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

The 20 Greatest Tech Underdogs of All TimeRocky. The Chicago Cubs. Charlie Brown. Avis, back when its whole schtick centered on being America’s #2 rental car company. America loves its underdogs–and the technology business has always been home to a disproportionate number of exceptionally lovable underdogs. They may never achieve market leadership, but without them, the tech in our lives would be less interesting, innovative, and inspiring.

So what is an underdog? Merriam-Webster says it’s a “loser or predicted loser in a struggle or contest” or a “a victim of injustice or persecution.” For this list, I’m using a somewhat different, tighter definition.An underdog, first of all, must be good–maybe better, in fact, than its more successful rivals. It should have a cult of intensely loyal fans. (Many of the products we’re about to discuss have fan bases that can be a little scary–you know who you are.) And it helps if it’s successful enough that it hangs around for awhile. (Some of the contenders we’re about to ponder have been underdogs for decades.)

Many tech underdogs end up triumphing, such as every behemoth of a corporation that  was founded in a garage or a dorm room—-Dell, Google, HP, Microsoft, and many others. You lose any claim on underdogship the moment you come to dominate your market. But I did include some items that started out dominant, and then were toppled by underdogs, thereby becoming underdogs themselves.

I considered dozens of contenders to come up with the twenty that made the cut for this article. I’ve ranked ’em in terms of overall significance. Take a gander–then tell me about the products, companies, and technologies that I should have mentioned but didn’t.

20. Quarterdeck DESQview

Quarterdeck DESQviewWhat it was: A DOS enhancement, released in 1985, that let you run multiple applications at once in movable, resizable onscreen windows.

Underdog to: Microsoft Windows, which debuted later the same year.

Notable virtues: It let typical PCs of the era multitask existing DOS apps quickly and reliably at a time when multitasking was a sexy new idea and Windows was still profoundly crude.

What made it an underdog: For one thing, it’s no great shock that Microsoft had an built-in advantage when it came to building multitasking interfaces on top of its own DOS. And compared to the fancy (for the 1980s) graphics sported by Windows, DESQview had a no-frills, text-oriented feel; that’s one of the things that its fans loved about it, but it also gave it less sizzle.

Random factoid: DESQview started as a clone of IBM’s TopView, an unsuccessful, even less flashy DOS multitasker.

19. Trackballs

Kensington trackballWhat they are: A pointing device with a ball you spin with your fingertip–sort of the same idea as the original mechanical mouse, only upside-down.

Underdog to: Mice (with desktop PCs) and touchpads (with laptops).

Notable virtues: Trackballs make efficient use of desk space and are unbeatable for Missile Command. But as with all input devices, it’s mostly a matter of personal preference.

What makes them an underdog: Their brief moment of glory came in the early 1990s, when they were the dominant form of pointing device for notebooks–but they were soon nudged back into underdog status by touchpads. Other than that, they’ve a classic tech underdog: something that’s been passionately adopted by a really small group of people. (Including me: They’re my choice of pointing device for desktop PCs, and if Apple sold a MacBook with a trackball, I’d probably buy it.)

Random factoid: The first trackball was invented in 1952 by the Royal Canadian Navy, and used a…bowling ball.

18. ReplayTV

ReplayTVWhat it was: One of the first digital video recorders (DVRs) to bring truly simple, powerful recording of TV programs to consumers.

Underdog to: TiVo, which debuted more or less simultaneously in 1999.

Notable virtues: Excellent user interface; made it a cinch to skip commercials (one version even did it automatically); first version carried no monthly service charge.

What made it an underdog: That  original pricing model–you paid one flat fee for a box and lifetime service–made it a far costlier gizmo than TiVo, which subsidized the cost of the box but made you pay a monthly fee. Lack of an adorable mascot probably didn’t help, either.

Random factoid: Replay founder Anthony Wood later formed Roku, maker of a nifty video streaming device.

17. Digital Research GEM

Digital Research GEMWhat it was: A graphical environment, debuting in 1985, that provided a Mac-like windowing interface for DOS and the Atari ST.

Underdog to: Microsoft’s similar Windows, of course, and to some degree the Mac itself.

Notable virtues: Early in its existence, it was arguably a better way to turn a PC into a pseudo-Mac than Windows; it provided Atari computers with a decent interface into the 1990s.

What made it an underdog: All Digital Research products were underdogs to all vaguely comparable Microsoft products, for one thing. Also, Apple sued Digital Research over the PC version of GEM’s more-than-passing resemblance to the Mac, forcing a new version of GEM that was less Maclike and probably less appealing.

Random factoid: Like all defunct operating systems and environments, GEM isn’t completely defunct. It eventually ended up as an open-source application dubbed FreeGEM, available in distributions such as OpenGEM. Windows 7 it’s not, but it’s still capable of running on ridiculously underpowered old computers. As far as I can tell, though, things have been pretty quiet in GEMland over the last few years.

16. Microsoft Zune

Zune LogoWhat it is: Microsoft’s line of portable media players, starting with a hard-disk MP3 player in 2006 and currently focused on the new Zune HD.

Underdog to: The audio players made by a Cupertino, California company named after a piece of fruit.

Notable virtues: The new Zune HD has plenty of them–a slick user interface, a solid subscription-music service, HD radio support, and more. It’s not a pocket computer or an app platform, but on its own terms, it’s neat.

What makes it an underdog: The fact that Zune was from Microsoft made comparisons to the iPod inevitable, and inevitably made the Zune look bad; Zune sales (at least until the HD came out) have been pretty pitiful; a bizarre and embarrassing bug prevented all the 30GB Zunes from working on December 31st of last year. Zunes have always seemed like responses to iPod trends that Apple has already largely moved on from–hard-disk players, then simple flash-based ones, then touch-screen ones that don’t run third-party apps. Also, I think the name doesn’t help–it reminds me of the easy-to-make-fun-of malt beverage Zima and sounds nerdy rather than cool–the gadget equivalent of being a kid named Poindexter.

Random factoid: The first Zune had the pre-release code name of Argo, which might not have been a bad final moniker.

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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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