User Input

User Input: Beloved Failures

Advanced for its day… and a dismal failure.

Fodder’s recent posts on the MSN Direct watch-things, which I had never heard of, reminded me of some of the fine points that we had in mind when we originally started AtomicToasters: the glorious failures. There’s something magical and beautiful about the technology that was genius and inspired — and flopped. Horribly.

My personal example is the Newton. Both Techie and I had Newtons, and we both loved them. They were genuinely impressive for their day, and when I added in the optional keyboard, I saw no reason to bother with a laptop for my in-class note-taking duties. Sure, I could have used a pen and paper, but where’s the fun in that? But still, whenever someone saw it, they promptly gave me a baffled look, and demanded to know why I was even bothering. It’s too small, I was told, and too useless. Strangely, the iPod touch is basically the same device, but nobody has the same qualms about those.

What piece of technology failed miserably, but somehow solicits your secret love? (We may look at lengthier articles for some of these suggestions, so help us come up with ideas!)

  • I have a 30GB 1st generation Zune siting on my desk right now. It does what I want it to do. I got it cheap, for the time, at a local surplus auction. At the time there were a couple of things it did better than the iPod, video I think, maybe a larger screen too. I see no real need to replace it yet.

    <img src=""width=500&gt;

    • PowerTryp

      I love the hell out of my 8GB zune. I prefer the touch pad as opposed to the "wheel" on the ipod and the zune software for the computer while being a little resource hungry is more appealing than iTunes (in my mind) and simpler because your music can be anywhere as opposed to downloaded into the player.

  • Number_Six

    1) The train as passenger transport in North America
    2) The dirigible – imagine floating serenely from Egypt to the Great Rift Valley in an airship with a transparent-floored viewing area, sleeping cabins, an outdoor smoking deck, etc…

    • Deartháir

      I would happily pay a premium to travel via a nicely-equipped luxury dirigible. How friggin' awesome would that be?

      • Number_Six

        Hell, an airship would even make the tedious Calgary to Edmonton trip enjoyable! Wouldn't want to be onboard when a chinook hit, though…

        • Tiller188

          I now realize you meant the wind, but my mind initially capitalized the "C" in Chinook. Wouldn't want to get hit by one of those, either…

          <img src="; width="500">

        • I have actually flown in a blimp. I think I mentioned it a few days ago. It was really cool, the engines were noisy though. Also, it is the only time I have ever felt airsick. The thermals that cause the normal sharp bumps of turbulence become slow up and down waves of turbulence. Just enough to make me quesey.

      • The Professor

        Bah, you're friggin' weird.

    • The Professor

      Oh yes, a transparent floor is just the thing I want when I'm forced into flying on a slow-motion deathtrap. Gee, will the wind blow us onto a mountain or will the floor give way due to the frame flexing? Or will we be shot down over Ethiopia and crash into Erta Ale? You could have lotteries onboard!

      • Number_Six

        You could arm the passengers and have them take potshots at belligerent locals, just like in the White Mischief days. As far as plummeting groundwards goes, at least you could give parachutes to the first class passengers.

        • CaptianNemo2001

          They would ALL be First Class passengers. This is a dirigible we are talking about.

          However its the dammed hangers, weather/wind and expense to build the hanger and dirigible that is the pain in the ass…

          Now an advanced steam passenger train engine, encased in one of those sleek Shinkansen type stream-liner bodies…

          • skitter

            Damn the hangers, keep it flying,

          • CaptianNemo2001

            Then it ends up like one of these:
            NOTE this is a short list.

            3 September 1925: US Navy USS Shenandoah (ZR-1). Caught in storm over Noble County, Ohio, and broke into several pieces. 14 killed, 29 survivors.

            5 October 1930: British experimental design R101. Dove into ground during rainstorm in France. 48 killed, 6 survivors. This is the deadliest civilian airship accident.

            4 April 1933: USS Akron. Lost at sea off coast of New Jersey in severe storm due to instrument error. With 73 dead and 3 survivors, this is the deadliest airship accident.

