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Three Ultra-Successful Technologies With Humble Beginnings
Posted on June 19th 2013
The last 20th and early 21st centuries saw the technology industry explode in size, with consumer and office tech being snapped up at unprecedented rates. This success has turned companies like HP, Apple and Samsung into some of the biggest organisations on the planet, with billion-dollar turnovers and vast profits.
However, many of today’s most popular technology products have surprisingly inauspicious origins. In fact, it’s a wonder that some of the gadgets we take for granted today even made it past the prototype stage.
Digital Audio Player
If you think that Apple invented the MP3 player with the iPod, think again. The first commercially available digital audio player was 1997’s Audible.com Mobile Player and the earliest prototypes were conceived in 1979 by Kane Kramer, a British computer scientist.
The Mobile Player was not a high-spec device by any stretch of the imagination. It could only play files in Audible’s own proprietary format, had no display and held a mere 4 minutes of audio in its 2MB memory store. It certainly was not an iPod Touch.
The first somewhat successful MP3 player arrived in 1998 in the form of the Diamond Rio PMP300. Boasting a mighty 32MB of memory and a display that could actually give you the number of the track you were listening to (although not artist or title information), Diamond ended up selling 200,000 of the devices. However, an unreliable parallel port connection and a central control button with a propensity to fall off hampered the Rio’s efforts at world domination. Surely, it seemed, portable CD players would dominate the mobile audio landscape forevermore.
Of course, Apple changed all that. The iPod may have taken a few years to take off (Apple’s insistence on making their player Mac-compatible only hampered sales for a while), but by 2004 the diminutive player with the neat design was selling like those proverbial hotcakes.
The first laser printer was developed in the late 1960s by Xerox’s Gary Starkweather and was based on, of all things, a fax machine. Starkweather realised that if he could create a machine which used toner to print like a fax, but produced computer generated output instead of copying a document, he could revolutionise office life forever.
His bosses, on the other hand, weren’t keen and ordered him in no uncertain terms to drop the project. In fact, Starkweather ended up having to complete much of it in secret for fear of disciplinary action. Even once his prototype had been completed, successfully demonstrated and put onto the market as the Xerox 9700, Starkweather was still encountering resistance from above as he tried to develop the huge 9700 print unit into a consumer friendly product. At that time, his bosses didn’t believe the laser printer had a home in small offices.
Fast forward to today and it’s a different story. Laser printers are vital parts of office setups small and large, while improvements in print technology and printer toner allow for results that would have been astounding in Starkweather’s day. The introduction of specialist print supply companies has driven costs down further too, helping to cement the laser printer’s dominance of the office printing market.
OK, maybe it’s stretching the point to suggest that the computer looked doomed to failure from the start. However, a look at some vintage computing quotes makes it clear that it could all have panned out very differently for technology’s trusty workhorse. See how to use old computer parts to build something awesome.
Take, for example, Digital Equipment Corporation’s Ken Olson, who announced in 1977 that he could see no reason why anyone would need a computer in their home. What’s more, Popular Mechanics magazine in 1949 confidently predicted that the computer of the future would weigh no more than one and a half tons.
Of course, technically that one was true. Modern computers do weight no more than one and a half tons. However, the final word has to go to IBM’s Thomas Watson and his 1943 prediction that there was a world market for perhaps five computers.
Let’s all take turns, shall we?