Gone in Sixty Seconds: The Shortest-Lived Tech Products Ever

Ten gadgets and services whose existences were nasty, brutish, and short.

By  |  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.

1. WOW! From CompuServe (1996-1997)

What it was: CompuServe’s brief attempt to create an AOL killer–a more family-friendly, consumery variant of its own service, which catered more to geeks and business types.

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.

2. Apple Power Mac G4 Cube (2000-2001)

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.

3. Kerbango Internet Radio (2000-2001)

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.

4. Sony eVilla (2001)

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.

5. 3Com Audrey (2000-2001)

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.

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31 Comments For This Post

  1. A. Nieva-Woodgate Says:

    I am completely distraught about HP killing WebOS. I believe it was one of the best OS' out there – and I love my Palm Pre and my TouchPad. I should have known the writing on the wall was there – but I hoped that HP would do the right thing. My husband bought the TouchPad on the first day – and I LOVE it… But now what? $500 down the drain? I really just want to say FU HP!

  2. Dave Says:

    How could you forget Microsoft Bob and the Apple Lisa. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microsoft_Bob

  3. techpunbit Says:

    One thing to note is that the Kin still lives. You can buy them at Verizon still, but they have removed some of the features, like Kin Studio, and are now feature phones. Most surprisingly, they sell really well now and are well liked by those who buy them. It is a feature phone double, but a smartphone strikeout.

  4. Charles Forsythe Says:

    You forgot the CD-killing THOR (Tandy High-density Optical Recorder) that was supposed to come out in the early 1990's.
    http://books.google.com/books?id=l3CxgWPR4j8C&amp

  5. The_Heraclitus Says:

    Ever since HP stopped having engineers as CEO's it has been going from one crisis to the next.

  6. Paul Says:

    Harry didn't forget it – he says that Verizon still sells them – he just neglects to mention that they are even more limited.

  7. RJ Bardsley Says:

    Great piece – it's interesting to see what worked, what didn't and what was ahead of its time. The key theme with a lot of these failed devices seems to be connectivity – a lot of promise requires a lot of bandwith I guess.

  8. Harry McCracken Says:

    I wrote almost 5000 words about Bob to celebrate its fifteenth anniversary!

    http://technologizer.com/2010/03/29/microsoft-bob/

  9. RandomRage Says:

    "It was a rare example of Apple favoring form over function."

    Can't tell if dry humor, or obliviousness.

  10. Andy Says:

    For the devices pre-2000, that does seem to be a theme. However, the Flip and TouchPad were deaths due to flagrant mismanagement of high-profile brands and products. The Kin was a product which seemed to arrive too late and to add insult to injury, didn't work very well.

  11. Harry McCracken Says:

    Well, neither. “Rare” might be the wrong word. How’s this? It was an unusual example of an Apple product being crippled by favoring form over function to the point where people wouldn’t buy it.

    –Harry

  12. infmom Says:

    CompuServe is still alive. A pale shadow of what it once was, to be sure, but still alive. Try the Vintage Computing Forum here:

    http://community.compuserve.com/n/pfx/forum.aspx?…

  13. @docleblanc126 Says:

    I still can't figure out why HP didn't, at the very least, try one last push for the back-to-school and holiday season before calling it quits. My next phone was going to be the Pre 3. If it wasn't for very crappy marketing and such a LOOOONG time between announcements and release dates, these products should have been cash cows.

    HP killed web OS, and I, for one, will not be giving them any business in the foreseeable future because of it.

    P.S. I still have not had the heart to throw out my Palm pilot or my 750.

  14. Nosbert Says:

    I had a Cube, and at the time, it was the best computer I had ever used. I loved that machine, and in fact, it's sitting on a shelf behind me as I type this. It wasn't cheap, but it pointed the way to a smaller future.

  15. aardman Says:

    Or, you can work in Broadway where shows can get shut down the day after opening night.

  16. Bazz Says:

    HP TouchPad failure would make both Hewett and Packard turn in their graves, to think that the premium technology company for six decades fall so low, shows that leadership and vision have now a superficial value.

