10 of the Shortest-Lived Tech Products
Companies in Silicon Valley are fond of saying that they like to “fail fast.” They mean that it’s virtuous to try lots of new things, but to give up quickly when something’s not working. But sometimes they fail fast in a manner that’s nothing to brag about. They invest millions (or hundreds of millions) of dollars in a new product and hype it to the Heavens -- and then kill it after only a few months, if they ever release it at all.
From this day henceforth, Hewlett-Packard’s TouchPad may be the poster child for bizarrely short-lived tech products. But it has lots of company -- famously infamous flops such as Audrey, the G4 Cube, and Foleo. Let’s honor them, shall we?
For this list, I considered only products that were on the market for less than a year, or which never quite made it to consumers, period. Every item that made it was from a large company that should have known better. And while they all share the indignity of a short, embarrassing life, they represent multiple types of failure. (Some of them should never have left the drawing boards in the first place; others could have been great if they’d been given more time to succeed.)
Thanks to Ross Rubin for suggesting this story and nominating lots of products for it.
1. WOW! From CompuServe (1996-1997)
What it was: CompuServe’s brief attempt to create an AOL killer–a more family-friendly, consumery variant of its own service, which catered more to geeks and business types.
Announced: March 25, 1996
What they said when it was new: "It’s time for consumers to have an online service built expressly for them… WOW! from CompuServe offers all the power the at-home user needs to surf the Internet, send and receive e-mail and make learning fun for kids, all for a price that is predictable."
Died: January 31, 1997
What they said when they killed it: "We are walking away from the bloodbath in the mass-consumer market in which hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent." (Most of those hundreds of millions of dollars were being spent by AOL to carpet-bomb the nation with trial disks.)
Why it really failed: As CompuServe said, it didn’t have the will to take on AOL after all. Also, I don’t think WOW ever WOWed many consumers -- I don’t remember knowing a soul who belonged.
Was it a tragedy it bit the big one? I never used it, but it never sounded very appealing–even the name sounded a tad synthetically cheerful. On the other hand, there’s still a “Bring Back WOW” Web site, so someone cares.
The aftermath: In September 1997, AOL bought CompuServe and gradually let it fade away. Poetic justice, I guess.
2. Apple Power Mac G4 Cube (2000-2001)
What it was: A super-sleek Mac desktop computer in an undersized, fanless acrylic case. One of the most Steve Jobsian Apple products ever. I reviewed it at the time and pretty much bought into the reality distortion.
Announced: July 19, 2000
What they said when it was new: "The G4 Cube is simply the coolest computer ever." -- Steve Jobs, unveiling it at Macworld Expo in New York
Died: July 3, 2001
What they said when they killed it: "Cube owners love their Cubes, but most customers decided to buy our powerful Power Mac G4 minitowers instead." -- Apple’s Phil Schiller, in one of the few press releases anyone’s ever issued to announce a product’s failure
Why it really failed: Because, um, most customers decided to buy Apple’s powerful Power Mac G4 minitowers instead. Which they presumably did in part because of the Cube’s steep price: $1799. But it was surprising to see Apple give up so quickly rather than releasing an improved version of what could have been a nifty machine.
Was it a tragedy that it bit the big one? No -- the Cube had major problems, like a case that was prone to cracks and a design that made it hard to put a CD in the slot without accidentally powering down the system. It was a rare example of Apple favoring form over function.
*The aftermath: * In 2005, Apple announced the Mac Mini -- a much cheaper, somewhat Cube-like computer that’s had a far longer, happier life.
3. Kerbango Internet Radio (2000-2001)
What it was: A $300 radio that pulled in stations from the Net using RealNetworks technology. It could work on either dial-up or broadband
Announced: February 7, 2000 at the DEMO conference
What they said when it was new: "Kerbango intends to be a driving force in helping Internet radio fulfill its promise, by making it easy to find and listen to Internet audio without needing a computer."
Died: March 21, 2001, without having shipped. (In between its announcement and demise, it was repeatedly delayed, 3Com bought it for $80 million, magazines kept covering it as if it were available, it was listed on Amazon, and it won Best of Show at the 2001 Consumer Electronics Show. Whew!)
