Why Losers?

We don't do this because we're mean spirited. We do it because we care

3 min read

We've been asked that question many times. Everyone seems to like the idea of lavishing attention on winners, but why, they ask, use valuable magazine pages to slap around earnest, well-meaning start-ups?

It has always seemed to us that limiting our choices to winners would constrain the discussion, like studying cardiovascular health by examining only people with healthy hearts. But there’s another reason, and it’s related to the nature of the journalism genres that IEEE Spectrum has plied throughout its history.

We have always straddled technology, business, and science journalism in a way that few, if any, magazines ever have. And in those genres, articles that tout the next big thing are the mainstay. Print and broadcast media are full of stories about new technological or scientific breakthroughs that seem poised to create a giant new industry, or upend one, or in some other way change life as we know it.

The problem is that the vast majority of new technologies fade away quietly without ever making much of an impact at all. It’s a harsh reality that you’d never grasp if your main source of information were the mainstream media.

This Winners & Losers issue is our fifth. Early on, we established ground rules: we consider only specific projects that involve some element of risk and that will be introduced, or have a significant milestone, around the time our issue comes out. An entire class of technology—corn-ethanol plants in general—or a new application of an existing technology—Microsoft Windows Vista—isn’t eligible.

We’re particularly careful about how we select our losers. They must meet all the criteria above but, of course, have one or more seemingly fatal drawbacks. They might have negative social, economic, commercial, or environmental outcomes that outweigh their positives. A project might appear unlikely to meet its ostensible goals, or, more likely, it might seem on track to meet the goals but fail for some other reason. For example, a fuel-cell car might be an outstanding piece of engineering but fail nevertheless because it’s too hard to find compressed hydrogen to make it go.

Or a project might just be plain wacky. There’s a lot of that out there.

Of the 21 winners we covered between 2004 and 2007, 17 or 18 might (charitably) still be called winners. On the other hand, of the 20 losers we identified over the same period, not one has shocked us by succeeding.

Perhaps some of you are thinking that our record on losers is perfect because the declaration is self-fulfilling: by calling those projects losers, we sealed their fate. It’s an intriguing idea. We’d love to believe it’s true. But it’s not. Senior executives, the kind with the authority to summarily pull the plug on a sizable project, very rarely make such a move on the basis of a single critical magazine article. Sigh.

From the start, we intended this issue to be part of a discussion about what makes risky technology projects succeed or fail. So we’re especially indebted to Nick Tredennick, who offers his expert opinion on many of our choices in sidebars to the articles.

In the online version of our Winners & Losers coverage, you’ll be able to tell us which of our winners you like best. These votes will be used to determine which of our annual winners get special recognition at the ACE (Annual Creativity in Electronics) awards ceremony, to be held 15 April in San Jose, Calif. The awards, sponsored by EE Times magazine and cosponsored by IEEE Spectrum, recognize two of our January issue winners: one for commercial promise, and another for service to humanity.

So go ahead and vote. It won’t be a discussion unless you do.

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Revealed: Jupiter’s Secret Power Source

Auroras explain why the gas giant is so hot

4 min read
Image captioned 25 January 2017 of Jupiter taken by the Keck telescope revealing an aurora at the planet’s poles and wide swaths of heat radiating downward into the planet’s temperate latitudes
J. O'DONOGHUE/JAXA; (HEAT MAP); NASA/STSCI (PLANET)

For all its other problems, Earth is lucky. Warmed mostly by the sun, 150 million km away, shielded by a thin but protective atmosphere, the temperature at the surface averages 14 to 15 degrees Celsius—a good number to support liquid oceans and a riot of carbon-based life.

Jupiter is a different story. Its upper atmosphere (Jupiter has no solid surface) has a temperature closer to what you'd find on Venus than on some of Jupiter's own moons. As will be seen below, planetary scientists have for decades puzzled over why this planet so far from the sun is so inexplicably warm. In 2021, however, the solution to the mystery may at last have been found.

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Paying Tribute to Former IEEE President Richard Gowen

His research for NASA looked at the effects space had on astronauts

4 min read

Richard Gowen, 1984 IEEE president, died on 12 November at the age of 86.

An active volunteer who held many high-level positions throughout the organization, Gowen was president of the IEEE Foundation from 2005 to 2011 and two years later was appointed as president emeritus of the IEEE Foundation. He was also past chair of the IEEE History Committee.

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Using the exida Component Reliability Database for New Product Design and Development

Component reliability database takes FMEDAs to a new level of efficiency and accuracy

1 min read

Failure Modes, Effects, and Diagnostics Analysis (FMEDA) set the standard for calculating safety and reliability of automatic protection systems to IEC61508. FMEDA results, however, are only as good as the failure rate data that is used to create them. A new component reliability database (CRD) overcomes limitations and improves accuracy.