Besides bad hair, pleated jeans and 21 Jump Street, the ’80s brought us a remarkable technological revolution. Nintendo changed the living room forever with the introduction of the NES in 1985. IBM, Apple and the Commodore 64 ushered the personal PC into our lives. Even the internet breathed a few gasps of air with NFSNet and the rise of the teen hacker.
But anyone who has ever funded a Kickstarter knows that with extraordinary growth in the technology sector comes extraordinary failure. Some devices were doomed to fail — either the prototypes were full of promise and no substance, or the tech was just too expensive to succeed commercially. Other gadgets lost spectacularly to competitors and live on now only as notes in history and warnings to anyone ready to wage a format war. And some just plain didn’t work well.
Here are seven of the ’80s mightiest flops that commentators of the day dared to call revolutionary.
Everyone knows — or at least has heard — of Betamax: The video cassette alternative to VHS that VHS killed. But you can’t go and call the Betamax format an outright failure either. While it suffered a humiliating death in the consumer market, some people continue to use Betamax tapes in the pro world to record for standard definition broadcast television, as the resolution of Betamax is superior to VHS. So superior that Sony didn’t stop producing Betamax cassettes until 2015.
But the Betamax BetaMovie Record is a whole other story. Launched in 1984 for $US1596, the BetaMovie was one of the first of the new fangled “camera-recorders”, a remarkable device that built the video cassette directly into the camera itself, instead of having it be a separate box you had to wear like a purse.
According to Popular Science in June 1984, it had “superior fidelity” to VHS, could record three hours of video to a cassette (VHS could just do 30 minutes) and had a battery that lasted an hour on a charge. The magazine noted that there was “also a welcome absence of dangling cords between VCR and camera”. Unfortunately, there was also the absence of a digital viewfinder. Which meant if videographers wanted to check out what they shot they had to haul the 3kg machine over to a TV and plug it in.
Cost, weight and that big missing feature severely hurt the BetaMovie chances at taking consumers by storm, and Sony quietly axed the BetaMovie line just three years later in 1987.
Capacitance Electronic Disc
In the 1950s, someone had the bright idea to put video on a vinyl disc. Then in 1964, as told to Atlas Obscura, two engineers from RCA — a then technological powerhouse — started working on making that bright idea a reality. In a 1980 issue of New York RCA called the new format its “Manhattan Project”. It took 17 years of development, but RCA finally launched the capacitance electronic disc in 1981. It was part of a wave of videodiscs intended to compete with the fledgling VHS and Betamax market. The video that played back was of relatively high quality, and because it was a disc, it didn’t require rewinding.
But CEDs had some issues. The remote was enormous, as were the discs. The discs came in large, heavy, plastic cassettes for protection. The cassettes’ size and weight made them difficult to store. The discs themselves were super delicate (necessitating the cassettes) and could become unplayable if exposed to dusty air. They were also prone to breaking down after repeated viewings. As my own parents learned, this was not good if you lived in a home with two small girls obsessed with Secrets of NIMH.
But perhaps the worst problem was play time. You could only get an hour out of one side of the disc. So halfway through a movie you’d have to get up, stick the cassette in, remove the disc, flip the cassette and reinsert the disc.
The CED flopped. By 1984 only half a million players had been sold, and RCA was forced to announce the discontinuation of the format. The CED’s near 20-year development process hurt RCA too. It had poured millions of dollars into the development of CED — millions it had no hope of recouping. This failure contributed to GE’s takeover and rapid dismantling of the company in 1986.
Atari Touch Tablet
In the late ’70s and early ’80s, Atari was a big deal. While the company had found huge success in gaming, it was wary of putting all its eggs in the video game basket. It launched its family of 8-bit computers in 1979, and saw enough success over the next decade to put resources into building cool peripherals for the computers.
And no peripheral was cooler than the CX77 Touch Tablet. In a 1984 issue of InfoWorld the publication said “users can paint pictures and draw diagrams” with the Touch Tablet. It promised to be the Wacom of the ’80s, and Atari’s solution to the similarly ill-advised KoalaPad. By modern standards the capabilities of both tablets were laughable. You could really only make very basic shapes, and it wasn’t easy to save or transfer those shapes so others could enjoy your shape-making skills.
Too ahead of their time to be genuinely useful, both the Atari CX77 Touch Tablet and KoalaPad died quiet deaths as sales dwindled and the era of the 8-bit computer died. Now they’re relegated to the fond memories of the ageing population of 8-bit nerds.
“Never before in the history of personal computing (admittedly a brief history) has a product been so eagerly awaited by so many,” Compute! Magazine said in its announcement story for IBM’s very first PC in 1984. At that point, IBM was the largest computer business on the planet, but while it was the workstation found in every office around the globe, IBM had zero footholds in the home, where Apple, Atari and Commodore reigned supreme.