  17. MJPollard Says:

    Interestingly, the Palm Foleo concept has lived on in the form of the Motorola Atrix Laptop Dock: you connect your Atrix 4G to it and you essentially have an Android-powered netbook. It’s not very highly regarded, though, and people have rightfully pointed out that for the same price, you can get a netbook that does a lot more.

  18. Paul Brown Says:

    This is only a small number of such tech products when you think of how many have failed to become a success. It is hard for new companies, products or ideas to be completely successful in such a competitive market. Just look at 3D televisions for an example, an idea that was big at the time but is now floating between taking off and selling successfully or becoming a failed product and being axed by the companies that sell them.

  19. Charlie Barrett Says:

    Why on Earth didn’t HP license their Pad and opsystem to a Chinese factory? It was probably made in China like everything else, anyway.

    On a similar note, I found an Android 2.0 pad on a direct China website for only $74,with a dual core processor, 512mb of DDR2, and expandable flash memory – everything except a decent opsystem, so if HP couldn’t make a profit at $599 perhaps they.need new management.

    Admittedly the Chinese $74 pad is probably not ruggedized and so will probably not last very long, but I’ve gotten some pretty good stuff as well as some trash.

  20. stjones911 Says:

    I can only hope that the lawyers are lining up to file shareholder lawsuits against lame-brained Leo and the idiotic board that managed to dredge up the longest run of incompetent CEOs in the history of tech. When the bean-counters take over tech companies, it's time to head for the hills – just ask Apple. Too bad neither Hewlett nor Packard can come back and save HP like Jobs (for all his egregious shortcomings) did Apple. I'm OK with HP not wanting to sell me a PC or tablet; they're not going to sell me any more printers either.

  21. htc4greviews.us Says:

    Great piece – it's interesting to see what worked, what didn't and what was ahead of its time. The key theme with a lot of these failed devices seems to be connectivity – a lot of promise requires a lot of bandwith I guess.

  22. Alfetta159 Says:

    Did anyone ever use GOOG411? It wasn't bad, but I think it's a bit like Twitter. Oh, sure Twitter is more popular than ever, but does anyone actually get messages via text messages on their phone? So then what's the point of limiting messages to 160 characters. I never call normal 411, I just bing, yelp, google…

  23. minardi Says:

    You can add Iomega HipZip

  24. mythicalme Says:

    There used to be a time when the HP printer was a good machine. Now, I wouldn't foist one on my worst enemy. If HP thinks that they are going to concentrate on the printer market they better start listening to their customers and deliver a better product that isn't so obviously trying to fleece them.

  25. Hamranhansenhansen Says:

    They were always feature phones. That was the problem.

  26. Hamranhansenhansen Says:

    I would love for you to list some examples of Apple favoring form over function if you think it is common.

  27. Hamranhansenhansen Says:

    Then answered this on the day they killed the WebOS devices.

    Sales of WebOS devices were so bad, HP could not figure out a way that WebOS would ever be profitable. They literally did the math.

    HP made the mistake of thinking that "the tablet market" is a new and emerging market, awaiting a Pepsi to Apple's Coke. But the tablet market is 25 years old. iPad is the last tablet, not the first.

  28. Hamranhansenhansen Says:

    I would love to know if it was actually unprofitable. It wasn't like they developed a whole new thing like iPad and that failed. It was just one Mac model. I know the sales weren't great, but maybe they didn't have to be to break even. Especially when you consider they basically rereleased the thing as the mini a few years later, with many lessons obviously learned.

  29. Hamranhansenhansen Says:

    You're reminding me right now of the people who say MacBook Air is overpriced because you can get a Chinese netbook for $99. Makes as much sense as saying MacBook Air is overpriced because I can get punched in the face for free.

  30. Hamranhansenhansen Says:

    TouchPad is the only 21st century printer HP ever made.

  31. jilay Says:

    Great piece – it's interesting to see what worked, what didn't and what was ahead of its time.
    thank you for such an information..

    do check out my blog too . its gives a whole lot of tech news along with computer, internet tips and tricks.. http://mytechnowit.in/

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