The 20 Greatest Tech Underdogs of All Time

A heartfelt celebration of products and technologies that try harder.

By  |  Thursday, November 5, 2009 at 1:57 am

15. Aldus Altsys Macromedia Adobe FreeHand

Aldus FreeHand

What it was: A venerable vector-illustration graphics package.

Underdog to: Adobe Illustrator (and, to a much lesser extent, CorelDraw).

Notable virtues: FreeHand had a reputation for having a much better interface than Illustrator; it also sported features such as multiple-page documents and sophisticated text handling years before Adobe got around to adding them.

What made it an underdog: Well, any graphics package that competes against something similar from creative-app behemoth Adobe is an underdog almost by definition. FreeHand also faced the challenge of revolving-door ownership: It was originally produced by Altsys, who licensed it to Aldus until that company was bought by Adobe in 1994, whereupon Altsys got it back until it was acquired itself by Macromedia in 1995. Macromedia was bought by Adobe in 2005; it’s no shocker that that company’s main interest in FreeHand lay in trying to get its users to switch to Illustrator. Like Aldus’s PageMaker, FreeHand lives on in old-software limbo: It’s still for sale (and still used by loyal fans), but will never get another upgrade.

Random factoid: Just last September, FreeHandinistas founded a group called Its goal: to assure a future for FreeHand by convincing Adobe (who the site doesn’t mention by name) to upgrade it or open-source it. But if that doesn’t work, the group says it would like to revive FreeHand’s fortunes through legal action.

14. Powerline (HomePlug) Networking

HomeplugWhat it is: A home networking technology that uses your house’s electrical wiring to transmit data from room to room.

Underdog to: Wi-Fi and, to a lesser extent, plain old Ethernet via CAT5 cable.

Notable virtues: Exceptionally easy installation; reliable; with products that use the HomePlug AV spec, an impressive maximum theoretical performance of 189Mbps.

What makes it an underdog: You know, I’m not entirely sure. And neither are networking-gear manufacturers–I’ve met more of them than I can count who like powerline and can’t figure out why consumers don’t. Wi-Fi has a hipness that powerline doesn’t–wireless is inherently cooler than wired–and Wi-Fi has the benefit of being a logical technology to build into laptops. (Powerline presumes that the devices that use it are sitting in a fixed location near a power jack.) Also, reviews of HomePlug AV products aren’t always glowing.

Random factoid: HomePlug Command & Control, a variant designed for home automation applications, was ratified by the HomePlug Powerline in Alliance in 2007 but seems to pretty much be in limbo, as far as I can tell.

13. Sonic the Hedgehog

Sonic the HedgehogWho he is: The star of an eponymous 1991 Sega videogame–and the company’s corporate spokescritter to this day.

Underdog to: Nintendo’s Mario (aka Super Mario, aka Dr. Mario), the much better known videogame star with whom Sonic maintains an apparently friendly rivalry. If Mario is the Mickey Mouse of the gaming world, Sonic is…well, let’s say its Mighty Mouse. No, make that its Woody Woodpecker.

Notable virtues: He’s really, really fast.

What makes him an underdog: He’s associated with Sega, an underdog of a company that was forced to exit the hardware business in 2001 and become a software publisher. Also, he doesn’t have the good fortune to have been created, as Mario was, by the greatest videogame developer of all time.

Random factoid: Sonic is most likely the only video game character ever to have a mammalian protein named in his honor.

12. Radio Shack TRS-80 Model I

TRS-80What it was: Along with the Apple II and Commodore Pet 2001, one of the holy trinity of personal computers that debuted in 1977.

Underdog to: Mostly Apple’s vastly more glamorous Apple II. By comparison, the TRS-80 was the poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks. (Maybe Radio Shack should have worn its downmarket reputation as a badge of honor and done “I’m a TRS-80” TV commercials.)

Notable virtues: Radio Shack’s thousands of mall stores made it the most widely-marketed computer of its era; spawned an impressive ecosystem of third-party software and hardware; became the subject of the first platform-specific computer magazines.

What made it an underdog: The Model I had a low-resolution black-and-white graphics and no sound; it was sheathed in a gray plastic case that looked clunky even in the 1970s; it had an embarrassing hardware defect known as keybounce. And it was marketed by Radio Shack, a company that was (and is) square to its core. Eventually, it was saddled by the derisive nickname “Trash-80,” which makes me gnash my teeth to this day.

Random factoid: The world of the TRS-80 is the subject of Priming the Pump, a nifty recent book.

11. FireWire


What it is: A connectivity standard originally developed by Apple in the 1990s and later adopted as an industry standard under the moniker IEEE 1394.

Underdog to: The phenomenally successful Universal Serial Bus, in multiple variants–from the long-ago 1.0 to the nascent 3.0.

Notable virtues: FireWire 400’s data transfer speed (400-Mbps) is theoretically slower than USB 2.0’s 400-Mbps, but FireWire devices are often faster in the real world; FireWire 800 is faster still. It’s excellent for digital video, too. And I know people who swear by FireWire hard drives.