            NOTE: Hindenburg not included since we are talking about storms/wind not parts/design failure.

            For a more complete list of gas bags going to hell in a fury please consult the following:

          • skitter

            As a contemporary counterexample: Douglas built 607 civilian DC-3s (not including C-47s.) Here is a listof 180 DC-3 crashes (not including C-47s) that killed, in total, 3357 people.

            That may backfire, as I may get in even more trouble for besmirching the DC-3.

          • CaptianNemo2001

            I stand firm in saying that you need to look at how few occur in the United States. And how many *cough* most *cough* occur in Third World country's were maintenance and quality pilots are few and far between. Also consider that they built HOW MANY DC-3's?

            12/180 in the database since 1950 crashed in the USA. Less then 10% of the total.


            "The total military versions of the DC‑3 (C‑47 et al) were 10,291, or 96.79 percent of production. Douglas records also show that of the 10,632 machines built, three were built as spares, and this figure also does not include the post war DC‑3C, DC‑3D and DC‑3S (Super DC‑3), which were remanufactured airframes and in the case of the Super DC‑3 assigned new construction numbers. The final tally of DC‑3s manufactured in the United States is 10,629 (plus three as spares) for 10,632. An additional 487 Japanese DC‑3s were manufactured by the Showa Company and according to one reliable source, 6,157 Russian Li‑2s were manufactured bringing the grand total for the type to 17,273."

            You were saying something about crashes? Seems to fly rather well.

  • OA5599

    Fortunately, the world eventually came to its senses.

    <img src="; width=500>

  • PowerTryp

    Not particularly a secret love of mine but you guys could do a week of articles on failed video formats like Beta max, Laser Disk and HD DVD (are there others?)

    • mr. mzs zsm msz esq

      There were the big covered grooved discs in the '80s as well. Was it an RCA thing? Saw a bunch at a ham fest once.

      • GTXEliminator

        They were called CEDs. is the resource for all things CED.

        • mr. mzs zsm msz esq

          Thanks, those were the ones.

          • CaptianNemo2001

            Looks interesting.

    • The Professor

      Well, there 8mm video tape and mini-discs, but maybe mini-discs didn't make it to the US. DAT tape didn't last long either.

      • ummagumma82

        We had Minidisc in the US, but it certainly wasn't popular. IIRC, it came out in the early 90s and immediately flopped. There was another marketing push about 10 years later–I guess Sony thought a format that got its ass kicked by the CD would somehow do better against MP3 players?

        A friend of mine worked for a radio station back in the late 90s. Interestingly, they relied on a lot of formats that had died out in the consumer market. Ads, station IDs, etc. were stored on "carts" that were very similar to 8-tracks. They kept a lot of content on DAT and Minidisc. Most of the national programming was broadcast via satellite, with ISDN as a backup. Nowadays, I imagine they rely on plain old Internet streaming and MP3s.

    • Vairship

      Don't forget the best video tape format of all: Video 2000

    • Vairship

      And if I'm not mistaken there was also a format for one-time play DVDs, to be used for renting DVDs by mail. You'd get the movie in the mail, watch it once or twice and then it'd erase, I think. I thought it was called 3DO, but that's a different failure…

  • I have one of these. I want to dig it out and play with it again. It's amazing how far ahead of its time and how backwards it was at the same time. A screen that re-oriented to how you were holding it? Yep. 40 MB hard drive? Yup. Phone? Nope. It's basically an iPod Touch, but heavier.

    I've actually read of some guys putting SSD drives in them and loading Linux on it. Hmmmm….if I only had the time.

    <img src=""&gt;

    • Deartháir

      I found my Clié the other day; I wonder if there's an upgrade possibility for that thing. Interesting thought.

  • Old school over-the-bar shifters.

  • jeepjeff

    <img src="; width=600>

    X Windows. I'm still using it, it has a dedicated following and developer base, but seriously? Linux On The Desktop spent a decade being the Thing That Would Sweep Windows Into The Dustbin Of History In 2 Years™.

