RIP technology: 10 products and services that died in 2011

From the Flip to Google Health, these tech losers showed promise -- just not enough to keep them alive.

Humans are list-making animals. At no time is that impulse more prevalent than December, when we set ourselves the task of churning out year-end retrospectives. In the tech universe, those lists generally call out the best products, the splashiest debuts, and the most promising technologies of the year (see, for instance, PCWorld's own "100 Best Products of 2011"). But there are tech losers each year, too--products, concepts, and services that kick the proverbial bucket. Some, like the vile Rustock botnet (taken down in March), we were glad to see go.

Other tech demises evoke genuine regret: good products lost in the ferocious market of 2011, tech initiatives that grew too expensive to retain their sponsor's funding, even well-engineered gear that simply never caught on with the public. Herewith, my respects to 10 tech goners that we at PCWorld are truly going to miss.

The Flip: Starting in 2007, Pure Digital's ultraportable camcorder kicked off a revolution, putting video in the hands of everyday folks, and probably enabling the creation of more YouTube cat videos than any product in history. But a 2009 sale to networking heavyweight Cisco and the rise of video-capable smartphones combined to bury everyone's favorite pocket camcorder. Cisco pulled the plug in April.

Verizon's unlimited data plan: If you're a Verizon customer, you've likely been keeping close tabs on your mobile downloading habits since July. That's when the carrier scrapped its all-you-can-eat option for a smorgasbord of mobile data-usage plans. With overage charges costing $10 per gig, movie and music streaming can get very expensive. And as the year closes, various pundits are predicting that Sprint may soon discontinue its unlimited data plan. Come back, DVDs: All is forgiven.

HP WebOS: To borrow the words of The Princess Bride's Miracle Max, HP's mobile operating system "is only mostly dead. There's a big difference between mostly dead and all dead." Indeed, there may be life after death for this promising multitasking OS, which was installed on commercial flops such as the Palm Pre and the HP TouchPad (see product number 99 in our Best Products of the Year list). For months, rumors circulated that HP would sell off the OS. Then earlier this month, HP announced that WebOS was going open source. Here's hoping for a spirited revival.

Zune HD: Two reactions greeted news that Microsoft had finally pulled the plug on its portable media player: 1) gnashing of teeth from the (few) faithful, who deemed the Zune superior to the iPod; and 2) surprise from most music fans, who didn't know it was still being produced at all. Then again, maybe the Zune isn't completely gone, since its revolutionary "Metro" interface figures prominently in Windows Phone 7, the Xbox 360, and Windows 8.

AltaVista: This once-mighty search engine has effectively been dead for years. But its demise became official in May, when corporate parent Yahoo swapped in its own search engine and started returning results on a Yahoo page. Yet in the days before Google, AltaVista was the Web's most sophisticated search engine, providing unprecedented full-text searching capabilities to the sprawl that was the mid-'90s Web. For that I'll be forever grateful, and maybe even a little wistful.

Google Labs: The development playground that gave rise to services such as Google Maps and Google Groups is no more, due to "streamlining efforts" implemented in July. The good news is that app-specific projects, such as Gmail Labs and Google Maps Labs, are still alive and kicking.

Google Health: Google will shut down this ambitious service, designed to provide users a secure place to store their personal health information, just as the big ball drops in Times Square, officially making it the first tech demise of 2012. But I'm including it here because I'd rather not wait a year to deliver the eulogy. A promising concept, Google Health was a victim of our suspicious human nature: Apparently we're not comfortable putting our health information in a third party's hands. Imagine--we don't trust Google. What a surprise.

Google Knol: Entry number three for Google in this year's Tech Senescence Stakes, Knol had big plans--namely, to challenge Wikipedia. Intended to be a user-written encyclopedia, Knol coulda been a contender if it had launched in, say, 2001 instead of 2007. But with so many of the world's content experts already doing their charity work for Wikipedia, Knol lacked enough fleshed-out articles to be taken seriously. Google's blog post on the subject notes that as of May 1, 2012, "knols won't be viewable." Fortunately, Knol won't be forgotten completely. Wikipedia has an article on it.

Dell Streak: Dell's entry into the crowded tablet sweepstakes, the Streak never gained any traction against the dominant iPad. The poorly reviewed tablet (which came in 5- and 7-inch versions) somehow felt like a me-too product even though it was one of the first Android tablets out there. The $200 price tag should have been a draw (as it was for the Amazon Kindle Fire), but the two-year AT&T contract required for activation was a turnoff. Dell can do better than this; I say it's time for a winning streak.

The white MacBook: From optical drives to FireWire ports, Apple has shown an uncanny ability to phase out technologies right before they become old hat. We're not really all that broken up about losing the white MacBook laptop this year. But if its retirement spells imminent doom for the color white, we're not going to be pleased.

This story, "RIP technology: 10 products and services that died in 2011" was originally published by PCWorld.

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