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

6. Palm Foleo (2007)

Jeff Hawkins shows the Foleo to Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg at D in 2007.

What it was: A $500 subnotebook-like device that could connect to a PalmOS phone, letting users run the phone’s e-mail and other apps on a larger screen with a bigger keyboard.

Announced: May 30th, 2007

What they said when it was new: “I think it’s the best idea I’ve ever had.”–Jeff Hawkins, founder of Palm and creator of the PalmPilot, in an interview with Cnet’s Ina Fried

Died: September 4th, 2007, when Palm announced it wouldn’t ship it in its current form

What they said when they killed it: “Our own evaluation and early market feedback were telling us that we still have a number of improvements to make Foleo a world-class product, and we can not afford to make those improvements on a platform that is not central to our core focus.”–Ed Colligan, CEO of Palm

Why it really failed: Palm was plenty busy trying to finish an announced operating system that turned out to be WebOS, the software that HP stabbed on Thursday. But the nearly universal abysmal reception that Foleo got from the media couldn’t have helped. (I was one of the few who wasn’t 100% positive it was a turkey.)

Was it a tragedy it bit the big one? No. Like RIM’s BlackBerry PlayBook, it would have been too dependent on a phone to be useful enough. But the Foleo did incorporate ideas that turned out to be of interest–it was a netbook-like device before there were such things as netbooks. Jeff Hawkins is such a visionary guy that even his bad ideas aren’t completely boring.

The aftermath: In his blog post announcing Foleo’s cancellation, Palm CEO Ed Colligan said that the company would eventually do a “Foleo II” based on “our new platform.” That would be WebOS. Can we stop anticipating it with bated breath now?

7. Google Wave (2009-2010)

What it was: What wasn’t it? It was a hybrid of e-mail, instant messaging, workgroup collaboration, photo editing, and much more, without bearing much resemblance to any existing service in any of those categories. Google Kitchen Sink would have been at least as apt a name as Wave.

Announced: May 28th, 2009, but it didn’t open to the public until May 19th, 2010

What they said when it was new: “Could a single communications model span all or most of the systems in use on the web today, in one smooth continuum? How simple could we make it?”–Google’s Lars Rasmussen, co-inventor of Wavw

Died: August 4th, 2010

What they said when they killed it: “…Wave has not seen the user adoption we would have liked. We don’t plan to continue developing Wave as a standalone product, but we will maintain the site at least through the end of the year and extend the technology for use in other Google projects.”

Why it really failed: I’m still not entirely sure, other than that Google has been willing to terminate some big projects in recent years. And perhaps the company was genuinely taken aback by the near-universal consensus that Wave was extremely confusing.

Was it a tragedy it bit the big one? I think it was awfully sad. There was simply no way that two and a half months of public availability could have been enough time for something as radically different as Wave to find acceptance. If Wave had been a classic Microsoft project, it would have gotten a 2.0–and a 3.0 that was so much better that it would have had a shot at success.

The aftermath: The Apache project adopted Wave, so you could argue that it’s not technically deceased. But it’s been “incubating” for an awfully long time now.

8. Microsoft Kin (2010)

What it was: Two not-quite-smartphones, manufactured by Sharp and on the Verizon Wireless network, that Microsoft aimed at highly social twentysomethings. Both had slide-out keyboards and touchscreens and lots of built-in features, but couldn’t run third-party apps.

Went on sale: May 6th, 2010

What they said when it was new: “Working closely with our partners, we saw an opportunity to design a mobile experience just for this social generation — a phone that makes it easy to share your life moment to moment,” Robbie Bach, president of Microsoft’s Entertainment and Devices Division

Died: June 30th, 2010

What they said when they killed it: “We have made the decision to focus exclusively on Windows Phone 7 and we will not ship KIN in Europe this fall as planned. Additionally, we are integrating our KIN team with the Windows Phone 7 team, incorporating valuable ideas and technologies from KIN into future Windows Phone releases.”

Why it really failed: Well, it made perfect sense for Microsoft to focus on the vastly superior Windows Phone platform. But rumor had it that Kin sales were dreadful. As well they should have been–they were dismal, sluggish, poorly-designed handsets saddled with full-price data plans even though they weren’t quite smartphones. The only thing these phones had going in their favor was Studio, a neat service that auto-synced photos and other stuff to the Web.

Was it a tragedy it bit the big one? God, no–I’m still baffled why Microsoft bothered with the Kins in the first place, and wonder if anyone in Redmond understood that the products were turkeys.

The aftermath: Microsoft said that Verizon Wireless would continue to carry the Kins that had already been manufactured. And by golly, it did–you can still get one, for free, with a cheap service plan. Someday they’ll sell ’em all, I’m sure.

9. Cisco FlipLive (2011)

Gizmodo's copies of the unreleased FlipLive beauty shots.

What it was: The next generation of Cisco’s Flip videocamera, with one major new feature–built-in Wi-Fi that let them sync wirelessly with a computer or broadcast video directly over the Internet.

Announced: Never! But it was supposed to be released on April 13th, 2011

What they said when it was new: Cisco never told consumers about FlipLive, but when one of its representatives invited me to a pre-release briefing, it was described as a “new innovative family of products unlike any previous Flip you’ve seen!”

