The 10 greatest tech U-turns
4. Apple and the clones
At the dawn of 1995, the Apple Macintosh was a widely respected computer system, but its market share was still tiny compared to the burgeoning IBM PC-compatible platform, which by this time represented around 90% of computer sales.
Apple’s solution? If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Recognising that the success of the PC platform derived from its openness, the company started to license the Macintosh platform to third-party manufacturers. Licence-holders were permitted to build compatible systems to whatever specifications they saw fit, and sell them with the then-current System 7 OS – so long as they paid royalties back to Apple.
Several household names took out licences, including Motorola and Pioneer, but the biggest investor was Texas-based Power Computing. Power designed systems with features and performance that exceeded Apple’s own models, and within a year had sold more than 100,000 official Macintosh “clones”.
The licensing programme appeared to be a great success, but giving up control of the hardware left Apple with limited control over the user experience – which had always been one of its key strengths. And while Apple was raking in licence fees, sales of genuine Macs fell as shoppers chose Power Computing models instead. The clones were eroding Apple’s identity and, analysts suspected, its revenue.
Small wonder, then, that when Steve Jobs returned to the helm in 1997, one of his first acts was to shut down the licensing scheme. He’d never been a fan of any part of the Apple empire slipping beyond his control, especially the hardware. Apple subsequently bought out Power Computing for a cool $100 million and never again was anyone apart from Apple allowed to sell a Mac, or even the Mac OS – just ask Psystar.
5. Intel and NetBurst
Back in 2000, to much ballyhoo, Intel’s Pentium 4 burst onto the world stage. It boasted a completely new microarchitecture – Intel’s first for five years – called NetBurst. Intel made grand claims for the design, based around Hyper Pipelined Technology.
But NetBurst-based Pentium 4 CPUs were actually slower, clock for clock, than the Pentium IIIs they replaced. The idea was that NetBurst would compensate for this poor performance at low clock speeds by supporting stratospheric frequencies. Intel claimed an eventual target clock speed of 10GHz was possible as the design matured.
Alas, it wasn’t to be. As clock speeds increased, the company was unable to keep on top of power consumption, which rose proportionally. By the time the last Pentium 4 CPUs with 3.8GHz clock speeds came onto the market, they were consuming up to 130W of power.
That created a huge heat problem and led to horribly noisy PCs, with fans running at full speed almost permanently. Intel simply couldn’t manage to design a model with a clock speed higher than 3.8GHz – the power consumption was too great.
It was forced to abandon NetBurst, and in 2006 – after a frantic 18-month about-face behind the scenes – it revealed the Core microarchitecture. This threw away the ideas behind NetBurst, owing its design principles to the low-power Pentium M architecture. The deep pipelines, high clock speeds and huge power consumption of NetBurst were consigned to history.
6. Toshiba and Blu-ray
Rewind to late 2006, and Toshiba and Sony were locked in mortal combat. The battle to create the definitive high-definition video format raged.
In one camp stood Sony’s Blu-ray, and in the other Toshiba’s inventively titled HD DVD. For those who’d invested hundreds of pounds in a swanky HDTV, this was potentially the first chance they’d get to see their obscenely sized television at its pixel-perfect best.
The rivals were well matched. Both employed DVD-sized discs, and as the video and audio codecs used to compress the huge amounts of video and audio data were nigh-on identical, the quality was indiscernible. With the stage set, consumers rushed to their local retailer, chose the cheaper of the two, and made their HD allegiance known with the swipe of a credit card.
But despite HD DVD players often proving cheaper than their Blu-ray brethren, Sony had its very own Trojan horse. Every one of Sony’s PlayStation 3 consoles included a Blu-ray drive as standard, allowing the company to establish a beach head in the homes of gamers. Those Hollywood motion picture studios that hadn’t already chosen sides slowly and inexorably fell under Sony’s blue glow, and any that had chosen to back both stopped answering Toshiba’s calls.
In February 2008, Toshiba limped out of the high-definition war, bruised and battered, with millions of dollars lost in wasted research and design. Eighteen months on, Toshiba applied for membership of the Blu-ray Disc Association.