Delete: A Design History of Computer Vapourware, by Paul Atkinson

John Gilbey is reunited with fondly remembered computer hardware that never achieved market success

October 17, 2013

Opening this sumptuously photographed, elegantly laid-out volume threatened to bring back a touch of my old madness. You see, over the past few decades I have led a double life: by day, a sensible IT professional honing the edges of a carefully reasoned hardware investment cycle to gain maximum benefit for the public purse; by night, a barely controlled geek tempted beyond all reason to acquire for himself the latest, shiniest and most adorable gizmos to hit the market.

The technological contents of my study – and loft – bear silent, brooding, testimony to this deplorable trait; something I finally have almost in check now that middle age has brought a cynical edge to my personal purchases. As I flipped in drooling, nerdy absorption through the pages of Paul Atkinson’s book, I came across pictures of a number of old friends – one of which I could actually dig out of a nearby desk drawer without stretching.

Atkinson’s book relates in engaging detail the design history of some of the “also ran” products of the computing industry. It represents a carefully chosen slice through the landscape of next-big-things that never quite succeeded in fighting their way to the centre of the marketplace.

The idea was sound, but the technology was not yet advanced enough to support the vision for the product

There are many reasons why these products did not succeed. In some cases, the idea was sound but the technology was not yet advanced enough to adequately support the vision for the product, as was the case with early tablet format computers. There are other cases in which the product was never subjected to a common-sense test by someone who was not madly enthused by it – “because we can…” has not always been enough to ensure success. Then there were the excellent products that weren’t, or couldn’t be, manufactured fast enough to establish themselves before being overtaken by a faster, better, cheaper design.

Other systems just didn’t do the job as advertised, but perhaps the most regrettable situation has been where a useful, effective, well-designed product emerged before the potential customers had a strong enough vision of what benefit it could bring to them – products that were just too innovative. Atkinson provides colourful examples of all these conditions, and more, in this book.

In some cases, however, it would be wrong to dismiss the products discussed here as failures. A number of them, although they may not have made huge inroads commercially or brought their company global success, were extremely influential. Take, for example, the Psion Series 5 of the late 1990s: a truly pocket-sized computer with a good keyboard, which ran for 30 hours on two AA batteries and had excellent built-in software. It was my constant companion for several years and I’m still looking for a replacement device with the same all-round utility. Similarly, more than a few IT professionals today can trace their love of code back to early encounters with the Sinclair QL computer detailed in this book – which, despite some wildly annoying traits, was a powerful programming environment at an affordable price and set many software developers on the path to digital enlightenment.

The text is well written, amusing and perceptive – but for me the real treasure is in the book’s excellent collection of photographs of computer hardware. Taken mostly from the original marketing material, it embodies all that is best about professional photography. Beautifully lit, tastefully styled and of the highest technical quality, the photographs are a testament to those practitioners who could make even the blandest putty-coloured box look interesting, powerful and oddly seductive.

Delete: A Design History of Computer Vapourware

By Paul Atkinson
Bloomsbury, 256pp, £75.00 and £24.99
ISBN 9780857853462 and 3479
Published 29 August 2013

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