By Harry McCracken | Friday, August 19, 2011 at 8:18 am
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, HP’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.
Announced: March 25th, 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 31st, 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.
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 19th, 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 3rd, 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.
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 7th, 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 21st, 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.
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 multi-media plug-ins.”–Mark Viken, president of Sony Electronics’ Personal Network Solutions Company
Died: August 30th 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.
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 17th, 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 21st, 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.