What they said when they killed it: 3Com said it was offing Kerbango (as well as Audrey -- see below) as part of an effort to save $250 million. It decided to get out of the home-products business after a lousy quarter.
Why it really failed: It wasn’t a shocker to see a big-iron networking company like 3Com decide to get out of the consumer market. But I’m still curious why Kerbango spent over a year as high-profile vaporware. (One obvious problem: It really wanted broadband, in an era when few people had broadband.)
Was it a tragedy it bit the big one? I never saw the Kerbango in action, but I liked the idea. Other similar products such as the Roku SoundBridge eventually made it to the market, but none were particularly successful. Today, Sonos makes products that are pretty close to achieving what Kerbango failed at.
The aftermath: HP eventually bought 3Com, and if you try to go to Kerbango.com today you end up at HP’s homepage -- which poignantly links the Kerbango radio to the TouchPad.
4. Sony eVilla (2001)
What it was: A "network entertainment center," based on the promising but ill-fated BeOS platform, with a keyboard, mouse, portrait-shaped display, dial-up connection, and built-in applications. Oh, and a name that reminded me of Cruella DeVil.
Announced: January 2001. After several delays, it shipped on June 14, 2001
What they said when it was new: "Sony’s e Villa unit eliminates the common hassles of connecting to the Internet, like having to boot up and dial in just to see if there’s new email, or trying to manage multimedia plug-ins." -- Mark Viken, president of Sony Electronics' Personal Network Solutions Company
Died: August 30 2001
What they said when they killed it: The product did not meet our expectations . . . It did not operate as planned."
Why it really failed: By the time that eVilla and much-hyped competitors such as Audrey (see next item!) actually shipped, it was pretty clear that the consumers of the era didn’t want appliances. They wanted cheap Windows PCs. Sony said that one plausible reason for it losing interest -- after eVilla’s release, BeOS was bought by Palm, a division of Audrey maker 3Com -- was not a factor.
Was it a tragedy it bit the big one? Doesn’t seem to have been one, although BeOS was a nice piece of software and it would have been cool if it had found success on something.
The aftermath: Sony did the right thing and gave eVilla buyers a refund for the price of the device and its Internet service.
5. 3Com Audrey (2000-2001)
What it was: A $499 stylus-driven, dial-up Internet appliance intended for women, part of a never-to-be “Ergo” line of devices. Like today’s BlackBerry PlayBook, it ran the QNX operating system.
Announced: October 17, 2000
What they said when it was new: "We want to deliver an enjoyable Internet experience in the nerve center of the home. In most homes, that’s the kitchen."
Died: March 21, 2001
What they said when they killed it: "While we believe in the potential of the category, it’s clear that it will take longer to develop than originally planned and likely to generate losses for the foreseeable future."
Why it really failed: I suppose you could argue that Audrey was a decade ahead of its time -- people use the iPad in ways similar to those envisioned by Audrey’s inventors. But in 2000, people -- be they female or otherwise -- didn’t want minimalist dumbed-down devices. They wanted PCs.
Was it a tragedy it bit the big one?No, not at all.
The aftermath: 3Com supposedly had a secret refund program. But unlike eVilla maker Sony, it left most Audrey buyers twisting in the wind.
6. Palm Foleo (2007)
What it was: A $500 subnotebook-like device that could connect to a PalmOS phone, letting users run the phone’s e-mail and other apps on a larger screen with a bigger keyboard.
Announced: May 30, 2007
What they said when it was new: "I think it’s the best idea I’ve ever had." -- Jeff Hawkins, founder of Palm and creator of the PalmPilot, in an interview with Cnet’s Ina Fried
What they said when they killed it:“Our own evaluation and early market feedback were telling us that we still have a number of improvements to make Foleo a world-class product, and we can not afford to make those improvements on a platform that is not central to our core focus.”–Ed Colligan, CEO of Palm
Why it really failed: Palm was plenty busy trying to finish an announced operating system that turned out to be WebOS, the software that HP stabbed on Thursday. But the nearly universal abysmal reception that Foleo got from the media couldn’t have helped. (I was one of the few who wasn’t 100 percent positive it was a turkey.)
