By Harry McCracken | Monday, July 27, 2009 at 5:59 am
Life, as John F. Kennedy once helpfully pointed out, isn’t fair. Neither is the market for technology products. There’s no law that says that the best products win: The history of tech is pockmarked with breakthrough hardware, software, and services that were dismal failures in the marketplace. (It’s also rife with mediocre products that became massive bestsellers–insert your own example here.)
Of course, not every innovative tech product deserves to be a hit. Some flop because they’re ahead of their time, which is kind of admirable; others bomb because they take too long to emerge from the lab and are obsolete by the time they do, which is simply embarrassing. And some products that are enticing on paper turn out to have fatal cases of Achilles’ heel in the real world. But they’re all valuable case studies in how good intentions can go awry.
For this article, I intentionally skipped some of the most legendary magnificent failures, such as the Apple Newton, Commodore Amiga, and Sony Betamax–they’ve been celebrated more or less continuously since their untimely passings, and I wanted to devote more space to lesser-known contenders. I figure you’re going to reminisce about your own favorites in the comments anyhow.
Thanks to my pals on Twitter (where I’m @harrymccracken) for nominating scads of products for this story. And yes, the title of this article is a homage to Brilliant But Cancelled, a retrospective of short-lived TV shows that appeared on the Trio cable channel…a channel which was itself both excellent and unsuccessful.
What it was: English mathematician Charles Babbage’s design for a five-ton machine with 8,000 mechanical parts that would calculate and tabulate polynomial functions–an improved version of his earlier Difference Engine No. 1, incorporating ideas from his more general-purpose Analytical Engine.
Why it was brilliant: Babbage was inventing computers a hundred years before the industry really got off the ground. It took a century and a half before anyone was able to to build his Difference Engine No. 2., but once two were assembled by London’s Science Museum–with minor modifications to Babbage’s plans–they worked as intended. Anyone wanna argue that’s not evidence of brilliance?
Why it was doomed: Babbage’s ability to conceive of extraordinarily ambitious machines outstripped his ability to construct them–which is less of a criticism of his ability to finish projects and more of a sign of just how ahead of his time he was. He received British government funding for his first Difference Engine, but ran out of cash without having ever built a working model, and also failed to build more than a few components of his Analytical Engine. By the time he designed the second Difference Engine he didn’t attempt to construct one.
Its legacy: Concepts originated by Charles Babbage are reflected in every computing device you own. And since he was never able to build any of his extraordinary brainchildren, he’s also the father of the technological magnificent failure.
Video sidelight: Here’s a demonstration of the modern Difference Engine at Silicon Valley’s Computer History Museum.
What it was: Polaroid’s instant-photography movie system, the result of three decades of experimentation and research.
Why it was brilliant: Even Polaroid’s still-image instant cameras, such as the amazing SX-70, remain among the most impressive feats of consumer-electronics wizardry ever. Polavision made instant movies by capturing an amazing eighteen instant photos a second, courtesy of a handheld camera that used handy film cartridges.
Why it was doomed: Many brilliant tech products have failed because they were ahead of their time; Polavision flopped big-time because it was simply too late. It was pricey ($675) and the movies it created were short (two minutes and forty seconds) and silent, and could only be watched on the bundled tabletop screen (they were too dim to be projected). None of this might have mattered if the system had been released in 1967–but in 1977, it was up against early consumer video cameras and VCRs. From the day it launched, Polavision looked shockingly retro, and its catostrophic failure eventually contributed to the sad exodus of legendary Polaroid founder Edwin Land.
Its legacy: Polavision may have been a disaster, and today’s Polaroid itself may be nothing more than a shell company that slaps its logo on other companies’ products. But the basic idea–instant movies–is as appealing today as it was in 1977. What’s a Flip camcorder other than what Polavision wanted to be but couldn’t?
Video sidelights: Even marketing starring Danny Kaye (and later Ed McMahon, who tried to reposition Polavision as a business product) couldn’t save Polavision.
What it was: The nation’s first interactive TV service, which Warner Communications launched in Columbus, Ohio on December 1st, 1977.
Why it was brilliant: QUBE packed impressive technology, including a two-way 256-kbps data connection at a time when dial-modems ran at 300-bps (and almost nobody had them yet). Its oversized 18-button remote control let consumers interact with programming–which included new concepts such as pay per view, interactive polls, home shopping, and distance learning. The then-impressive thirty channels of programming included the children’s station Pinwheel (which was later renamed Nickelodeon) and an all-music station known as Sight on Sound (a precursor to MTV).
Why it was doomed: The system was pricey to build out–the boxes cost $200 apiece compared to $40 for a typical set-top box. And all that original, interactive programming made it expensive to operate. It also turned out that the interactive aspect of the service wasn’t particularly popular. Couch potatoes liked to remain couch potatoes. By 1984, Warner began to wind down QUBE operations, a process that took a decade.
Its legacy: In 1994, Warner (then known as Time Warner) tried again with the Full Service Network, a QUBE-like interactive service which launched in Orlando and flopped more quickly than QUBE had. Around the same time, the World Wide Web exploded, bringing consumers interactivity of the sort originally envisioned by QUBE, plus a whole lot more. As of 2010, cable TV remains surprisingly non-interactive, but hints of QUBE-like functionality (such as the use of TiVo boxes to order pizza) continue to crop up.
Video sidelights: A former QUBE producer has uploaded a bunch of fascinating video clips from QUBE’s launch day to YouTube, including a bit with the Krusty-like Flippo the clown discussing the QUBE remote with some kids and the wonderfully-named Columbus Goes Bananaz, a music show that hosted Wolfman Jack.
What it was: RCA’s analog home movie system, which used a phonograph-like player with a needle to play back video from 12-inch vinyl discs stored in caddies.
Why it was brilliant: SelectaVision discs were essentially LPs you could see as well as hear–which in 1981 was still a cool idea and an impressive technical feat. And in the early 1980s, the home-video market hadn’t yet taken off, so the notion of being able to own a copy of a movie and watch it at a time of your choosing still felt luxurious and futuristic.
Why it was doomed: Like Polavision, Selectavision might have been a hit if it had shipped way earlier (RCA began research in 1964). By the time it finally showed up in 1981, however, it competed not only with Beta and VHS (which were recordable) but with laserdiscs (a technically superior form of moviedisc which had actually beaten SelectaVision to market in the form of the Nimoy-endorsed Magnavision in 1978). SelectaVision discs held only an hour per side and so had to be flipped over to watch a whole movie (and supplemented with additional discs for longer films). And like phonograph albums they were fragile, promising a life of only 500 playbacks. RCA gave up on the players in 1984 and stopped selling videodiscs in 1986.
Its legacy: Laserdiscs were beloved by hardcore movie buffs and technonerds for years, but also failed to find their way into many living rooms. It wasn’t until the smaller, higher-capacity DVDs appeared in 1997 that vast numbers of Americans began to buy their movies in disc form.
Video sidelight: Movies on Selectavision discs opened with a triumphant fanfare that probably felt pretty high-tech at the time.