    Yes. It has its warts, but its network transparency is unmatched. I can, and regularly do, run a program on my desktop and display it on my laptop. It's also a relatively thin, minimalist display layer. It just displays stuff. It doesn't dictate any of the UI. Which means you can put a thin, minimal UI layer on top and have the lightest modern GUI environment. My display consistently updates faster than my brain can sense. I hit a key or a button, and before I can register that the button release happened, the screen has been redrawn. This means, to me, any GUI that has a few milliseconds of lag in its redraw response feels sluggish. If you aren't sure, your computer will feel slow to me.

    I don't have fancy menus or task bars or animations that cause icons to go spinning and flying around my desktop. I launch programs with command line terminals. There are no icons to click. My computer doesn't figure out what program opens what file for me. I have to know what's there. But it's better this way.

    However, I have no illusions about this catching on and conquering the world. And that's Ok. It doesn't have to. Linux rules the world of servers, and those are even more fun to tinker with.

    • PowerTryp

      I feel so plebian when it comes to computers when in this crowd.

      • Mine is black. I think that means it is good.

        • Vairship

          Mine is too! It's a Satellite, so I'm pretty sure it was built by Plymouth.

      • jeepjeff

        Don't mind me. I'm just a crotchety old Unix Beard. I misspent my youth tinkering with alternate operating systems on PC hardware instead of chasing girls. Seriously, my user environment is the computer equivalent of daily driving a non-synchro transmission. Once you get the hang of double clutching, it's no big deal. Who says crash boxes aren't fine for everyday use?

    • mr. mzs zsm msz esq

      Honestly X sort of blows. PseudoColor vs TrueColor, it's like you had to write your program twice. Now NeWS, if only that had made it 🙁 X11 is very successful in comparison. Long live fvwm2.

      • jeepjeff

        That's definitely one of the warts. I've never been much of a GUI programmer, so that aspect never bothered me, and when I did need to deal with it, a minimal solution has normally been all I've needed. NeWS might have done a lot better with different licensing terms. I really think the MIT license is one of the main reasons that X won that fight.

        Long live fvwm2. (I'm an E16 guy, but I'm a fan of any bare WM setup.)

        • mr. mzs zsm msz esq

          Also printing (Xprint, good idea in theory, never panned-out) and font handling (so limited and archaic freetype was invented) blow in X.

        • mr. mzs zsm msz esq

          Oh and sound/mixing. I used esd for/because-of this.

    • pj134

      One of these days you'll realize you should be using PARC.

      • jeepjeff

        Probably not. 😉 When I retro-compute back to that era, I play with Ancient Unix OSes. PARC was, IMO, where things started to go wrong in the HCI world. My current GUI environment puts the command line back in its rightful place: as the main UI, the GUI is there to serve and enhance the CLI. PARC was the prototype that the Macintosh and the idea of abolishing the command line grew out of.

        For most of what I do with computers, X+xterm is primarily a secondary muxing system for multiple screen+bash sessions (I have separate xterm aliases for firing up one with a screen session and one without, so I can ssh into another machine and start a screen session there).

        Finally, I use E16 because it has the most advanced theme system of the bare window managers. The developers were really proud of the ability to restyle the window decorations in any way at all. All window decoration elements can be changed or turned off. Which means all the window decoration elements can be turned off. My theme has a 4 pixel border that acts as a resize bar and nothing else. There are no "close window" buttons, no title bars, nothing. The mouse is subjugated as an auxiliary input device with the keyboard being the dominant input device. I even have a few shortcuts that locate the mouse in a couple of handy locations.

        On top of that, I use a blank keyboard. God help you if you are a hunt-and-peck Mac Classic user and approach my computer.

        In the beginning… Was the command line. And it was good.

        • "I use a blank keyboard."

          That does sound more impressive than "I've never cleaned this keyboard."

          • jeepjeff

            I did clean my previous keyboard. However, I never put it back together in order. The only keys that were in the right spot were the j,f and 5 on the number pad (so the nubs would be in the right spots).

