Gadgets that design forgot

The past 30 years have seen many devices become commonplace; the laptop, the portable media player and the compact disc, to name a few. But there have been many that were never going to become iconic. E&T browses a well-stocked rogues' gallery.

Sometimes what appears to be an amazing idea to a design engineering team may not have the same level of enthusiasm with the general consumer. Surprisingly, as these examples demonstrate, some of the biggest design gaffes were made by companies that are known for their stylistic prowess.

Sinclair C5

Sir Clive Sinclair will go down in the annals of engineering for producing many innovative firsts in the world of consumer electronics - the pocket calculator, the digital watch, the pocket TV and the first British-made home computers. He lent his name to all of these products but, unfortunately, he also lent his good name to the C5 electric car which first hit UK roads in 1985.

It was no secret for a number of years that Sinclair was working on a production electric vehicle and, considering Sir Clive's unparalleled reputation (he even had his own 'Spitting Image' puppet), everyone was expecting something spectacular. However, they were to be sorely disappointed.

The Sinclair C5 was designed very low to the ground and only seated one passenger. Its top speed was 15 miles per hour - which was the maximum allowed under UK law without a driving license, car tax, insurance or a registration plate. In the end, due in part to public derision, only 17,000 were ever produced.

The Apple Newton

What looked good on paper did not work particularly well in reality. The Apple Newton featured an Arm 610 processor which offered 20MHz of processing power and 640k of RAM. You could opt for a version with or without a 9.6k internal modem - and most did as there was little point in purchasing one without because wireless in computing wasn't even a wisp in the ether back then.

However, its greatest selling point was also its greatest weakness. The handwriting recognition application was supposed to recognise a user's scribbles but, despite it being a relatively powerful device for its day, it clearly had difficulty identifying its user's cursive script. This soon became the butt of many jokes on the burgeoning World Wide Web - where users would swap examples of how their words were misinterpreted by the software.

No doubt Steve Jobs, when he returned to the company in 1998, had read some of these Web postings as he canned the Newton project and steered a troubled Apple Corp back to profitability and innovation. Many Newton alumni did, however, go on to greater things, such as Jonathan Ive who heads Apple's design engineering division.

Dragon 32

In the 1980s, the UK home computer industry was booming with a number of home-grown companies. One such company was Dragon, which launched the Dragon 32 home computer in 1982. Clearly, since California had Silicon Valley, it seemed logical that Wales, with its lush green valleys, should develop its own computer industry. The machine was manufactured in Port Talbot.

Despite having quite a sturdy keyboard and some useful external ports - such as the ability to plug it into a dedicated composite monitor, the Dragon 32 failed on two counts.

Gaming was the biggest driver in the home computing market. The Dragon's Motorola MC6809E processor, although computationally powerful for its time, proved very poor for serving up graphics.

Additionally, in an effort to save on system memory, the machine could only render capital letters on the screen - which alienated the lucrative educational market which became dominated by Acorn's BBC Micro Model B. Despite upgrading the RAM to 64 kilobytes, the Dragon 32/64 was finally discontinued in 1984.

Sony Minidisc

When Apple Computer Corp was struggling under a procession of underperforming CEOs in the 1990s, Sony was riding high with its Trinitron range of TVs, seen as the nadir of cathode ray television (CRT) technology. But the real jewel in the crown was the Sony Walkman brand.

However, the cassette-based portable player soon started to sound distinctly inferior to the compact disc technology that had established a new standard in music clarity. Therefore, Sony labs started work on a disc technology of its own that would be recordable (CDs at the time were not), smaller than and as clear to the ear as CDs.

MiniDisc technology was developed as a hybrid of CD and floppy disc technology, with its magnetic disc in plastic casing that got clipped back when placed in a player. This was seen as a logical step for the Walkman brand.

The first MiniDisc Walkman certainly delivered far superior sound quality, but was criticised on other points. First, it was beset with a damaging format war with Philips' DCC (digital compact cassette) technology. Then there was the issue of the price of the blank media which initially cost just as much as buying an album on CD.

Eventually, these two issues were resolving themselves, but not before truly digital media players emerged from the likes of Rio, Creative and Apple. These players could rip music directly from CDs when placed in a computer using the accompanying software. They could also allow users to create playlists, randomise a selection and rate their music.

Until very recently, the technology was being produced for use in Sony's PSP range. However, with the introduction of the PSP Go, which does away with the UMD slot, it no longer has a place on consumer tech retail shelves.

Sony is bravely soldiering on with its MiniDisc technology. Currently, devices are on sale to professional broadcasters under the Hi-MD product range. Radio broadcasters and music bootleggers are equally still enamoured by the excellent sound recording qualities of the device - although this has very little to do with the media itself.

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