Recently, my husband and I were arguing about TiVos, and it’s not just because we like to argue. He says that our homegrown MythTV system is a customizable, open-source way to record television, and I say that I miss the chirpy little noise a TiVo remote control made when I fast-forwarded through the commercials. Then we paused to remember Tivo’s competitor, ReplayTV. What the heck happened to it?

It got me thinking about awesome technology that we somehow ditched. The airship? Awesome. Slide rules? Awesome awesome. Mir Space Station? Boss-level awesome. And now just thinking about wristwatches with calculators makes me suffer a sense of short-term nostalgia (as in Douglas Coupland’s Generation X).

Here are some of the coolest features and products that we’ve lost along the way to 2012.

Commercial skipping on DVRs

Ah, television. We love you long time. But we have to go to work, so we can afford to pay our cable bills so we can watch more television. That’s where DVRs come in. They record our favorite shows when we’re not around, and after we’ve satisfied our craving forMythBusters, we delete the shows with a few touches of that chirpy remote control.

And if you happened to have a ReplayTV DVR circa 1999, a remote allowed you to skip over 3+ minutes worth of commercials with a mere press of a button.

Think about it. That’s three minutes of your life that you can spend watching more television.

What the hell happened?

A lawsuit. The television industry hates commercial skipping even more than terrorists hate our freedom, because it deprives viewers of exposure to many fine commercials. Oras Wikipedia says, commercial skipping “attacks the fundamental economic underpinnings of free television and basic nonbroadcast services.”

Even though ReplayTV eventually released a model of its DVR that didn’t allow commercial skipping, it was too late. Parent company SONICblue was sued into oblivion for commercial skipping as well as another controversial feature, “Send Show,” that allowed users to share their recordings.

TiVo, ReplayTV’s competitor, wisely sidestepped the issue of commercial skipping with a less provocative feature: commercial fast-forwarding. Now ReplayTV is dead, while TiVo lives on.

What could have happened had the technology been allowed to mature?

You would be able to play commercials for the products that you see on-screen. Watching Ralph Kramden threaten Alice with a trip to the moon? Click a button, and you’re presented with a commercial for Virgin Galactic.

IR beaming

Before the days of ubiquitous WiFi, the Treo (see Graffiti, below) and the Palm III  used a unique method to transfer files between two phones: infrared beaming. To send files from one phone to another, we just placed them near each other, pointed them at one another, and selected “Beam” from the Treo’s menu. These files were as simple as business cards and as complex as applications.

Seriously, it was totally cool to beam a business card to a potential client, although certain potential dates were less impressed. (It wouldn’t have worked out with that guy anyhow. He obviously wasn’t geeky enough.)

What the hell happened?

Just as video killed the radio star, IR beaming was effectively eliminated by the Apple App Store; the App Store created the ability to download apps from a centrally controlled system, rather than peer to peer.

Bump is currently filling the gaps in file transfer that IR beaming left behind. But instead of IR, Bump uses Wi-Fi3G, and Edge. Which is great…but did we really need a bevy of advanced tech in order to revive a late-1990s feature that only required a cheap infrared LED and receiver?

What could have happened had the technology been allowed to mature?

File transfers would have increased in capacity. So instead of business cards, users could beam references, personal histories, personal essays, YouTube clips, social networking posts, and entire audition reels. Personnel recruiters would burn out from information overload. And let’s not think about IR malware. It’s too scary.

Graffiti for Palm

The Palm (originally Palm Pilot) was a 1996 personal digital assistant. This PDA came with a calendar, an address book, a calculator, and a note-taker. But instead of a keyboard interface (such as the one its competitor, the Psion Series 3, had), the Palm used a handwriting recognition system called Graffiti.

Graffiti distilled the English alphabet into a series of one-stroke lines and curves that made writing by hand streamlined and fun. It was also far more accurate than the previous push for handwriting recognition software (a la Apple Newton). Graffiti is also far less finicky than tiny modern keyboards (or even the iOS virtual keyboard).

What happened?

Another pesky lawsuit, that’s what happened. Xerox claimed that Palm infringed upon their patent for a handwriting recognition system, called Unistroke. Palm created a two-stroke variant, Graffiti 2, after a court ruling forbade them the use of Graffiti. (Note: Palm appealed but Xerox appealed the appealing and won big.)

But users disliked using two strokes for a character that previously required one. Palm Inc, which made the transition from PDAs to cell phones, discontinued Graffiti by 2003, when the PalmOne cell phone debuted with a plain old keyboard.

What could have happened had the technology been allowed to mature?

Voice recognition might never have gained any kind of traction. Siri would not be controlled by a voice. Instead, we would summon our personal assistant by rubbing a touch-panel; Siri would then appear like a genie from a lamp.

ThinkPad 701c’s Butterfly keyboard

The 1995 Butterfly keyboard was an ingenious design that fit an 11.5-inch keyboard into an 8.25-inch footprint…without physics-defying lamp genies. It turns out that the keyboard was split in half and slid in and out of the ThinkPad’s body with an open (or close) of the lid. Frankly, we’ve had a soft spot for tech that slides in and out automatically ever since we saw HAL’s deactivation.