Was it a tragedy it bit the big one? No. Like RIM’s BlackBerry PlayBook, it would have been too dependent on a phone to be useful enough. But the Foleo did incorporate ideas that turned out to be of interest -- it was a netbook-like device before there were such things as netbooks. Jeff Hawkins is such a visionary guy that even his bad ideas aren’t completely boring.
The aftermath: In his blog post announcing Foleo’s cancellation, Palm CEO Ed Colligan said that the company would eventually do a “Foleo II” based on “our new platform.” That would be WebOS. Can we stop anticipating it with bated breath now?
7. Google Wave (2009-2010)
What it was: What wasn’t it? It was a hybrid of e-mail, instant messaging, workgroup collaboration, photo editing, and much more, without bearing much resemblance to any existing service in any of those categories. Google Kitchen Sink would have been at least as apt a name as Wave.
Announced: May 28, 2009, but it didn’t open to the public until May 19, 2010
What they said when it was new: "Could a single communications model span all or most of the systems in use on the web today, in one smooth continuum? How simple could we make it?" -- Google’s Lars Rasmussen, co-inventor of Wavw
Died: August 4, 2010
What they said when they killed it: ". . .Wave has not seen the user adoption we would have liked. We don’t plan to continue developing Wave as a standalone product, but we will maintain the site at least through the end of the year and extend the technology for use in other Google projects."
Why it really failed: I’m still not entirely sure, other than that Google has been willing to terminate some big projects in recent years. And perhaps the company was genuinely taken aback by the near-universal consensus that Wave was extremely confusing.
Was it a tragedy it bit the big one? I think it was awfully sad. There was simply no way that two and a half months of public availability could have been enough time for something as radically different as Wave to find acceptance. If Wave had been a classic Microsoft project, it would have gotten a 2.0 -- and a 3.0 that was so much better that it would have had a shot at success.
8. Microsoft Kin (2010)
What it was: Two not-quite-smartphones, manufactured by Sharp and on the Verizon Wireless network, that Microsoft aimed at highly social twentysomethings. Both had slide-out keyboards and touchscreens and lots of built-in features, but couldn’t run third-party apps.
Went on sale: May 6, 2010
What they said when it was new: "Working closely with our partners, we saw an opportunity to design a mobile experience just for this social generation — a phone that makes it easy to share your life moment to moment," Robbie Bach, president of Microsoft’s Entertainment and Devices Division
Died: June 30, 2010
What they said when they killed it: "We have made the decision to focus exclusively on Windows Phone 7 and we will not ship KIN in Europe this fall as planned. Additionally, we are integrating our KIN team with the Windows Phone 7 team, incorporating valuable ideas and technologies from KIN into future Windows Phone releases."
Why it really failed: Well, it made perfect sense for Microsoft to focus on the vastly superior Windows Phone platform. But rumor had it that Kin sales were dreadful. As well they should have been -- they were dismal, sluggish, poorly-designed handsets saddled with full-price data plans even though they weren’t quite smartphones. The only thing these phones had going in their favor was Studio, a neat service that auto-synced photos and other stuff to the Web.
Was it a tragedy it bit the big one? God, no -- I’m still baffled why Microsoft bothered with the Kins in the first place, and wonder if anyone in Redmond understood that the products were turkeys.
The aftermath: Microsoft said that Verizon Wireless would continue to carry the Kins that had already been manufactured. And by golly, it did–you can still get one, for free, with a cheap service plan. Someday they’ll sell ‘em all, I’m sure.
9. Cisco FlipLive (2011)
What it was: The next generation of Cisco’s Flip videocamera, with one major new feature -- built-in Wi-Fi that let them sync wirelessly with a computer or broadcast video directly over the Internet.
Announced: Never! But it was supposed to be released on April 13, 2011
What they said when it was new: Cisco never told consumers about FlipLive, but when one of its representatives invited me to a prerelease briefing, it was described as a "new innovative family of products unlike any previous Flip you’ve seen!"
