The top 15 vaporware products of all time

What might have been...

The tech industry has had more than its fair share of products that infamously failed to take off. Some fit the classic definition of vaporware, and were all hype and no substance. A few were simply too far ahead of their time. And others were merely victims of bad judgment about what users wanted. Here are the 15 best examples of products that never saw the light of day (at least in their originally intended form), plus some honourable mentions that we just couldn't ignore.

15. Ovation

The early 1980s was an interesting time in office-software development for IBM's still-new IBM PC and the MS-DOS operating system. WordStar, WordPerfect, Microsoft Word, and Lotus 1-2-3 were just some of the must-have word processing and spreadsheet titles released in the three years after the platform made its debut.

In 1983, Ovation Technologies, a startup founded the year before, announced an integrated package that promised to include word processing, spreadsheet, database management, and communications software. By 1984, though, the company declared bankruptcy, having burned through about US$7 million in investor money without releasing a single product.

The problem was one that might be familiar to survivors of the dot-com bust: Ovation spent far more time, money, and energy promoting and selling its product than actually creating it. The software's only lasting effect on the market is that it's supposedly the reason "vaporware" was coined.

14. Duke Nukem Forever

It's hard to come up with something new to say about Duke Nukem Forever, largely because people have had so much time to make fun of it. Last week marked the eleventh anniversary of 3D Realms' first official announcement of Duke Nukem Forever's release, which was supposed to be in mid-1998. That optimistic announcement came before the developer's decision to switch game engine — something the company would go on to do repeatedly in the ensuing years, while occasionally rewriting most of the existing game design from scratch.

Over the last ten years, the developer has released a few trailers (including one last December), screen shots, and demos to show the game's progress. Though 3D Realms wisely stopped providing hard release dates (it'll be released "when it's done"), president Scott Miller did confirm a 2008 release date in an e-mail sent to the Dallas Business Journal back in February. Still, as the years have gone by, each new tidbit has prompted increasing amounts of snide commentary rather than anticipation. The best of the bunch has to be The Duke Nukem Forever List, which documents how the gaming and technology industries — as well as the world at large — have changed since that first announcement in 1997.

If Duke Nukem Forever does actually see the light of day — which may surprise its creators as much as anyone else — its role of whipping boy in the world of tech snarkiness might be filled by Darkfall, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) in development for almost seven years ... so far.

13. Amiga Walker PC

145351-AmigaWalker_b

No list of technologies that almost made it would be complete without something from the Commodore Amiga's tortured history — one in which remarkable hardware was often tripped up by questionable marketing decisions, bad circumstances, or some mixture of both.

After Commodore went bankrupt in 1994, the Amiga brand and technology were purchased by the German company Escom Technologies and marketed as Amiga Technologies. In early 1996, the company announced a plan to sell an upgraded version of the Amiga 1200 computer with a strikingly designed dark purple case that stood on four tiny feet — hence the Walker name.

Was it genius or madness? Even the company didn't seem sure, as it also intended to offer the motherboard separately, so that people could buy it and put it in a standard PC case. The reaction of the Amiga faithful was mixed, with some saying the case looked like a beetle, or Doctor Who's K-9.

We'll never know if the Walker would have swayed the Amiga community or not; only a few prototypes were built before Escom went bankrupt in 1997.

12. Sega VR

145351-SegaVR Before the madness of the dot-com boom really got under way, the serious buzz was all about virtual reality. Aside from the movie The Lawnmower Man and VR cafes springing up in tech-friendly cities, a potential battle was shaping up between two giants of the video game industry, both aiming to bring the wonders of virtual reality gaming to the home.

Sega had decided to create the Sega VR as a virtual-reality add-on to its wildly popular Genesis system. Although the twin-LCD headset made the player look like a cross between Battlestar Galactica's Cylons and Knight Rider's KITT, it was one of the sleeker-looking VR headsets of the day. And, by all accounts, that was the best thing about it. Despite ambitious specs, including 320-by-200-pixel resolution, head tracking, and a color display, the few people who tried the system outside of Sega — mostly at trade shows — were far from impressed. While the Sega VR did meet its specs on paper, in practice the images were a blurry mess. The company scrapped the project in 1994. (But not before making an arrangement to offer the Sega VR as a prize in an Alpha-Bits cereal contest. What the winner actually got is a mystery.)

Sega probably breathed a sigh of relief when a year later Nintendo's Virtual Boy also flopped spectacularly.

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Emru Townsend

PC World

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