Died: April 12th, 2011, along with all other Flip models

What they said when they killed it: “We are making key, targeted moves as we align operations in support of our network-centric platform strategy. As we move forward, our consumer efforts will focus on how we help our enterprise and service provider customers optimize and expand their offerings for consumers, and help ensure the network’s ability to deliver on those offerings.”–John Chambers, Cisco’s CEO, in a buzzword-laden statement concerning the company’s decision to end the Flip line and lay off the 550 employees responsible for it

Why it really failed: Flip was very popular and apparently profitable. So it’s been widely speculated that Cisco’s goal involved showmanship as much as fiscal prudence: It wanted to create visible signs of blood to placate Wall Street.

Was it a tragedy it bit the big one? I know people who think so. It’s certainly too bad that Cisco didn’t attempt to sell Flip rather than blithely destroying a brand it had bought for $590 million just two years earlier. It’s true, however, that when I saw the FlipLive cameras, I came away thinking that they were largely more of the same rather than an exciting leap forward. Then again, the New York Times’ David Pogue used the phrase “tragic death” in his eulogy for Flip, and specifically praised FlipLive.

The aftermath: The decision to kill FlipLive along with all Flips was so abrupt that San Francisco (and, I assume other cities) were haunted by Flip ads on bus shelters for months after the bad news hit. And I wonder what Cisco did with all the FlipLives it had originally planned to put on sale the day after it ultimately axed the product? By now, they may be in landfill in New Mexico somewhere alongside Atari ET’s cartridges.

10. HP TouchPad (2011)

What it was: HP’s first WebOS tablet, the most notable result of its 2010 purchase of Palm for $1.2 billion. It was supposed to be the flagship of an array of WebOS devices which HP would release in the years to come: “The flexibility of the webOS platform makes it ideal for creating a range of innovative devices that work together to keep you better connected to your world,” a press release explained.

Announced: February 9th, 2011. And it shipped on July 1st.

What they said when it was new: “What makes HP TouchPad a compelling alternative to competing products is webOS. The platform’s unmatched features and flexibility will continue to differentiate HP products from the rest of the market for both personal and professional use. This is only the beginning of what HP’s scale can do with webOS.”–Jon Rubinstein, HP senior vice president

When it died: August 18th, 2011

What they said when they killed it: “The tablet effect is real, and sales of the TouchPad are not meeting our expectations.”–Léo Apotheker, HP CEO

Why it really failed: Because HP didn’t actually have the stomach to enter a remarkably challenging market. In fact, by simultaneously announcing its intention to get rid of its PC business, it pretty much made clear that it doesn’t want to be in the consumer-goods business at all, except for printers (and ink).

Was it a tragedy it bit the big one? I think so. WebOS remained full of promise; now it’s dead, or close enough. We still need serious competitors to the iPad. And if a company isn’t willing to withstand more than six weeks of disappointing sales, it shouldn’t introduce a product at all.

The aftermath: Another TouchPad variant, the TouchPad 4G for AT&T, will apparently die without ever having been released.

So what can we learn here? A few important things:

  • If a product is terrible, or meant for a market that doesn’t exist, it’s better to figure that out before you release it, not after.
  • If a product has potential, it might take more than a few weeks to realize it.
  • The fact a company is great at making enterprise networking hardware doesn’t mean it’ll succeed with consumery gizmos.
  • Strangely enough, claiming a product is wonderful (sometimes in pricey ad campaigns) doesn’t help if it isn’t.
  • People responsible for some of the greatest products ever–guys like Steve Jobs and Jeff Hawkins–are still capable of misjudging the market.
  • All roads lead to HP, which killed the TouchPad and ended up owning the companies which had killed Kerbango, Audrey, and Foleo.

Right now, I’m genuinely sad over the fate of the TouchPad. I’m sorry for the people who bought it; I’m sorry for the HP employees who worked on it; I’m sorry for the HP stockholders that the company spent over a billion dollars for an operating system it lost interest in so quickly. But the good news is this: it won’t be too long until some other product fails so fast that the TouchPad is no longer the obvious example of horrendous tech-product failure. And Silicon Valley–a place where making mistakes and moving on is part of the culture–will always try, try again.

More tales of failure on Technologizer:

The Thirteen Greatest Error Messages of All Time

The Thirteen Other Greatest Error Messages of All Time

The Bob Chronicles

Osborne!

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31 Comments


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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. Harry McCracken Says:

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

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

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. Hamranhansenhansen Says:

    They were always feature phones. That was the problem.

  7. 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

  8. The_Heraclitus Says:

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

  9. 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.

  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. RandomRage Says:

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

    Can't tell if dry humor, or obliviousness.

  12. 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

  13. Hamranhansenhansen Says:

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

  14. 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?…

  15. @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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. aardman Says:

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

  20. 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.

  21. 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.

  22. 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.

  23. 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.

  24. 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.

  25. 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.

  26. 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.

  27. 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…

  28. minardi Says:

    You can add Iomega HipZip

  29. 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.

  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/