The ThinkPad 701c was the top-selling notebook PC of 1995, and the design was so innovative that it won 27 awards. Watching the keyboard fold and unfold itself again and again created a sense of childlike glee that most adults find hard to replicate without drugs.

What the hell happened?

Evolution killed the Butterfly. Back in 1995, the largest screen IBM could use was 10.4 inches diagonally. Soon after the release of the ThinkPad 701c, IBM increased their screen size of its next release, the ThinkPad 560, to a full 12.1 inches. The new full-sized keyboard was suitable even for typists with sausages for fingers.

What could have happened had the technology been allowed to mature?

This folding of space could have progressed further. The ThinkPad’s design was originally based on a bento box. Therefore today’s ThinkPads would fold down into the size of one piece of sushi.

A shout-out to a more advanced interface: Acer produced the Iconoia laptop with two screens (one of them a touchscreen) and no physical keyboard at all. But it’s still not as cool as a genuinely full-size keyboard springing TARDIS-like out of a 11-inch box.

Instant cameras

Once upon a time, all you needed to take a reasonable picture was to point a camera and shoot. But developing the film was a complicated multistep processes that involved chemical baths, fixative agents, a dark room, patience, a steady hand, and a spouse who probably had a lover on the side. In 1948, the first commercial instant camera was released. It wasn’t quite instant (it required a few minutes for the film to develop inside the camera) and it wasn’t quite simple (you had to coat the photo to prevent fading), but it certainly beat waiting.

Eventually, instant cameras became more simple to use: slap in a cartridge, point and shoot, watch the camera spit out the picture, wait a minute as the chemicals develop for the image to appear. Voila. Semi-instant gratification.

What the hell happened?

Even at its most simple, instant cameras weren’t quite instant. Plus, the photos they took weren’t pristine and tended to fade over time. You have only to page through a family photo album and wonder if Uncle Lew’s bald head ever looked that white to see what I mean.

Still, instant cameras were popular for five decades until digital cameras entered the mass market (arguably in 1997). As digital cameras became less expensive, stored more images, and took higher-quality photos, even the best film cameras couldn’t compete.

What could have happened had the technology been allowed to mature?

Had consumers continued to demand instant gratification, by 2111, we will be eating food from our own personal replicators.


HyperCard was a native application for the Macintosh circa 1987 and a candle that burned very brightly for a little over a year.

Users with a minimal programming background could write scripts on the fly thanks to its scripting language, HyperTalk. According to Jeanne’s House o’ HyperCard, “a HyperCard data file, called a stack, consists of any number of cards, or screens. Cards contain buttons of several kinds, text fields, and color or black-and-white graphics; any of these objects can be shared between several cards to make a background with common elements…. This open structure lends itself to almost any programming purpose.”

It also had uses in every industry, especially the gaming industry, which brought HyperCard stacks to the masses in the form of choose-your-own-adventure games, puzzle games such as The Fool’s Errand, and the still-awesome-after-all-these-years videogame, Myst.

What the hell happened?

According to A(pple)ficianado John Gruber, HyperCard failed because it wasn’t “Mac-like” enough. Without the standard GUI and the typical menu bar, HyperCard lacked the look and feel of a Macintosh program that users demanded even back in 1987, a.k.a. the Dark Ages. And ZDNet suggests that it failed because Apple booted it back to Claris, who started charging money for a previously free program.

Slashdotters believe that HyperCard’s demise stemmed from the prevalence of Excel, a spreadsheet application that in 1988 overtook its competitor, Lotus 1-2-3. (Excel’s native tools replaced most of the need for HyperCard.)

But the real reason we don’t live in a HyperCard world is because Apple failed to develop it beyond its 2.41 release in 1998 and ultimately stopped supporting the software in 2004.

What could have happened had the technology been allowed to mature?

Hypercard’s “links” between “pages” could have easily been the basis of the web, instead of Tim Berners-Lee’s alternative. Had this been the case, every web browser would play Myst while users waited for pages to load.


Back in the day when the World Wide Web was a mere glint in the eye of Tim Berners-Lee, the Internet was an informal distributed network with no formal point of control (as opposed to a bulletin board, which had a dedicated server and an admin). This group of groups was known as Usenet.

Users could pick up a Usenet feed from a local node and read material online, or they set up their own node and transfer data. Usenet had over 100,000 newsgroups, on topics as eclectic as, where people offered their opinions on saddle bronc riding, to frequented by the author himself. And let us not forget alt.wesley.crusher.die.die.die.

It also had porn.

What the hell happened?

PC Magazine blames Usenet’s decline — but not demise, as Usenet will continue  to existas long as there are NNTP servers still running—on pornography.

Usenet started to become a way for pirates and pornographers to distribute massive quantities of binary files…. [B]y the late ’90s the “binaries” groups began taking up huge amounts of space and Net traffic, and since Usenet libraries reside on each ISP’s server, service providers sensibly started to wonder why they should be reserving big chunks of their own disk space for pirated movies and repetitive porn.

By 1996, the World Wide Web, separate pages “owned” and paid for by individuals and companies, was firmly established as the go-to destination for genealogical research, help with homework, and of course, more porn. Many Usenet-ers now discuss the merits of actor David Duchovny on Internet forums and discussion lists.

What could have happened had the technology been allowed to mature?

We could be discussing the merits of actor David Duchovny on Usenet 2.0.