The business world is all about disruptive innovation but sometimes innovation happens but without any noticeable disruption. Here are nine truly cool products that turned out to be technological dead-ends:
1. The AT&T PicturePhone (1956)
Developed at Bell Labs in 1956, the AT&T PicturePhone was commercially released in the Chicago area in 1963. It was expected to reach three million homes and offices by the mid-1980s, generating $5 billion a year, which was big money back then.
However, due to the complexity of wiring them in, PicturePhone calls were limited to telephones located so close together than it was almost as convenient to drive (or walk) to the see the person you were going to call.
Fun factoid: The PicturePhone was lampooned in the 1960s Jetsons cartoon show as a way for the boss of the titular George Jetson to appear on an overhead screen and yell at him.
2. AKAT-1 Analog Computer (1959)
Back before digital computers took over, state-of-the-art computing devices were analog. Analog computers differ from digital ones in that each "bit" can represent an infinite number of fractional values between zero and one.
Undoubtedly the most advance analog computer of that era was the portable, all-transistor AKAT-1, invented by the great Polish pioneer of computer technology, Jacek Karpiski.
Fun factoid: An AKAT-1 is rumored to have been used as a tone synthesizer during the recording of several albums by the Beatles.
3. The Amphicar (1961)
This is the only civilian amphibious passenger automobile ever to be mass produced. Built in Germany from 1961 to 1968, had a top speed of 70mph on land and 7mph on water, making it the fastest car in the water and the fastest boat on the road.
In recent years, several prototypes of car/boat hybrids have been built but (as far as I know) none have gone into commercial products. Possibly because only 4,000 Amphicars were manufactured, they remain a pricey collector's item.
Fun factoid: An Amphicar appears in the film Inspector Clouseau, the third in the Pink Panther series.
4. Computer Space (1971)
Entrepreneur icon Nolan Bushnell is best known for inventing Pong, the coin-operated tabletop that became a tavern fixture in the mid-1970s. However, prior to Pong, Bushnell invented Computer Space, a game similar to the 1979 arcade hit Asteroids.
Beyond the novelty of the game itself, Computer Space was notable for its molded plastic chassis which even today gives it a undeniably futuristic look, albeit with more than a twinge of the retro.
Fun factoid: A Computer Space game appears as a luxury item in the wealthy man's penthouse apartment in the movie Solyent Green (1973).
5. The Xerox Alto (1973)
It's a little hard to believe it, but the graphical user interface (GUI) to the Macintosh and later to the Windows PCs was actually developed in the late 1960s (on mainframe computers) and then into a Mac-like product in 1973.
However, Xerox took eight years to finally release the product, retitled as the "Xerox Star." It flopped, despite the fact it had e-mail, file sharing and network printing, none of which were available on PCs for several years.
Fun factoid: Steve Jobs saw the Alto in a 1979 visit to Xerox PARC in 1979 and subsequently integrated it into his subsequent products (Lisa, Macintosh, and NeXT).
6. The Hero Robot (1981)
The Heathkit Hero was the world's first commercially available programmable robot and sported sound, light and motion sensors, on-board sonar, an optical encoder, a head and arm that could rotate almost 360 degrees, a grabber claw, and a speech synthesizer.
By today's computing standards, the Hero's "brains" were absurdly feeble: a single Motorola 6808 8-bit CPU with 4K of RAM and 8K of ROM. It also required a lot of programming to make it work, which may explain why it never caught on.
Fun factoid: The Hero was obviously designed to resemble R2D2, arguably the actual hero of the first Star Wars film.
7. The Connection Machine (1982)
The Connection Machine was intended to be a massively parallel supercomputer that could emulate the structure and behavior of the human brain. As designed, it would provide AI as a network service across what would later be called "The Web."
Unfortunately, the lack of a generalized artificial intelligence program (a lack which persists today) doomed the Connection Machine to being just a regular old supercomputer.
Fun factoid: A Connection Machine is shown in the gene-splicing laboratory in the original Jurassic Park movie.
8. Sceptre Videotex (1983)
More than ten years before the Internet became a big deal, you could use a Sceptre videotex terminal, a wireless keyboard-controlled system which delivered news, weather, sports, stock reports, only banking, only shopping, and email.
Even with all that functionality and extensive marketing in a dozen cities, the Sceptre (along with a number of imitators) never caught anywhere except in France, where it was government subsidized.
Fun factoid: The song Goodbye Marylou by Michel Polnareff-a big hit in France-was based upon the equivalent of "sexting" through a videotex system.
9. The Newton (1987)
No list of way-before-their-time products would be complete without the Apple Newton. Much heralded as the future of computing when released, it was the brainchild not of Steve Jobs but of the much-maligned Apple CEO John Sculley.
Armchair tech history buffs still argue why the Newton never caught on, but it appears that Apple execs were worried the Newton would cut into Macintosh sales-the very reason Apple is afraid to add mouse support to the iPad.
Fun factoid: The Newton's famously inept handwriting recognition was featured in the 1994 Simpson's episode "Lisa on Ice."