            I have one of these on my desk now:

            <img src="; width=500>

            It's an excellent keyboard, and I love it. The feel of it is just wonderful. I suggest the quiet ones, as they're still quite loud. Put on a black desk, and plug it into one of those amazing Black Computers that Tiberius uses for that Darth Vader look and feel.

          • mr. mzs zsm msz esq

            That's awesome. I dig the four keys to the right of the spacebar. I feel very strongly though that esc belongs next to the 1 key (I use vim) and the fat keys above return don't allow bs and ` where I like them. Two normal sized keys would fit on the top row at the right corner, infuriating! Does it come with extra key caps to switch-out up there?

          • jeepjeff

            It does not. However, I have a different solution to the whole problem; I do the vi equivalent of the Sun keyboard mod: I move my escape key to the Capslock position (I don't swap them, I just add a second escape key, Capslock is useless).

          • mr. mzs zsm msz esq

            But that's where control key goes! Ha ha ha, this is funny how religious it's getting. You rock, have a great evening.

        • zaddikim

          When doing support for ****irect, we had an ancient HP-UX box that I had to support, and there was only so many changes I could make to it, for two reasons –

          1- It had to be passed down to the next Unix Victim should you move on to greener pastures, and

          2- tiny changes would break the biggest things.

          It had CDE as the default WM upon bootup, and I honestly would've preferred a bare-nekkid CLI, CDE was so fugly. The odd patch-update to HPPI would fuxx0r up the network stack, to the point that I had to hand-write the host file and invoke numerous daemons to set the IP, netmask and default gateway, because apparently the Unix Deity forbids the use of DHCP

          • mr. mzs zsm msz esq

            We called it hsux for a reason. It was not as bad upgrading as irix though. Yeah, hmm, okay let us send you some tapes and give it a try. Let us know how it goes.

          • zaddikim

            Yeah, that sounds fun.

            Did I mention firmware-specific SCSI drives? Just because you can find a UW-SCSI drive means you can plug it in and use it to replace the original drive that's throwing up errors. Oh, the error code on the LCD screen on the front panel? You can't Google that – you have to phone the server team, who will make you log in through a serial console and issue arcane spells to be invoked at great peril.

            I will NEVER support HP-UX again. Not enough money on the planet for that much headache.

          • jeepjeff

            And this is why HP/UX has called exit(3) and is sitting in the process table until it's parent calls wait(2).

            CDE was an abortion of a windowing system, and I have yet to run into another Unix guy who ever defended HP/UX as anything other than "Well, it's not Windows NT". There are admins who grouse that Mr. Packard should have pushed to have his name first.

            (FWIW: DHCP works pretty well on most other Unixen of any stripe… Certainly on the ones that lasted into the 21st Century.)

          • zaddikim

            Yup – DHCP works fine on all other *nixen I've worked with, with the exception of an instance of Red Hat (6? 7? It's been so long) that needed a lot of hand-holding. Though I think that was a combination of hardware and a burp in the install process – if your CD-ROM drive has sketchy read performance, you're gonna have a bad time).

          • Vairship

            HP/UX! Yes, that brings back memories. I had to use that to fire up our CAD system. I knew just enough to press the right buttons and never ever ventured far beyond that, because intuitive it was not. And the CAD system (based on 1970s software) had its own foibles.

    • Number_Six

      You guys are such nerds.

      /wait a sec…

  • Maymar

    I used to have an Archos 20GB hard drive-based MP3 player – loved it, plenty of room for music, just compact enough to fit in a coat pocket, just sort of what I needed. And then I broke the screen. Now, from what I can tell, I pretty much have to pay the Mac premium if I want more than 16GB.

    So I went out and bought a 32GB Blackberry Playbook, which I suppose is yet another unloved piece of tech. But again, it’s cheap and does what I ask of it (generally).

  • I was down the pub and there was a Steven Segal movie on. Among the more unfeasible and comical things he did (other than appear on screen) was to whip out an Apple Newton, tie it into what I think was a moving train car? and shut down… um, half the Kremlin or something I lost interest.

