5 wireless technologies that failed

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by Mike Dano

For every successful product or technology in the wireless industry, there is at least one failure. For every Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPhone there is a Palm Pre. For every TracFone there is a Disney Mobile.

This of course is the nature of business. Companies big and small routinely strike into the market with new technologies, products and services to see what sticks and what doesn't. The rate of failure is at least even with the rate of success, if not far above it.

There are a range of factors that can affect the ultimate success or failure of a new offering. Sometimes products arrive before the market is ready, sometimes they're poorly marketed, and sometimes they attempt to solve a problem that doesn't really need solving. Examples are endless: New Coke, the Apple Newton, Sony Betamax, HD DVD.

Even though the wireless industry continues to grow at a brisk pace, there are plenty of examples of failures and misfires from companies of all sizes. The below list serves to highlight some of the more interesting failed technologies in wireless.

To be clear, this is by no means a comprehensive list. Nor is it intended to cover products like phones (if you're interested in cell phone flameouts, we've got a special report for you here) or companies that have been misled (for more on that topic, check out our worst CEOs list). Instead, this list is intended to highlight technological advances in the wireless industry that eventually fell by the wayside. Such failures are worth keeping in mind when considering newer wireless technologies that remain unproven: think Near Field Communications and 3-D smartphone displays, to name just a few.

Though new wireless technologies often enjoy plenty of hype and notoriety, that doesn't mean they'll be around for the long haul. Here are some examples of failures worth considering:

5. Qualcomm's UMB

UMB network technology was intended by Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM) as the next step up for CDMA operators. Whereas GSM carriers were expected to upgrade to LTE, CDMA carriers were expected to upgrade to UMB.

"UMB (Ultra Mobile Broadband) is the evolution of 3GPP2 and supports bandwidths up to 20 MHz as well as both FDD and TDD modes," Qualcomm wrote in a 2007 white paper. "It is a highly optimized OFDMA solution with a scalable IP network architecture, advanced QoS mechanisms, and support for advanced antenna techniques like MIMO, SDMA and Beamforming. It also incorporates various other enhancements while remaining interoperable with Rev. A and Rev. B. As a result, UMB  will supply peak data rates up to 288 Mbps downlink and 75 Mbps uplink in 20 MHz FDD, as well as packet latencies less than 16ms. Together, Rev. B and UMB will extend EV-DO Rev. A's industry-leading mobile broadband performance."

But Qualcomm's hopes for UMB as an alternative to LTE did not pan out. The shift among CDMA operators to LTE, sparked by Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ), ultimately mothballed Qualcomm's Ultra Mobile Broadband technology.

In November 2008 Qualcomm announced that it would stop development of its UMB technology and instead put its focus on LTE.

Interestingly, this transition doesn't appear to have significantly affected Qualcomm's financial position. The company's stock in November 2008 was around $33 per share. Today it's around $66.

4. Adobe's Flash for mobile

RIM BlackBerry PlaybookAdobe's quest to push Flash onto mobile started shortly after its 2005 acquisition of Flash creator Macromedia. Adobe hoped to allow Flash content developers--including those making Flash websites, videos and games--to port their creations from the desktop world to mobile phones. Macromedia had already developed Flash Lite, intended for mobile phones, which was adopted by Japanese wireless carrier DoCoMo in 2003. Flash Lite scored a boost in 2007 when Verizon Wireless voiced support for the technology.

However, the ultimate fate of Flash on mobile was telegraphed that same year when Apple released the iPhone. The device famously eschewed Flash technology, a position that generated a significant amount of discussion among technology pundits. Apple CEO Steve Jobs finally addressed the situation in 2010 with his now-famous "Thoughts on Flash" essay that blasted the technology as insecure and unreliable.

Perhaps as a result, iPhone rivals including Motorola and Research In Motion (NASDAQ:RIMM) worked to add Flash technology to their products in order to set them apart from the iPhone and iPad, which continued to gain share in the market. For example, RIM made Flash a cornerstone of its attempts to sell its BlackBerry PlayBook tablet.

But users were never truly impressed with Flash on mobile ("Flash on Android: Look but don't touch" read one review). Many described Flash as difficult to use and sluggish on mobile devices.

Adobe abruptly threw in the towel in 2011. "Over the past two years, we've delivered Flash Player for mobile browsers and brought the full expressiveness of the web to many mobile devices," wrote Adobe Interactive Development Vice President and General Manager Danny Winokur on the Adobe Featured Blog. "However, HTML5 is now universally supported on major mobile devices, in some cases exclusively. This makes HTML5 the best solution for creating and deploying content in the browser across mobile platforms."

3. Microsoft SPOT

Microsoft spot watch suuntoMicrosoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) Smart Personal Object Technology (SPOT) relied on FM radio spectrum to broadcast weather, traffic and other information to devices such as watches, coffee makers and refrigerators. The idea was to imbue intelligence into users' everyday objects. The service cost $59 a year.

The first SPOT devices, watches from the likes of Fossil and Suunto, hit the market in 2004, and received relatively positive reviews. But the market for SPOT gadgets began to stall in the face of data-capable mobile phones that could easily access basic information like weather and news. As cell phones grew in popularity, the usefulness of SPOT fell.

Microsoft in 2008 announced the discontinuation of SPOT watch sales, and early this year shut off service for existing SPOT devices.

2. IPWireless' TD-CDMA

IPWireless TD-CDMAFounded in 1999, IPWireless sought to generate critical mass around its TD-CDMA network technology. A combination of TDMA and CDMA, TD-CDMA technology transmitted data up and down inside one channel by alternating between send and receive transmissions at set time intervals. IPWireless sold the technology against the likes of WiMAX and WCDMA.

And IPWireless did manage to get its TD-CDMA services deployed in a handful of locations in Czech Republic, New Zealand, Germany, South Africa, Sweden and the United Kingdom. But the company failed to win Sprint Nextel's (NYSE:S) business in the United States when Sprint in 2006 decided to deploy WiMAX instead of TD-CDMA.

In 2007, NextWave acquired struggling IPWireless for around $100 million. However, NextWave then sold IPWireless back to its founders for less than $2 million in 2008.

IPWireless subsequently did manage to generate additional sales of its technology, primarily to public-safety users in New York City and elsewhere. But the company was never able to match sales of rival technologies like WiMAX and LTE.

IPWireless' story appears to have ended in May of this year when General Dynamics purchased the company, renaming it General Dynamics Broadband and inserting it into its General Dynamics C4 Systems division. General Dynamics said it would use IPWireless to sell LTE technology into the public-safety market. General Dynamics' announcement made no mention of TD-CDMA.

1. Ricochet

RicochetMetricom's Ricochet network launched in 1994 (partially with the backing of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen) with what was at the time a notable business: A wireless data network supporting speeds that eventually reached 128 Kbps. The company built out its proprietary fixed wireless service in 21 major U.S. cities.

However, the company never did generate much interest in its service. According to CNET, Metricom counted around 41,000 subscribers when it filed for bankruptcy in 2001.

The Ricochet network passed through a number of owners until Terabeam (then named  YDI Wireless) purchased it in 2005 for around $3 million. Under Terabeam's direction, users of the Ricochet network dwindled to around 6,000 as Terabeam sold off or shut down parts of the network.

The final headline in the Ricochet file was Terabeam's sale of the Denver Ricochet network to Civitas Wireless Solutions in 2007.