Died: April 12, 2011, along with all other Flip models
What they said when they killed it: "We are making key, targeted moves as we align operations in support of our network-centric platform strategy. As we move forward, our consumer efforts will focus on how we help our enterprise and service provider customers optimize and expand their offerings for consumers, and help ensure the network’s ability to deliver on those offerings." -- John Chambers, Cisco’s CEO, in a buzzword-laden statement concerning the company’s decision to end the Flip line and lay off the 550 employees responsible for it
Why it really failed: Flip was very popular and apparently profitable. So it’s been widely speculated that Cisco’s goal involved showmanship as much as fiscal prudence: It wanted to create visible signs of blood to placate Wall Street.
Was it a tragedy it bit the big one? I know people who think so. It’s certainly too bad that Cisco didn’t attempt to sell Flip rather than blithely destroying a brand it had bought for $590 million just two years earlier. It’s true, however, that when I saw the FlipLive cameras, I came away thinking that they were largely more of the same rather than an exciting leap forward. Then again, the New York Times’ David Pogue used the phrase “tragic death” in his eulogy for Flip, and specifically praised FlipLive.
The aftermath: The decision to kill FlipLive along with all Flips was so abrupt that San Francisco (and, I assume other cities) were haunted by Flip ads on bus shelters for months after the bad news hit. And I wonder what Cisco did with all the FlipLives it had originally planned to put on sale the day after it ultimately axed the product? By now, they may be in landfill in New Mexico somewhere alongside Atari ET’s cartridges.
10. HP TouchPad (2011)
What it was: HP’s first WebOS tablet, the most notable result of its 2010 purchase of Palm for $1.2 billion. It was supposed to be the flagship of an array of WebOS devices which HP would release in the years to come: "The flexibility of the webOS platform makes it ideal for creating a range of innovative devices that work together to keep you better connected to your world," a press release explained.
Announced: February 9, 2011. And it shipped on July 1.
What they said when it was new: "What makes HP TouchPad a compelling alternative to competing products is webOS. The platform’s unmatched features and flexibility will continue to differentiate HP products from the rest of the market for both personal and professional use. This is only the beginning of what HP’s scale can do with webOS." -- Jon Rubinstein, HP senior vice president
When it died: August 18, 2011
What they said when they killed it: "The tablet effect is real, and sales of the TouchPad are not meeting our expectations." -- Léo Apotheker, HP CEO
Why it really failed: Because HP didn’t actually have the stomach to enter a remarkably challenging market. In fact, by simultaneously announcing its intention to get rid of its PC business, it pretty much made clear that it doesn’t want to be in the consumer-goods business at all, except for printers (and ink).
Was it a tragedy it bit the big one? I think so. WebOS remained full of promise; now it’s dead, or close enough. We still need serious competitors to the iPad. And if a company isn’t willing to withstand more than six weeks of disappointing sales, it shouldn’t introduce a product at all.
The aftermath: Another TouchPad variant, the TouchPad 4G for AT&T, will apparently die without ever having been released.
So what can we learn here? A few important things:
- If a product is terrible, or meant for a market that doesn’t exist, it’s better to figure that out before you release it, not after.
- If a product has potential, it might take more than a few weeks to realize it.
- The fact a company is great at making enterprise networking hardware doesn’t mean it’ll succeed with consumery gizmos.
- Strangely enough, claiming a product is wonderful (sometimes in pricey ad campaigns) doesn’t help if it isn’t.
- People responsible for some of the greatest products ever -- guys like Steve Jobs and Jeff Hawkins -- are still capable of misjudging the market.
- All roads lead to HP, which killed the TouchPad and ended up owning the companies which had killed Kerbango, Audrey, and Foleo.
Right now, I’m genuinely sad over the fate of the TouchPad. I’m sorry for the people who bought it; I’m sorry for the HP employees who worked on it; I’m sorry for the HP stockholders that the company spent over a billion dollars for an operating system it lost interest in so quickly. But the good news is this: it won’t be too long until some other product fails so fast that the TouchPad is no longer the obvious example of horrendous tech-product failure. And Silicon Valley -- a place where making mistakes and moving on is part of the culture -- will always try, try again.
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