When we see new technology we often ask ourselves if it’s a fad or here to stay. Will it be forgotten or will it shape future technologies? Right now we’re asking these questions about things like virtual reality and electric cars. Technology often promises to improve our lives so it brings us great optimism, but we’ve been burned so many times in the past by truly awful products that were billed as the next big thing. Here are some of our favourite disasters.
It was going to change the transportation industry. It would replace cars the way they had replaced the horse and cart. It was going to rapidly become the most-used vehicle on roads around the world. Oh how we look back and laugh. The hilarious, electrically-balanced Segway was a commercial flop for many reasons even ignoring the fact that people frequently crash them. They were slow, couldn’t get far without being charged, and were super expensive. None of these are what we want from the next big thing in transportation.
Over $100 million was poured into developing the Segway but it never caught on as people had to decide between buying one for thousands of dollars or walking somewhere for free. In the first 4 years only 23,500 units were sold and every single one was recalled due to a software problem causing them to reverse unexpectedly. They were supposed to take over the roads but were illegal as road vehicles countries. Some countries classed them as electric scooters and wouldn’t allow them on roads without a license. Hopefully we’ll never see anything like this again. Oh, hello hoverboard.
Sony’s Betamax was actually a great technology and undoubtedly better than its rival, VHS. Betamax was smaller, tougher, and the video quality was higher. When two technologies collide and the weaker one survives, that usually means the problem is the company behind the scenes. Sometimes a great product has poor marketing or the company has received criticism for some other product and it has affected sales. In this case, Betamax lost out because it was Sony vs the world. Sony refused to license the Betamax technology as they didn’t want other manufacturers profiting. Meanwhile VHS players were being released by lots of manufacturers, which brought their price down. Consumers had to choose expensive Betamax that locked you into using Sony’s players, or cheap VHS players that were nice and open. The rest is history.
Laserdiscs were released in 1978 making it the first digital home video format. They were huge discs that had much better video resolution than the video cassettes that had only been out for a couple of years. Better video quality and surround sound were great selling points but the high price wasn’t. The Laserdisc players were more expensive than VHS players, louder, larger, and you couldn’t record your favourite TV shows onto them. They were doomed but the idea of using discs for digital media in the home was revisited four years later with the release of CDs and then eventually DVDs. The Laserdisc was just a DVD that was invented at the wrong time.
Five years after Apple introduced the iPod to the world, Microsoft was playing catch up with the Zune. The Microsoft music player released in late 2006 and by the same time in 2008 had only sold 2 million units. When Microsoft was making millions of dollars in sales from the Zune, Apple was making billions. As a product it wasn’t bad, the Zune ticked all the boxes it had to as a gadget but was a little ugly. Sometimes the failure of a tech product is less to do with what it can do and more to do with the timing and competition. Remember when people were just as likely to be on Myspace, Bebo, or Facebook? Try releasing a successful social network today in the shadow of Facebook’s domination. The Zune was doomed from the start with the iPods almost universal appeal and 5 year head start.
5. Microsoft BOB
Microsoft’s operating systems were doing very well by 1995 but the company still wanted to reach more people and make Windows even easier to use. What could be better than a disgusting, cluttered, low-res illustration laid over Windows that treats users like a baby? That’s bound to be popular, right? Microsoft BOB never caught on because ordinary PC users felt patronised and newcomers found it more confusing than the normal desktop. It turns out hiding programs in a cluttered room makes finding them more difficult than just clicking on a labelled desktop icon. If you’re sad that BOB and its various helpful characters weren’t a success, you can take some comfort in knowing that clippy the paperclip was transferred from BOB to Microsoft Office products and everyone has been nothing but happy about this decision.
6. Virtual Boy
The designer of the original Game Boy also designed the Virtual Boy. It was a concept he felt wasn’t quite ready for release but Nintendo released it anyway. Marketing tried to paint it as VR but it couldn’t do anything that current VR devices can and had no real reason for existence as the gaming experience didn’t improve on that of the Game Boy. It was ugly, it had terrible graphics, and it even made some users sick. Nintendo knew that VR would be a game-changer but this wasn’t VR; it was a red Game Boy you tied to your face for no reason. It was launched in 1995 and pulled from the market in 1996 but don’t worry, there were plenty of other failing consoles around to take its place.
7. Bandai Pippin
Apple’s adventure in games consoles is an intriguing tale. The Bandai Pippin was designed by Apple but built by Bandai. It was way ahead of its time in terms of ambition and features. It played games and other media, it could connect to the internet, and even ran on a desktop operating system. On paper it was a winner but back in 1996 nobody knew why these were good features. Five years later, Microsoft had great success with the original Xbox, which was popular because it was a games/media player that connected to the internet and ran on a PC operating system. Being 5 years behind Apple might have been bad news for the Zune but it paid off for the Xbox! The Pippin ultimately failed because it had strong competition in Nintendo and Sega. Both companies had strong exclusive software libraries including Mario and Sonic games. The Pippin didn’t have the same strength of software and was much more expensive than the alternatives.
Despite what many tech sites write, Circuit City’s DIVX player from 1998 doesn’t live on as the annoying DivX video software that demands to be installed from all corners of the web. The original DIVX player was a piece of hardware launched in 1998 that plaued DIVX discs. It wasn’t just an alternative media format; it was an entirely new concept. You would rent a movie from them, they would send you the disc, you could play it as many times as you like for 48 hours, then you lost access. The DIVX played was connected to the internet so the company could tell if you were playing something when you shouldn’t be. Upon 48 hours being reached, you had the option of upgrading your rental to DIVX silver that allowed unlimited viewing or gold that also allowed your disc to be played on other people’s DIVX players. It was a horrible idea and at the worst time. They were trying to be a mix of rental videos, Amazon Prime, and Netflix when the world and technology just wasn’t ready. Do you want to pay to be told what you can and can’t do with the video you bought?
Apple’s attempt at a social network focused around your music was an utter disaster. Steve Jobs said it was, “sort of like Facebook and Twitter meet iTunes.” As a concept this doesn’t sound too bad. Hang out with people who are into music, share your favourite tunes, follow your favourite artists, and discover new music that your friends are listening to. It’s all great in theory despite the fact that the world didn’t need another social network. It never caught on for many reasons but the main one was probably that you had to use iTunes to access it. There was no web portal for the social network so you couldn’t easily browse and check your notifications as you could on Facebook or Twitter. Instead, you had to use software that’s clunky and slow at the best of times. At launch you couldn’t even search for your friends. Ordinary people weren’t using the service so the comments ended up being mostly scammers and bots. In the end Apple pulled the plug and simply integrated Facebook and Twitter into iTunes. The world rejoiced.
10. QR codes
Ok, so these are technically still around but we’re calling it. People aren’t scanning them. Businesses don’t know how to use them. We’ve seen them on the sides of moving vehicles. We’ve seen them presented beside the company’s web address making it redundant. Actually you never know what you’re going to get when you load up an app and scan one but it’s usually intrusive ads for the company that left the QR code behind. Most people have never scanned one. There’s a reason one of our favourite Tumblr blogs is Pictures of People Scanning QR-codes.
It’s done. They failed. It’s time to move on.
Main image © Youtube/Lord Karnage