Readers respond: Best tech products PC World missed

The following article is from PC World.

When we sat down to choose The 50 Best Tech Products of All Time —which was excerpted by Macworld this week —one fact was clear: No matter which products we selected, we would hear from outraged people informing us that we had completely messed up.

Know what? That’s one of the reasons we compiled our list—to get a nostalgic, passionate debate going. And in the days since April 2, when we posted the article, hundreds of people have made the case for a bevy of products that we overlooked, at venues including the story’s forum thread, the poll embedded in the story, and external gabfests such as this Slashdot discussion. The conversation also continues at an array of blogs all over the Web.

The long, long list of hardware and software that folks thought we should have honored includes some products that we seriously considered and others that we never contemplated—but probably should have. Dozens of items have been mentioned by at least one person, including relative newcomers that may appear on future lists of all-time greats (the Nintendo Wii), forgotten gems that are obscure but worthy ( Deluxe Paint III for the Amiga ), and old-timers we were a little startled to discover that anyone loved ( Prodigy ).

For further focus on the great and the near-great, don’t miss our slide show, containing even more picks by readers who thought that we missed the boat on some truly outstanding products.

Numerous people told us that we should have included the following 12 products in our Top 50—and even though we omitted these items from that group, we hereby (belatedly) acknowledge their greatness.

Apple LaserWriter

Any rational tech buff would affirm that the laser printer was one of the most important product categories in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

We chose one such printer—HP’s workhorse LaserJet 4L, from 1993—for our list. But several people who read our story wondered why no similar recognition was extended to Apple’s LaserWriter, which hit the market in 1985. This $7,000 device wasn’t the first mainstream laser printer—HP’s first LaserJet shipped in 1984—but its use of an innovative page-rendering technology called PostScript, devised by an obscure company named Adobe, allowed the LaserWriter to produce by far the most professional-looking output of its era.

Along with the Mac and Aldus PageMaker (No. 28 on our list), the LaserWriter launched the desktop-publishing revolution, which continues to this day.

Atari 800

Atari advocates identified not one but two machines that they thought we should have lauded in our list. One was the Atari 800, which—to give us our due—we did celebrate last year as the 14th-best PC of all time. Among the 800’s virtues (as pointed out by forum member Jmjohnson): It had advanced graphics, polyphonic sound, and multitasking; and it could handle awe-inspiring amounts of RAM via bank-switched memory. As for me, the first computer I ever bought with my own money was the much cheaper Atari 400—which had most of the 800’s features but cut costs by including one of the worst keyboards in computer history.

Atari ST

Last year, this 1985 system (specifically, the 520ST) showed up among 25 PCs that we listed as runners-up to the Top 25 PCs in history. The ST line boasted a low price, plenty of memory, and a graphical user interface back when that wasn’t a given. ST machines also had built-in MIDI ports, which made them a major hit with musicians. But our favorite thing about them was their nickname, which referenced Atari CEO Jack Tramiel: “the Jackintosh.”

Commodore 64

When you dis Commodore loyalists, you hear from them in droves. They told us that the C64 should have been on our list of the top 50 tech products. The 1982 machine had a low price tag ($595) for its time and a whopping amount of RAM (64KB—hence the product’s name). And with 30 million units sold over its 11-year production run, it ranks as one of the best-selling tech products in history. If you have one in your closet, you’re not alone.

Hewlett-Packard HP-35

Some of the most beloved, most intensively used computers in history weren’t computers—they were calculators.

HP’s HP-35, released in 1972, was the company&38217;s first pocket calculator. At $395, the device—the first scientific calculator—was a wonder that was worth every penny. (As forum member Jackifus rightly said, it was a pocketable little powerhouse that changed the world.) It wasn’t long before competition, economies of scale, and technical innovations drove the price of similar models down to a fraction of the HP-35’s cost, but it continues to be fondly remembered to this day.

Optical Mouse

We spent a lot of time at the offices of PC World talking about whether a mouse should make our Top 50—and if so, which one—but our list ultimately ended up mouseless. Several people questioned that call, with optical mice receiving particularly warm recommendations. (Forum member Drjoebdavis told us that the optical mouse should be not simply on the list but high up on it.) Microsoft’s 1999 Intellimouse Explorer may have been the first modern, mainstream optical model, but it was hardly the first one. (I get funny looks when I tell people that I owned an optical mouse in the late 1980s, but it’s true: I paid something like $100 for Mouse Systems’ state-of-the-art rodent, which was tail-less but worked only when it scurried around on a special reflective mousepad.)

Original 128KB Mac

We may be PC World , but hey, we love Macs; and it’s no accident that 1986’s Mac Plus is No. 14 on our list of the all-time great products. Even so, some people thought we gave short shrift to that model’s groundbreaking predecessor, the original 1984 Mac. How come it didn’t make our list? Mainly because its dearth of memory—128KB just wasn’t enough—made working with it a floppy-swapping nightmare.

OS/2 Warp

In the late 1980s, everyone thought that IBM’s OS/2 would be the operating environment people would use once DOS had run its course. Then came Microsoft Windows 3.0, which became a blockbuster despite possessing absolutely none of OS/2’s technical excellence. IBM kept plugging away, though—and eventually released OS/2 Warp 3.0, a highly evolved product that ran both OS/2 and Windows apps and attracted a small but fiercely dedicated group of fans. Thirteen years later, some of them told us we choked by not putting Warp on our list.

Sinclair ZX Spectrum

If you grew up in the United States, chances are you never heard of Sinclair’s ZX Spectrum computer.

If you’re British, however, there’s a good chance it was your first home PC. A huge hit in the UK, the Spectrum —which was originally known as the ZX82—sported color graphics, up to 48KB of RAM, and a weirdly rubbery keyboard. Millions were sold, spawning one of the largest software libraries of the time and conferring Commodore 64-like historic significance on the system in its home country.

Smalltalk

In our online poll, lots of people identified the programming language known as Smalltalk as their No. 1 product of all time. Lots and lots and lots and lots of people, actually—so many that the results are just a tad suspicious. But Smalltalk, which sprung from Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center and has been around for decades in various versions, has unquestionably been extremely influential: It was an object-oriented language back when that was an arcane idea. A modern flavor of Smalltalk, Squeak, is one of technologies that powers the $100 XO (One Laptop Per Child) notebook designed for use in emerging countries.

Visicalc

Lotus 1-2-3 may have moved more IBM PCs than any other spreadsheet in the 1980s. But Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston’s Visicalc, which debuted in 1979 on the Apple II, was the first microcomputer spreadsheet—and one of the first applications that anyone thought of as a killer app. A bunch of folks thought we should have given props to it for those reasons alone.

XTree

A file manager utility for DOS? What could be more mundane? Actually, 1985’s XTree was so useful that we heard from multiple people who rated it as one of the best tech products in history. (You know an ancient utility must have been something special when it inspires its own fan page.) XTree died in 1995, but a current product for Windows known as ZTree is an unapologetic clone that brings XTree’s retro-yet-potent goodness into the modern world.

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