Tech turkeys: 8 epic product misfires
- By Kevin McCaney
- Nov 18, 2011
A symbol of Thanksgiving is the horn of plenty, or cornucopia, a goat’s horn overflowing with harvest bounty, standing for abundance and prosperity. Another symbol is the turkey, a word with several meanings, according to Webster's, including a "failure" or bust.
In modern times, those symbols apply to more than just farm goods. Along with the feasts that mark the holiday, Thanksgiving kicks off the holiday shopping season, when retailers seek to harvest their yearly profits through an abundance of ads and sales featuring great new products that you must have to sustain your quality of life.
But beware the turkeys. What might seem like the next big thing could soon be roadkill. It's happened before.
As a cautionary tale, we present eight of the biggest technology turkeys in history. Give thanks that these products are no more.
The first optical disc method for watching movies might have been a little ahead of its time. For you kids out there, LaserDisc was like a DVD, except it was the size of a medium pizza. Introduced in 1978 — as “DiscoVision” by MCA — it was actually just a shade smaller than a 33-rpm record. But it took two sides to hold a movie and the players were expensive, running into the thousands of dollars. LaserDisc just couldn’t compete with videocassettes, which may have had inferior picture quality but a much more palatable price. In fact, LaserDisc is still an expensive proposition for retro entertainment consumers. A player on Ebay runs anywhere from $225 to $3,163. But you can get a LaserDisc copy of “Apocalypse Now” for $9.
By the time Sony introduced the eVilla in 2001, it was an idea whose time had left the building, caught a plane and entered the witness protection program. eVilla was an internet appliance, an illegitimate-son-of-an-Apple II-looking thing with the sole purpose of accessing the Internet, like a thin client for the Web. Its $499 price might have been attractive back when a PC or Mac rig would set you back a couple thousand dollars, but by 2001 you could get a low-end laptop with storage, apps — and Internet access — for about the same price. Talk about late to the party. Introduced in June, it lasted less than three months, before a humbled Sony pulled it from the shelves and even offered a full refund to anyone who bought one, including the $22 a month they had paid for Internet access.
Microsoft’s answer to the iPod didn’t quite sing. Launched with a load of fanfare in November 2006, Zune at first seemed like a good idea, with features such as player-to-player music sharing that the iPod didn’t have. But Zune couldn’t match the iPod’s sleek, simple interface. Nor could it compete with the iPod’s hold on the market (being incompatible with iTunes didn’t help). Microsoft also crippled it with digital rights management issues to the point that it became a terrible product. Microsoft is now encouraging any remaining Zune users to switch to the Windows Phone.
Before the days of the iPod, iPhone and iPad, when it seems Apple can do no wrong, the company had its share of failures. Newton was one of them. Apple introduced its personal digital assistant/proto-tablet in 1993, foreshadowing the eventual arrival of Palms, BlackBerrys and, in a way, the iPad itself. But in its day (notably, it was introduced during Steve Jobs’ exile from the company), Newton was an expensive ($700 and up), clunky device that relied on handwriting recognition technology that wasn’t very accurate. After being lampooned by “Doonesbury” and “The Simpsons” for misinterpreting handwritten words, it was clear its days were numbered.
With the Y2K panic behind it, Microsoft in September 2000 heralded the coming dawn of the new century with Windows Millennium Edition, touting its new operating system with the “Meet Me Tour” across the United States. Turned out pretty much everyone had a prior commitment. The problem was that most of its features were already available in Windows 98, and Me wasn’t exactly stable, with crashes a regular feature. There really seemed to be no reason to switch, other than giving Microsoft money. Before long, people were saying “Me” stood for “Mistake Edition.” Not long after that, they weren’t saying anything about it. Me sat on the shelves for a year before being moved out for Windows XP.
This was a convoluted attempt to combine video rentals with a pay-per-view approach. Launched in 1998 by Circuit City and an entertainment law firm, people could rent a movie on a DIVX (for Digital Video Express) disc for $4, but it was only good for two days (a bar code on the disc prevented more plays) unless you paid more. What's more, DIVX discs wouldn’t play on a regular DVD player, so you had to get a dedicated machine. And you had set up account with them. And then pay over the phone whenever you wanted to keep viewing a movie. Whew. This business model lasted one year and one week before being abandoned.
A seemingly half-decent idea that turned out to be half-baked. The idea: Let people use a 10- or 15-inch tablet-like device that connects wirelessly to their home PCs so they can move around the home, interacting with the applications while the PC handled the work. The problem: Mira, officially named Smart Display, only worked with Windows XP Pro, and the host PC could connect with only one Mira at a time. Plus, although it was supposed to be cheap, it wound up costing about the same as a laptop, which could not only be carried around the house but taken outside the house, too. So what was the point? Introduced in early 2003, it was gone by the end of the year.
Microsoft products turn up a lot on this list, and we don’t mean to pick. Maybe it’s just because the company has released so many products over the years. But it’s hard to compile a lineup like this without including Vista, the Hindenburg of operating systems. It improved security over its predecessor, XP, but made people work to manage it. While it added some new features and had an attractive interface, it confused some longtime Windows users. And it was a bloated, resource-sucking monster that didn’t support some older programs and just didn’t deliver a good computing experience, in the opinion of many users. In the face of Vista’s PR onslaught, people clutched their XP systems to their chests like frightened mothers and refused to let go. They held out, skipped Vista in droves — and for those who bought Vista, Microsoft had to include a downgrade option back to XP — and eventually upgraded to Windows 7, which basically is a svelte version of Vista.
Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.