The Xerox Alto
Developed in 1972 at Xerox's Palo Alto Research center, the Alto had a bitmap display, windows, drop-down menu bars, a mouse, built-in Ethernet and hard disk, keyboard, word processor and more in their software productivity suite, a paint application, and even e-mail. Xerox was far to busy fighting the copier patent war, and was not interested. Steve Jobs was, and in 1984, Apple introduced Apple Lisa, and the Apple Macintosh. Although this was the most ingenious creation of the time, quite possibly responsible for the way we use computers today, it should be viewed also as a huge flop when Xerox did not capitalize on its innovation.
This seemed like a great idea at the time. Steve Jobs resigned from Apple back in 1985 to start a new company called NeXT. The NeXT computer would be the most affordable UNIX super computer of its time. Running a Motorola 33-MHz 68030 processor, enclosed in a black case, there was no doubt this was the hottest and most powerful computer of its time. However at $6,000 a piece, and with no software that would run on the machine, it was really a $6,000 brick. Roughly 50,000 were ever produced. The company had spent over $250 million producing them. Although a huge disaster, this was also the computer that Tim Berners-Lee would later use to create the World Wide Web, and Steve Jobs would use as the core principals behind the new OS X.
IBM was trying to build an affordable machine for the classroom and the masses. Unfortunately, they ended up building an inferior non IBM-PC compatible machine with a ridiculously small keyboard that wouldn't run any software. The costs was a few dollars less than some IBM-PC compatible clones, so it was pointless to buy one. Another nice feature, the keyboard communicated with the computer via infrared beams. This provided hours of enjoyment in the classroom screwing up other peoples computing.
Although produced for six years, it was never as successful as Apple had hoped. The main reasons: High price, Large size. It's handwriting recognition was notoriously bad, a problem that was featured in the Doonesbury comic strip. However, although the Newton product itself never made mass appeal, the technologies that were developed for the Newton are still used today and responsible for many huge success' for Apple (iPod, OS X) and started the PDA line of computer products.
Released in 1980, the Apple 3 became one of the worst computers ever built and most expensive. It was designed for the high end business market, but at a cost of $7,800, even business's had trouble justifying the cost. To make maters worse, the computer was made far to cramped with parts to make it smaller. When it became to hot inside the computer (Engineers opted to not use a fan), chips would start popping out of the boards! In order to correct the issue, Apple tech support could be heard saying "please lift up your Apple 3 about 10 centimeters off the desk, and drop it." this would put the chips back in the slots sometimes.
How much to get into an amazing Apple Lisa? $10,000 dollars. Announced in 1983, this was a complete disaster for Apple. Hardly any were ever sold. How many were produced? 100,000. The machine itself was far from powerful, and Apple users simply preferred the Macintosh. The development costs aren't to be found.
Microsoft Windows ME
Microsoft Windows Millennium Edition was touted as the first operating system to support Universal Plug and Play. Unfortunately, this operating systems was quit possibly less compatible with hardware, than its predecessor, Windows 98. It was also notoriously difficult to re-install, which was terrible since this operating system needed to be re-installed almost weekly. Hardcore users claimed that Windows ME was more stable than 98, or 98SE, and the instabilities came from users installing bad drivers that were not approved and certified. Nevertheless, most users of Windows were beginners, and thus the perception that Windows ME actually stood for "Microsoft Experiment", "Moron Edition", "Mistake Edition", and "Memory Eater".
This one is great. In 1995 Microsoft released a software package and interface that was aimed at replacing the Windows desktop with one aimed at novice computer users. The interface featured a big yellow smiley face with glasses and virtual rooms. Complete disaster! Far to simple, not powerful enough, over priced, and all and all, ridiculous. It was replaced that same year by Windows 95.
In the 1990's after feeling "Had" by Microsoft, IBM decided they could trounce Microsoft and come up with their own operating system. A great idea gone bad by marketing, the idea became to market OS/2 and the PowerPC Chip together. Had IBM pushed OS/2, and later OS/2 Warp as an operating system alternative to Windows, the computing landscape might have been different today. Instead, by the later half of the 1990's, Windows 95 and 98 had obliterated OS/2.
Gary Kildall's CP/M
Grab a cup of coffee for the biggest mistake, and largest computing stroke of luck that created Microsoft, and one of the wealthiest fortunes the planet has ever seen. In 1980, IBM finally realized they needed to put a home computer out on the market extremely fast. However they could not find the time to wait around to build their own operating system. They wanted to buy one, and the best one at the time, Gary Kildall's CP/M operating system. Where was Gary Kildall on this fateful day that the IBM suits came knocking? Out of office flying a private plane. IBM went back to the office's and looked up Microsoft, which they thought had a broad license to sell CP/M. Microsoft came in and negotiated a per licenses model to sell the operating system at 50 dollars per machine. Bill Gates had created the Software Licensing Industry!
Microsoft did not have such an operating system themselves, nor did they have a license to sell CP/M. In fact, Gary Kildall's Digital Research didn't have CP/M ready to run on the 16-bit computers IBM would manufacture. Tim Patterson did at the Seattle Computer Company, which Microsoft bought for $50,000. Had Gary Kildall been at the office, Microsoft and Bill Gates might have been eating macaroni and cheese, and the Digital Research operating system would be running on all of our computers. Gary Kildall died in July 1994 at the age of 52. The computer media mainly ignored his passing.
What do all of these stories have in common? Yes they were all mistakes, but almost all of them paved the way for some of the largest success's in computing history. Sometimes for the same company, sometimes for other companies. The lesson here is persistence, determination, and perseverance.