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

10. Reverse Polish Notation

Reverse Polish NotationWhat it is: A method of arithmetic notation which places the operator after the numbers it affects–such as “5 3 +”.  Achieved brief mainstream success in HP’s desktop and pocket calculators of the 1970s and 1980s .

Underdog to: Infix notation–what we all use even though we don’t know what it’s called–which puts the operator in between the numbers (“5 + 3”).

Notable virtues: Once you understand RPN it’s easy to parse and doesn’t require parentheses; useful in programming languages and other computer-science applications.

What makes it an underdog: Its unfamiliarity, basically; as with the Dvorak keyboard (see below), it doesn’t matter if an idea is superior if it’s not the one that’s taught in schools, used in existing equipment, and otherwise pervasive.

Random factoid: Until I wrote this article, I’d always assumed that RPN was invented in Poland, but it was an Australian named Charles Hamblin who proposed it in the late 1950s. The “reverse Polish” means that it’s the opposite of the prefix notation devised by Poland’s Jan Lukasiewicz circa 1920.

9. The Dvorak keyboard

DvorakWhat it is: An alternative keyboard layout, patented by August Dvorak and Wiliam Dealy in 1936; no relation to composer Antonin Dvorak or venerable tech pundit John C. Dvorak.

Underdog to: QWERTY, the typewriter keyboard layout devised by Chrispher Shoales in 1873 and still in use on the vast majority of the world’s devices that involve input of alphanumeric information.

Notable virtues: Dvorak was designed to be less tiring than QWERTY, and the people who like Dvorak swear by it; adopting it puts you in the company of celebrities such as Piers Anthony.

What makes it an underdog: QWERTY may stink, but it’s the layout that nearly every device uses, and the one nearly everyone learns. And while today’s operating systems support the DVORAK layout, you need to buy a special keyboard or pry off your PC’s keys and rearrange them. There are even those who’ll go so far as to unlock their iPhones to give them a Dvorak keyboard. In short, you need to work really hard to become a Dvorak user.

Random factoid: Lilian Malt’s Dvorak rival the Maltron keyboard is the underdog of underdog keyboard layouts.

8. WordPerfect

WordPerfectWhat it is: The venerable word processor, created by Alan Ashton and Brian Bastian, that was the industry leader in the mid-to-late 1980s and early 1990s.

Underdog to: It started out as an obscure upstart in the WordStar era, but for many years it’s played underdog to Microsoft Word.

Notable virtues: Version 5.1 was one of the single greatest versions of any application ever; still beloved by many for Reveal Codes and other features which provide precise control over a document’s look and feel; still widely used by government agencies and law firms (the FTC’s release on its new guidelines for bloggers makes reference to a document in WordPerfect’s WPD format). For many years, WordPerfect was a lower-cost alternative to Microsoft Office, but Microsoft’s cheapie Office Home and Student Edition seems to be a direct response to WordPerfect’s budget pricing.

What makes it an underdog: Once a dominant product in a category loses its dominance, it’s by definition an underdog. WordPerfect spent most of the 1990s suffering from ill-fated decisions by its owners: it was slow to hop on the Windows bandwagon, and slow to evolve from a standalone product into a component of a suite. Being sold twice in two years (first to Novell, then to Corel) didn’t help, either–especially since Microsoft was busy tying the bundling of Word on new PCs to sales of Windows.

Random factoid: In 2008, WordPerfect cofounder Bastian gave $1 million to fight California’s anti-gay marriage Proposition 8 while his cofounder Ashton gave $1 million to support it.

Original Mac7. Apple Macintosh

What it is: A computing platform introduced by Apple in 1984–and hey, unlike most  platforms of the 1980s, it’s still with us to this day.

Underdog to: The PC, in all its guises over the past quarter-century, from the IBM PC to “PC compatibles” to Windows 7 machines.

Notable virtues: The first popular computer with a graphical interface and a mouse; exceptional industrial design; often early to adopt new technologies such as Wi-Fi; has usually sported an operating system superior to whatever Microsoft offered at the time.

What makes it an underdog: Well, the Mac’s real period of underdoghood was in the late 1990s, when Apple was in dire straits and its market share seemed destined to dwindle to 0%. Even then, there were Mac fans who didn’t abandon the platform. Today, you could argue that the Mac is a small dog, but one that’s in robust good health. (Your average Mac fan has an aura of superiority, not one of fear and persecution.) But any top-notch product that’s spent 25 years being dramatically outsold by its principal is an underdog in my book.

Random factoid: During the brief period in the mid-1990s that Apple Computer licensed other companies to make Mac-compatible computers, systems from companies such as Power Computing were under-underdogs, destined to stand in the shadow both of Apple’s own machines and of the Windows PCs whose sales dwarfed those of any Mac.

6. OS/2

os2What it was: IBM’s successor to DOS, released in 1987 and originally a coproduction with Microsoft.

Underdog to: Microsoft Windows, which was once an underdog itself, then became a massive success starting with version 3.0…whereupon Microsoft kind of lost interest in OS.2.

Notable virtues: Robust underpinnings in an era when DOS and Windows were especially messy; sported features such as long file names and TCP/IP long before Windows got them; could run Windows 3.x apps.

Why it was an underdog: This article does a good job of explaining why OS/2 never caught on. It demanded more horsepower than most computers could muster in the 1980s; it never got all the drivers and applications it needed; and IBM (Charlie Chaplin ads aside) wasn’t very good at consumer marketing. Eventually, Microsoft did everything in its power to prevent PC manufacturers from pre-installing OS/2–including charging computer makers a fee for every system that came off their assembly lines, whether or not Windows were on them.

Random factoid: OS/2 had some truly lousy ads, such as this one–which unconvincingly describes it as “totally cool.”




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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