Tech Killers: Challengers That Have Tried to Beat Hugely Successful Competitors

The tech industry has a long history of latecomers taking on dominant products and services. Think Microsoft Zune versus Apple iPad, Google TV versus Apple TV, Mozilla Firefox versus Internet Explorer. We look at some notable clashes of the past decade.

They Fought the Good Fight--and Usually Lost

Every day, a new "you name the product"-killer is launched, so of course there are plenty of examples of copycat or even superior tech products challenging market leaders in their category. But gumption doesn't guarantee success. Contenders that have recently given up the ghost include the Dell Adamo (Dell's MacBook Air wannabe) and the Microsoft Zune media player. Join us for a look at 20 would-be tech killers of the past 10 years and how they fared. Let's start with products that tried to topple Apple equivalents.

Sony 2004 Walkman vs. Apple iPod

Sony slapped its Walkman brand on hard-drive-based music players back in 2004, 25 years after it introduced the brand on mobile cassette-tape players and 4 years after Apple launched the original iPod. But Sony's initial ATRAC3 music conversion requirements, poor software companions, and clunky navigation failed to propel the updated Walkman to the top of the music-player food chain, where the iPod still resides. Perhaps future Walkman efforts will follow Zune's example, and concentrate on software for phones and consoles.

Microsoft Zune vs. Apple iPod

In 2006, Microsoft introduced the Zune music players that targeted Apple's iPod ecosystem. Five years later, the player hasn't significantly dented Apple's 77 percent market share, and Zune is not among the top five brands on the market. No wonder Microsoft has decided to kill the Zune hardware altogether, though the software will live on in Windows Phone 7 and the Xbox.

Amazon MP3 Store vs. Apple iTunes

Amazon's MP3 store for Android is available as a mobile phone app that people can download from the Android Market. It also supports tablets. Unlike Apple, Google doesn't have a music store ecosystem (though it is planning one), so Amazon's store is the practical way to get music (and movies) straight from your Android phone; in fact, it comes preinstalled on some phones.

We have to thank Amazon's MP3 store for putting pressure on iTunes to sell DRM-free tunes at variable prices. A smaller yet worthy competitor to the iTunes Music Store, Amazon's media store is quickly gaining ground on Android mobile devices, which sell by the millions worldwide. If Google doesn't hurry up with its music service, Amazon and iTunes may end up being the biggest rivals in the market.

Motorola Droid vs. Apple iPhone

Flying the flag for Google's Android smartphone OS, the Droid X was born as the Apple (and AT&T) iPhone 4's rival on Verizon. Superior in many ways to the iPhone, the Droid X didn't sell was well as the iPhone 4 did (buyers snapped up 1.7 million iPhone 4 units in the first three days they were on sale). However, the battle between Android and iOS is far from over; and overall, Google now activates more Android phones per day (over 300,000) than Apple does iPhones. Mark this challenge as "To be continued..."

Google TV vs. Apple TV

Last October, Google and Logitech introduced the $299 Revue, a Google-powered set-top box designed to bring the Web into your living room. Meanwhile, Apple had a marketplace darling with the $99 Apple TV 2, which sold like hotcakes. Matched against the Apple TV 2, the Revue looked bulky and overpriced. No wonder Google's platform has yet to take off, while Apple has sold more than a million new Apple TVs.

Dell Adamo vs. Apple Macbook Air

In 2009, intent on showing that it could build a thin ulralight laptop like the MacBook Air, Dell introduced the Adamo, a skinny, pricey alternative to Apple's size-zero laptop. What happened next? After slashing the Adamo's price in hopes of increasing its appeal, Dell finally killed the line in February 2011. Meanwhile, Apple continues to sell its razor-sharp laptop at a brisk clip.

HP Envy vs. Apple Macbook Pro

If HP's Envy line of laptops looks familiar, that's because it took its design cues from Apple's MacBook Pro line. Available in 13-, 14-, 15- and 17-inch models, the laptops were not significantly cheaper or more powerful than their Apple counterparts; they were, however, a bit bulkier. HP stopped selling the Envy 13 model in February 2011, following the demise of the Dell Adamo.

Samsung Galaxy Tab vs. Apple iPad

Samsung's first response to Apple's popular iPad tablet and its 9.7-inch screen was the 7-inch Galaxy Tab, a smartphone on steroids, or, depending how you see it, a smaller tablet. While Apple sold 15 million first-generation iPads through 2010, sales of the 7-inch Galaxy Tab were "quite smooth" (or "quite small")--Samsung has not released precise figures. In round 2, Samsung plans to battle the iPad 2 with a 10.1-inch Galaxy Tab. vs. Google

Now, let's switch gears and look at some attempts by companies to take on Google. Launched by a former Google employee and her husband in 2008, Cuil (pronounced "cool") aimed to challenge Google by indexing more Web pages. The search engine stumbled out of the gate, however, earning only a tiny fraction of the market after six months of competition. The project received additional attention in 2010 when it introduced a weird algorithmic encyclopedia, but afterward Cuil still didn't really take off.

