For every great idea that succeeds and makes its creators millions, or even billions, of dollars there are thousands that don’t see the light of day. But sometimes, there are ideas that make it all the way to production only to be relegated to scrapheap of tech-fail history. Here are some of my favourite tech industry fails and the lessons we can learn from them.
The HP TouchPad – Timing is everything
Back in 2011, HP released its take on the tablet computer, the TouchPad. Seeking to capitalise on the market that Apple had established, the company wanted to leverage its investment in mobile software through the acquisition of Palm and created the cleverly named webOS.
It was a competent device but suffered from a couple of things. Firstly, app support was thin and HP lacked the cachet to attract developers to its platform in the same way Apple did with the first iPad, which had been released a year before.
And, by the time HP released the TouchPad, Android was maturing and gaining market and developer momentum.
So, while Google and Apple were tripping the light fantastic, HP was the less popular kid, in the slightly daggy clothes, standing with its back against the wall watching the cool kids dance.
If HP had managed to get its act together a year earlier when it acquired webOS from Palm then it may have had a crack at some decent marketshare. I was the IT Director at a school at the time of the TouchPad’s release and recall the HP sales rep pushing the TouchPad to me as a great option for education. I asked her to show me ten apps I could use that day.
She couldn’t and 49 days after the product’s release, it was discontinued by HP.
I still have one in my cupboard of broken tech dreams.
Betamax – Better doesn’t always win
For those that grew up in the 1980s, when VCRs were a status symbol, there was a battle for the hearts and minds of movie distributors and fans. Two rival videotape formats, VHS and Betamax, were locked into battle.
Most of the experts I spoke to at the time told me that Betamax was the superior format as it supported slightly higher frame-rates that were closer to those used during the movie production process.
But VHS won the battle, making beta VCRs little more than really big clocks by the late 1980s.
VHS boasted a longer recording time on blank tapes and the machines were cheaper. So, customers voted with their wallets. The main proponents of Betamax, Sony, failed to sell the benefits of higher quality over convenience of longer recording times and lower costs.
There’s an old project management maxim that says you can have any two of fast, good and cheap. When you choose a product or service. VHS was good enough – most people either could see or didn’t care about the differences – and the lower hardware prices meant that Betamax disappeared.
VCD, DVD, HD DVD, Blu-ray and digital delivery – transitions
The entertainment industry has been hit hard by the rapidly changing world of technology. No sooner had the video tape been usurped by DVD, after a brief interlude with VCD, that we started seeing a shift to even higher definition formats such as Blu-ray and HD DVD.
Those two battled it out for a while with Blu-ray emerging victorious. Again, the battle was fought between rival hardware makers with differences in storage capacity and even the interesting historical footnote that Netflix supported Blu-ray for its movie rental business before becoming a streaming video powerhouse.
Looking back, it’s easy to see that any format that came after DVD was only going to be transitional. As fast broadband becomes more ubiquitous, streaming services will become the main way people access movies. And while monthly subscription services like Stan, Prime and Netflix garner headlines, the ability to rent or buy movies quickly through Google, Amazon and Apple remains popular.
I’ve noticed the DVD and Blu-ray collections at local department stores shrinking so, while they’re not a fail, their half-life has proven quite short.
But HD DVD is this generation’s Betamax – a good technology that failed to get wide market support leaving people with orphaned hardware.
Nintendo Virtual Boy – when your vision exceeds your ability
I’d totally forgotten this one until reminded by my editor.
Back in the 1990s, the console wars were heating up. And Nintendo wanted to cash in with something different. Unfortunately, the vision they had couldn’t be met by the tech of the time and the platform was killed off after less than two years.
The Virtual Boy sat on the table and projected a red monochrome display with a parallax effect to create the illusion of depth. It kinda looked inspired by the Star Wars game, Dejarik, played by Chewbacca on the Millennium Falcon during the Star Wars movies. But the game totally flopped because of its high price, crappy monochrome display, weak 3D effect, lack of portability and low quality games.
Plus, there were some health concerns with some reviewers and users reporting dizziness, nausea and headaches.
To use it, you needed to sit at a table and put on a set of goggles that were attached to body of the console. So, playing with your friends wasn’t really possible and it was cumbersome to take to a friend’s place. Throw in a lack of decent games and you can see why this was an expensive flop for Nintendo.
Steve Ballmer once said the most popular music format on the iPod was “stolen”. But that didn’t stop Microsoft from developing it’s own turd-coloured music player. It worked with the company’s various attempts at selling and distributing music but failed to capture the market.
Microsoft’s foray into muscle players lasted a full five years before they gave up and accepted they couldn’t beat the iPod juggernaut. So, at least they gave it a decent go (cough… 48 days HP…cough).
Alongside the Zune, Microsoft various music services starting with Zune Music Pass, before shifting to Xbox Music and eventually Groove Music before giving up.
At least the Zune has the benefit of some pop culture cachet, after Star Lord received one in the last Guardians of the Galaxy movie.
There were a bunch of other products I could have added to this list.
Windows Phone could have been there. How Microsoft took a massive lead in the mobile device space, through the Pocket PC era, and totally messed up on mobile devices is amazing to me. It was another example of Steve Ballmer completely misreading the market and failing to understand that when people use your products they might not like them and will jump to an alternative.
Alongside that fail there’s what Microsoft did to Nokia, taking a massively successful company and turning it into trash.
I was tempted to add the Apple MessagePad but it fell victim to Steve Jobs’ ruthless desire to rationalise Apple’s product portfolio when he returned to the company in the 1990s. It was a great product but I think the vision behind it was greater than the available tech of the time.
Nicholas Negroponte’s $100 PC, the basis of his One laptop per Child program, aimed to make computing accessible top all children, particularly those in developing countries. And while the intention was good, the rise of the netbook (another short-lived technology) and the many challenges he faced in making and distributing the computer at the budget he set resulted in the project eventually morphing before disappearing.
What are some your “favourite” tech fails? And what can we learn from them?