What makes it an underdog: FireWire was originally a costlier technology to implement than USB, so fewer PC manufacturers included it, giving peripheral manufacturers less incentive to support it. Result: Vicious circle of middling industry support.  FireWire 800 never caught on in the PC domain at all. (There’s probably a good reason why it uses a different connector than FireWire-400, but I don’t know what it is.)  Branding confusion probably didn’t help, either–FireWire is a cool name, but IEEE 1394 is positively yawn-inducing, and Sony insisted on calling its version of the technology by still another name, i.Link.

Random factoid: According to Wikipedia, the Space Shuttle uses FireWire 800 “to monitor debris (foam, ice) which may hit the vehicle during launch.”




20 Comments For This Post

  1. Bouke Timbermont Says:

    I wouldn’t call Firefox an udnerdog, since it has about a 25% market share. When you consider there are some other great alternative browsers out there, like Chrom, Safari and Opera, I don’t think Firefox deserves a much bigger market share: the others on the other hand, do.

  2. Paul Judd Says:

    See the definition of underdog Bouke, It still has less then the leader for which it is compared to (IE). It is still an underdog since it is behind.

  3. Lazlo St. Pierre Says:

    It’s also an underdog because Mozilla doesn’t have anywhere near the resources or muscle of it’s main competitor Microsoft.

  4. Millard Says:

    What, was the TI-99/4A too obscure?

  5. JDoors Says:

    I used to temporarily switch from Windows (1? 2?) to the GEM interface ’cause a lot of things were easier and more intuitive to accomplish in GEM than in Windows.

    I sold the TRS-80 back in the day. Nobody knew what to do with it at the time.

    I went with the Sega game-system over Nintendo — great system, tons of enjoyable memories, no longer made. Uh-hem.

    I was a WordStar fan, but switched to WordPerfect when WS languished. I sure can pick ’em, huh?

    Had a Commodore computer too, continuing my nearly unbroken streak of hitching to the wrong wagon.

    I guess those experiences have (finally) made me cautious when it comes to adopting an underdog (I’m MS/Intel all the way — though I am loath to admit it).

  6. SallyK Says:

    Oh no! Now I’m gonna have that Sonic theme music in my head all day! My son still plays some of his Sega games. SAAAAA-GAAAA…. North Coast Muse @

  7. a naval architect Says:

    We must not forget that what seems to be an underdog product might be a starting products or business that continues to improve itself and finally coming out as the winner in the middle of tough competition that we see today.

  8. danakennedy Says:

    Millard, I wondered why the TI-99/4a was missing as well. Texas Instruments lavishly marketed the computer for a while there, even hiring Bill Cosby as their spokesperson (“This is the one!”). In my own circles, the TI was a clear favorite over the Commodore VIC-20, but when the 64 came out, all bets were off. The cost of expanding the TI to include disk drives, more memory, and a serial interface were just too great.

  9. Steven Harris Says:

    Firefox is the cat that ate the cream, I’d say.

  10. Steven Fisher Says:

    How can I take seriously an article that says an underdog “must be good–maybe better, in fact, than its more successful rivals” and then include the Zune? 🙂

  11. Rob Says:

    I’d probably like this more if it were underdog restaurants or food, but that would be a different blog.

    The plural of human interface “mouse” is “mouses” not “mice.”

    Umm, Screenwriter is the underdog to Final Cut, does that count?

    Cool stuff, but I’m not as big a geek as I thought…

  12. Jason Says:

    Firefox has also often been known as “FoxFire”, to folks that are not tech geeks like us. But they’ve happened to see Firefox at some point in their computing lives, and apparently are dyslexic when it comes to that name, for some reason.

  13. Tech Says:

    I wish firewire didn’t dissapear. I loved using it back in the day.

  14. mk12 Says:

    Macs aren’t underdogs anymore, for one thing, in hardware, Macs are very good quality, good graphics card (they don’t pack it full of garbage to sell it for less), etc., and in software, OS X is infinitely better than windows. And they are becoming the top dog with their brilliant marketing.

  15. DubiousKing Says:

    Looked up the Maltron keyboards. I’d probably buy one if it wasn’t $400. Guess I’ll just use KMFL to imitate it.

  16. mckenzie a.c. HMS Says:

    wow that’s unreal

  17. website design Says:

    I on a Mac, and enjoy it, but I don’t have any kind of air of superiority about it. Some people need one, some don’t. Some people prefer one over the other – that’s their prerogative. I also have an HP laptop that works just fine, so I can’t complain about one over the other. I will say that I am not a fan of IE and its issues with “fixing” HTML code and reformatting pages in weird ways (more a problem of previous versions, like IE6 and IE7), but, that’s what Firefox is for.

  18. DubiousKing Says:

    My mistake with my earlier comment, the Maltron prices are listed in pounds. It’s actually around 620 USD.

  19. Ron Says:

    I was hoping you’d mention GeoWorks, an OS that came out four months after Windows 3.0 and was, according to Computerworld, what Windows should have been. It was more technologically advanced, attractive, and came bundled with all the apps to get you started. It was also the first DOS-based platform for America Online. It ran on my then anemic hardware, and it had a small but loyal following for a few years – I was a user. It was a victim of the superior marketing power of Windows and it was a challenge for developers to write applications for it.

  20. Elda Meade Says:

    You’ve made quite a few interesting points. I’m not sure if we see eye to eye on everything, but then again, who does? I must consider it more. Nice article regardless, thanks and ta ta! (Added this to FeedBurner, so enjoy! :))

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