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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