The mere idea of an IBM personal computer sent IBM’s stock up, and curious and ill-informed customers into stores. So IBM went and made an “affordable” PC, the IBM PCJr.
Unfortunately, the PCJr launched when computer prices were at an all-time low. The PCJr cost $US670 for the cheap version with next to no peripherals and $US1270 for the “good” version. While those are low prices in 2017, they were, in some cases, three times what other PC makers were charging for machines. The PCJr also had a bad keyboard, and suffered from some serious hate in the tech journalism community — very bad PR. Steven Levy, then at Popular Computing, said, “the Machine has the smell of death about it.”
All the issues combined to create a mega flop, one of the first major ones in home computing, and by 1985, IBM had discontinued its little baby PC.
Kodak Disc 4000
RCA wasn’t the only company with the bright idea of putting a medium that wasn’t music on discs. In 1982, Kodak introduced disc film and a series of disc cameras including the Kodak Disc 4000. Instead of bulky rolls of film, Kodak’s system used discs of film that resembled ViewMaster discs. Each film disc contained 15 negatives and had a magnetic strip so camera setting details could be stored, and because the curve of the disc was less substantial than the tight curl of film on a roll there was no need for big heavy plates to force the film to lay flat when developing.
Even better, because of the nature of the discs the cameras could be super thin and small, and the lenses didn’t need to jut out. That made disc film cameras wonderful for travel. But the negatives themselves were tiny. So tiny that the photo quality was bad.
Really, really bad.
“All the casual snapshots anyone wants he can get quickly with this space-age box camera,” said Popular Photography in 1982. But the publication also noted that customers “may come to regret” the format due to the size of the negatives and the quality of images they produced.
Customers agreed and Kodak quickly learned that people preferred good photos to pocketable cameras. By 1984 the flagship Kodak Disc 4000 was dead. In 1988 Kodak stopped manufacturing disc film cameras entirely, though it continued to produce film for the shooters until 1999.
There is a very good reason Apple’s very first portable PC, the Macintosh Portable, was a big fat failure. It had nothing to do with Apple itself, which had had huge success at the time with the Macintosh line. And it had nothing to do with the guts of the machine. In a 1989 issue of Computerworld the Portable was said to have “first rate workmanship” and an LCD that was “easy to see”.
The problem with the Macintosh Portable was that it was a 7kg machine that started at $US6500 and required the battery to have juice in order to run — even when plugged in.
So it was neither cheap nor portable. It was expensive and hefty and power-hungry, and while critics liked it a lot, consumers said screw that noise, which led to the discontinuation of the computer two years later in 1991.
The Portable was the first of a series of ill-advised design gambles for the company. While Apple survived the Macintosh Portable’s failure intact and went on to produce the well received PowerBook, it would also produce the Newton, immediately after killing the Portable. Like the Portable, the Newton was a powerful device that felt, in some sense, a little ahead of its time. Unlike the Portable, it would contribute to the near bankruptcy of the company.
Many of the computers Coleco made in the ’80s were great. But the Coleco Adam was not one of those great computers. Hailed as “the most revolutionary concept in how to design and sell a home computer” by Popular Mechanics in 1984, it was ostensibly fantastic. Because it had specs to spare and a great price, it was considered a viable alternative for the IBM PCJr. Unfortunately, it also had a substantial flaw that tech media of the 1980s seemed to frequently overlook.
The thing produced an electromagnetic surge every time it booted up. As this was the ’80s, people weren’t quite as concerned with electromagnetic shielding — particularly the manufacturers of recordable media. A problem as recordable media in the ’80s required magnets, and one wrong placement of a fridge magnet — or an electromagnetic pulse — could wipe the media.
So every time you booted the Adam up you ran the risk of erasing any media in or near the device. This was, clearly, not good. Which is why Coleco axed the Adam in 1985, less than a year and a half after it launched.
Neither Apple, Google nor even Pebble can claim to have created the first wristwatch computer, though anything from those companies would run circles around the watch that owns that title.
At a glance, the Seiko UC-2000’s capabilities seem incredible, even by today’s standards. The guts of the device were in a watch that you could carry around to tell the time, but if you plugged in the super awkward wrist keyboard or dropped it onto the enormous desktop dock, you could add text documents, do some calculations and even accomplish some BASIC commands on the very, very tiny screen.
While it was pretty cheap by today’s standards ($US230), it was also very ugly. So ugly that Seiko dragged its feet bringing the UC-2000 to the West.
Popular Science from 1985 had a particularly scorching review: “Though a clever and appealing plaything, the UC-2000 system rates poorly as a computer, even compared to $100 handheld models. It’s extremely slow, and — yawn — if you thought the PCJr’s keyboard was bad, Seiko’s takes the big step from purgatory to hell.”