear they would hog network bandwidth and distract workers.

Push technology hasn't really gone away. In addition to mobile e-mail, RSS feeds and many of today's desktop widgets are a form of push, but with more filters and controls than their early forebears. But the original hype was so far off the charts that companies like PointCast faded away.

Smart appliances

Your refrigerator knows when you are low on milk and automatically orders more over the Internet. The cow juice and your other groceries are delivered to your front door. How has our species survived so long without this?

The (supposedly) irresistible appeal of smart appliances created a buzz at trade shows and was widely discussed in the media in the two years before the dot-com bubble burst. The idea was supported by virtually all major appliance vendors as well as dot-com grocery delivery services like Peapod and NetGrocer. Supermarket chains also scrambled to get a piece of the action. And Intel, always eager to sell chips -- even those used in refrigerators -- was part of the frenzy too.

Long story short: The bubble burst, and we haven't heard much about intelligent appliances since. Somehow, we're still surviving.

Virtual reality

The idea sounds fantastic -- put on special goggles, gloves and perhaps other connected clothing and immerse yourself fully in a 3-D game, training session or other activity. That idea made early VR proponents heroes to many technologists. One of those folk heroes was Jaron Lanier, who in the mid '80s started a company called VPL Research to create virtual reality products.

Maybe VR failed in the mass market because of consumer concerns that the equipment would cost too much or make them look silly. Or maybe virtual reality worlds were less real and compelling than our own imaginations. In any case, VR never took off commercially, even though some useful niche applications, such providing surgeons with a way to practice tricky medical procedures, still exist.

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David Haskin

Computerworld
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