Wolfram Alpha vs. Google

In 2009 it was called "the most ambitious search engine since Google." But when it launched, Wolfram Alpha--a clever, computational take on search--was still a work in progress. Ultimately, despite a $50 iPhone app and a Bing partnership, Wolfram Alpha never became the Google killer that some people thought it might be.

Motorola Droid Pro vs. RIM Blackberry

The first demos of the Google Android OS suggested a BlackBerry OS clone; but Android turned out to be a touchscreen affair, inspired by Apple's success with the iPhone. Now Motorola's Droid Pro--like other BlackBerry lookalikes from Nokia and other vendors--makes another play for CrackBerry addicts by adding a QWERTY keyboard under the touchscreen. It's still too soon to say whether the Droid Pro can dent BlackBerry sales any time soon.

Apple iBookstore vs. Amazon Kindle Store

The Amazon Kindle's success has sparked many competitors. Apple's stellar iPad sales might have cut into Amazon Kindle hardware sales, but the online retail giant still dominates in e-book sales, thanks to its Kindle Store. Amazon has nearly 500,000 titles and is even invading the iPad's territory with dedicated apps for iOS, too. That's not to say that the iBookstore hasn't profoundly influenced the e-book market: Publishers are embracing Apple's agency selling model instead of Amazon's bulk purchases.

Kobo e-Reader vs. Amazon Kindle

Heralded as a compelling Kindle alternative, the Kobo e-reader from Borders is lighter and more versatile, and the company has adopted libertarian views on sharing e-books, something that Amazon remains very tight about. But with a headstart with several model, plus a huge library of e-books available, the Kindle has at least made success harder for Kobo to achieve. Just don't write off Kobo yet, as prices for the hardware are set to drop.

Mozilla Firefox vs. Microsoft Internet Explorer

In 1995, Microsoft first embedded Internet Explorer in Windows; within five years, the browser was dominating the browser market, at the expense of Netscape and other rivals. More recently, Mozilla's Firefox has become IE's biggest enemy, with almost a quarter of the overall market (IE has 60 percent), though lately it has been losing its edge in page-loading speed. Will Mozilla ever overtake IE? (Read what we think of the fresh Internet Explorer 9.)

Mozilla Thunderbird vs. Microsoft Outlook

While its Firefox browser challenges Internet Explorer, Mozilla has been making forays into another piece of Microsoft territory with Thunderbird, an e-mail software alternative to Outlook. Recently updated to version 3.1, Thunderbird has a record of consistently improving its features, but its share of the market is scarcely more than 2 percent.

Google Buzz vs. Twitter

The success of social networking has encouraged a lot of companies to hop aboard the gravy train. You can mark Buzz--Google's attempt at a social networking platform--as one of the search giant's biggest social blunders. A slightly evolved Twitter lookalike, Buzz automatically added contacts and exposed relationships that many users didn't want publicly known. The privacy buzz about Buzz was so loud that, even after a privacy restart and apologies from Google, the service remains nowhere near as popular as Twitter. vs. Microsoft Office

You'd think that a free alternative to the pricey Microsoft Office would be hit, but is less polished and continues to lack some of Office's advanced features. Back in 2008, Open Office 3.0 promised to bash MS Office; now, almost three years later, the productivity suite rebranded as is still sitting on the sidelines.

Diaspora vs. Facebook

Hate Facebook and its privacy loopholes? Diaspora positions itself as the open-source privacy-friendly alternative to the 500-million users juggernaut that is Facebook. Funded by students, Diaspora has yet to take off, though some observers say that the newcomer could become a hit once people get the hang of using it and once its security glitches get sorted out.

HD DVD vs. Blu-ray

Some battles don't fit in specific categories. For instance, the Betamax vs. VHS format wars of the 1980s were reenacted during the past decade in the struggle of HD DVD vs Blu-ray. Introduced in 2000, the next-generation optical discs from Toshiba and Sony promised better quality and more storage density. Though Microsoft placed its bets on HD DVDs in 2005, it was clear by 2008 that Sony's Blu-ray technology had the edge. In 2008, Toshiba finally announced that it would stop making HD DVDs. Don't consider the Blu-ray format a safe long-term bet, however. Digital downloads are eroding optical media sales, slowly and steadily.

HD Radio vs. Terrestrial Radio

In the early 2000s, HD radio promised to deliver digitally encoded signals over FM/AM frequencies with the advantage of better-quality audio. But because it cost almost as much as satellite radio, HD radio never became a big hit with consumers. In fact, FM radio continues to be the most prevalent delivery method for radio programming. If more car manufacturers decide to adopt HD technology though, its popularity should increase.

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