For every overnight digital success such as Twitter, there's a technology that came up the hard way, clawing every point of market share from bitter rivals and struggling to win over a disinterested public. But quality triumphs in the end. Here are ten sleeper technologies whose day came at last.
Mere days after Russia launched Sputnik in 1957, US Navy scientists were planning the world's first satellite-navigation system. By 1978, the first Global Positioning System satellites were helping nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers navigate the high seas. For the next 20 years or so, a system called 'Selective Availability' deliberately decreased GPS' accuracy, to foil its use by foreign armies.
When use of this system finally ended in 2000, civilian users found accuracy increased fivefold. It took just a couple of years for TomTom to release its first in-car sat-nav unit and, in 2004, Qualcomm took GPS truly mobile with the first assisted-GPS system for phones. Now that sat-nav functionality is found on everything from camcorders to dog collars, the only way we'll ever get lost again is if the GPS network fails -- something that remains a "small risk", according to the Pentagon.
In a world where you can find out what your Australian cousin's German shepherd is doing right now via updates from Dogbook or Fuzzster, it can be hard to remember that, just a few years ago, we didn't know what everyone we had ever met was doing at every single moment of the day. But social networking didn't start in 2004 with Facebook.
In 1997, SixDegrees.com launched a service whereby you could post messages to your profile, invite friends to join, share interests and generally waste hours of your life trying to connect with Kevin Bacon. At its peak, SixDegrees claimed to have around 3 million members -- none of whom were, in fact, Kevin Bacon -- which almost certainly contributed to it dot-bombing in 2001. It would be two long Internet years before a new generation of teen surfers rediscovered the joys of social networking with the arrival of MySpace.
Everyone hates keyboards. Keyboards sound like work, bear the stench of a thousand humiliating emails and taste like... well, no-one should ever be forced to taste another person's Ctrl key. Mice, on the other hand, scamper freely across the desktop in an ominous portent of imminent repetitive-strain injury. But today's graphical user interfaces, windows and menu bars didn't have a painless birth.
Decades before the Apple Mac swapped laborious typing for simple clicking, computer scientist Ivan Sutherland developed Sketchpad, image-creation software that used a light-pen to draw, rotate and zoom directly on the screen. In 1963, Sutherland's application ran on MIT's Lincoln TX-2 computer, which had 64K of memory. It would be another 15 years before Xerox's mouse-and-window 8010 Information System workstation showed what GUIs should really look like. By then, tragically, the keyboard had made a comeback.
They're in our TVs, our cars and our mobile phones, and now they want to get into our bedrooms. The 21st century is the era of the light-emitting diode, but while low-power OLED displays and high-quality LED-backlit HDTVs are fun gadgets, the advent of LED lighting could also change the world. Swapping Europe's antediluvian incandescent bulbs for ultra-efficient LED lamps would save us the equivalent of Romania's entire electricity bill annually.
It's about time we made the switch. British and Russian scientists first noticed electroluminescence in silicon crystals as far back as a century ago, but it wasn't until the 1960s that companies such as Texas Instruments and HP commercialised weak, red LEDs. The US Department of Energy currently has a $20m L Prize awaiting the creator of the first LED lamp that can truly replace a normal 60W bulb.
The history of bagless vacuum technology is really the history of one man: James Dyson. If he had listened to major appliance manufacturers in the 1980s, we'd still be struggling with dusty old paper bags in ugly upright Hoovers today. Instead, he turned his back on Britain, licensed his cyclonic sucking technology to the Japanese for use in a bright pink cleaner called G-Force (which sold for around £2,000) and earned enough to launch funky, see-through cleaners in the UK under his own name. Could his recently launched Dyson Air Multiplier bladeless fan be another sleeper classic? Come back and see us in another 20 years.
You laughed at the Segway back in 2001, and you're probably still laughing now. But, unless we're very much mistaken, Dean Kamen's ludicrously over-priced and over-engineered stand-up scooter is about to spawn a wave of new-school electric personal-transport devices. Battery technology has come on in leaps and bounds even in the eight years since the Segway's launch, and there's no denying its influence on Honda's 'walking replacement' U3-X electric unicycle, designed to be stored neatly in the driver's door of the company's prototype EV-N electric vehicle.
In 1999, the future of mobile Internet was WAP, which stands for Wireless Application Protocol or, more comically, Wait and Pay. Access to the handful of text-only sites was slow, expensive and about as similar to a real surfing experience as reading Teletext pages while wearing sunglasses.
Despite this, WAP hung in there, revamping itself as the Web-friendly WAP 2.0 in 2002. Now it forms the backbone of numerous mobile news, entertainment and content portals. But, as phones have become smarter and screens bigger, the need for dedicated mobile sites has dwindled. This is one sleeper tech that may be feeling rather drowsy once more.
In 1888, in the US, Elisha Gray patented the telautograph, a pair of devices that used a mechanical stylus and electric telegraphy to transmit writing or drawings over a short distance. It couldn't really recognise handwriting, but then neither could the Newton, Apple's much-derided PDA from the early 1990s. While later Newtons enjoyed improved handwriting-recognition technology, it wasn't enough to save the devices, which were discontinued in 1998.
Now that touchscreens are hot again, handwriting recognition is slowly coming back into vogue. Windows 7, for example, uses a neural network system based on tens of thousands of handwriting samples containing millions of words, while Apple's much-rumoured tablet PC is bound to have something stylus-friendly on-board if it ever appears.
Ebooks are the Rip Van Winkle of sleeper technologies. The first ebook was created in 1971, by University of Illinois student Michael Hart. His hand-typed copy of the US Declaration of Independence was stored in an emailed instruction set that required a disc pack for retrieval. This was the size of a large cake and cost $1,500 -- the equivalent of £5,000 in 2009 -- and that's without the mainframe needed to view it.
Over the next 18 years, Hart laboriously digitised another 10 books -- the foundation for today's 30,000-volume Project Gutenberg library. The latter figure is impressive, until you consider that Google recently announced that it had scanned its 10 millionth tome. E-ink, Amazon's Kindle, the Sony Reader range and upcoming full-colour readers from Plastic Logic mean that ebook technology -- while perhaps not quite ready for the mainstream -- is in no danger of being put back on the shelf.
Would it surprise you to hear that GUI pioneer Ivan Sutherland is also the father of virtual reality? In 1968, he created the world's first head-mounted VR display, a wire-frame-graphics contraption that was so heavy it had to be suspended from the ceiling to avoiding injuring users. The heyday of VR hype was the 1990s, when no self-respecting cyberpunk would be seen without a flickering pair of clunky 3D specs. The specs are back in 2009 -- this time as part of a push to move 3D films from the cinema to Blu-ray material at home -- and VR gaming is close behind.
Of course, some technology isn't so lucky: take a look at our list of tech that never took off, or find out whatever happened to the Web stars and technology of yesteryear. For proof that there's a social network for everyone, check out our 50 niche social networks.