  • mr. mzs zsm msz esq
  • The Professor

    The Next computer and NextStep OS from when Jobs got kicked out of Apple. I don't miss it (or him) but it was a flash in the pan.

    • zaddikim

      I happened to like the NextStep OS! OpenStep/WindowMaker were pretty awesome, and I loved the vast configuration options.

      The Pizza-Box and the Cube were immensely over-priced, but for all that they were gorgeous examples of Industrial Design.

      A lot like my SGI VWS320, come to think on it…

  • CaptianNemo2001

    What piece of technology failed miserably, but somehow solicits your secret love? (We may look at lengthier articles for some of these suggestions, so help us come up with ideas!)

    Windows ME… Because I love to complain about it. A lot. It's motto is "Failure is always an option"
    Windows 2000 Because I love running decent stuff on it and yet its as light as a feather.
    Windows XP Because everyone keeps telling me to get Win 7 and I say I will not get rid of an overly rugged piece of perfection for an unknown "thing" that uses more computer resources then what I am already running plus I love my Word 2003. Also it runs EVERYTHING!!!

    • jeepjeff

      I never understood how Windows ME got past the marketing department. The name always sounded so dirty to me, as in, "I just upgraded from Windows 98, because I wanted Microsoft to Windows Me Harder!" It certainly lived up to that interpretation.

      Don't worry about not upgrading WinXP. Most sales are MS operating systems are on new computers. In the next few years, XP will lose dominance to the Vista/7/8/and/so/on versions. Between that and hardware moving on (no driver support), they'll force you to upgrade.

      • CaptianNemo2001

        Well Vista is crap compared to Win 7(backwards compatible) and XP(reliable and uses few resources but is more limited on max ram). And from the beta testers I knew from more then a year ago they didn't really care for Win 8 and I can't say I really care for the way MS has set it up either. Although I suppose there is a way to make it look like XP.

        As for ME it was "Media Edition" or "Millennium Edition" depending upon who you ask and it was a solid piece of junk because trash is too nice of a name and implies that it was once used/useful. As for XP, yah driver support will eventually force me to use something else… Which is sad because XP is a nice solid system although it does have its limitations with RAM and other features.

        • jeepjeff

          Oh, I know about the Windows lineage, I have to have some awareness of them professionally. Windows 8 looks like it's going to a customer relations disaster. Its interface is quite possibly better for some of Microsoft's users, but like you, everyone is used to the XP style UI. Every time they've tweaked that formula, their users complain mightily. Win8 is going way beyond just tweaking it. I'll hate it for a different reason entirely: they'll have moved everything, again, and dumbed down the main UI, so I'll have a harder time using one to get any real work done. Fortunately, it is rare that I have to touch a Microsoft product.

          For what it is, XP is the first Ok OS from Microsoft. It's reasonably stable, the kernel is a much better design (but still not a great design), which was surprising considering how abysmal the design of the Win 95/98/ME line of OSes is. They're probably the worst OS ever designed.

  • Late to the game, but…

    <img src="$(KGrHqJHJB!E8e782CmdBPJFDjfsK!~~60_35.JPG"&gt;
    H.324 videophones. I bought a VC105 set-top box for each of my sisters and my parents, which we used for about 6 months. My sister commented, "It's like talking to someone in the LEM." All at standard per-minute long-distance rates!

    <img src="×8-ViaTV-VC55-Modular-Videophone-Video-Conferencing-Devicies-/00/s/MTIwMFgxNjAw/$(KGrHqR,!qwF!96VtpG)BQf9LuCTs!~~60_57.JPG" width="500">
    But the really cool one I miss was my external-input VC55…imagine, you could send any video signal from any source to any phone, anywhere. I used a VGA-to-NTSC converter to show my parents my digital pictures and demonstrate computer tasks for my dad on-screen. Before the Internet, that was about as cool as it got.

    • CaptianNemo2001

      Looks expensive…

      • Originally, yes. Toward the end, heavily discounted.
        The cool thing is that with no service provider needed and no subscription fees (other than long-distance telephone service), they're now rediculously cheap and still fully functional.