Have you ever witnessed first hand a product flop so severe that you have to wonder – “what the heck were they thinking?” Chances are you have seen at least one that makes you wonder about the intended market. And you’ve seen the product go down in a flaming meltdown that makes the Hindenburg seem like a practical transportation idea.
While we hate to point fingers and laugh at someone else’s misfortune… here are 10 of the worst product releases (or at least our favorites). As a warning to others – be more sensible than trendsetting, else you may end up as an example.
1. Vista – How could they get this one wrong?
Vista was the heir apparent to the XP kingdom. When you are the largest Operating System provider in the world, with hardware basically designed for your wares, how could you do wrong in the latest and greatest? You just had to keep doing what you were doing, and make it nicer. Seemingly simple, right?
Well, Vista proved to be none of that. Instead it was marketed as a revolution in computing. Now, why would Microsoft need a revolution? Everything was working great up to that point, and the market was already theirs. Instead, the battle was almost lost, and driver problems along with hardware incompatibilities left way too many users out in the cold.
By the time the dust settled Microsoft was peddling upstream in yet another confusing ad series featuring Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Gates himself. At least I think it was a commercial – I really couldn’t tell if it had any real point. I would have written someone to ask what was going on, but my printer was not compatible with Vista.
After it was all over Microsoft basically had two things to say – It wasn’t as bad as Windows ME, and Windows 7 will be out soon. But at least Microsoft had done something that Apple had not been able to – they sold a lot of Mac computers to hardcore Windows users as frustrated people abandoned the platform.
2. Virtual Boy – 30 minutes of fun at a time.
Nintendo was the king of portable gaming at the time when it launched its latest darling, Virtual Boy. Obviously aimed at the Gameboy market, the device was to deliver exciting 3d virtual games for the masses. How could you miss this market, especially since the man behind it was legendary developer Gunpei Yokoi (he had a hand in Donkey Kong and Mario Bros, as well as the Gameboy itself).
By the time the expensive (for a Gameboy market) Virtual Boy hit the market, it had a meager lineup of games for it. While this in itself may have been corrected in time, users complained of headaches from using the device. Nintendo released a warning to consumers that they should take 15 minute breaks after using the device for 30 minutes. This raised an alarm to the parents of potential younger buyers, and it proved to be enough fodder to avoid the expensive purchase.
The outcome? Virtual Boy was a flop. And after 30 years with Nintendo, Gunpei Yokoi was forced out of the company only to die in an automobile accident a year later.
3. Gizmondo – the portable gaming unit that was ahead of its time
Sometimes a product comes along that seems to be a herald of the future. Tiger Telematics seemed to have hit a winner when you read the spec sheet of the new gaming wonder – including a 128-bit processor, digital camera, music AND movie player, and even a built-in GPS. How could you miss?
The product suffered from being too much with too little. The battery life was simply too short to make it worthwhile and the screen was small for its overall size. On top of that, the marketing was askew, with two versions being sold, without ads or with. That is, if you took the lower price unit you would get small ad spots on the screen downloaded via the unit’s GPRS radio. The ad system, named Smart Adds, failed to materialize, and it served to confuse the market even more.
Tiger Telematics also blew the launch with an announcement of a forthcoming wide screen model, so buyers that were interested held off for the larger screen version (which never made its way to production).
When the smoke cleared, the device failed to get a foothold, and Tiger Telematics went bankrupt. However, in 2008 the Gizmondo 2 was announced from the newly reformed company, and a launch date of May 2008 was announced. As of this writing (September 2009), there is no new solid information on the device and it has not been released.
4. Motorola ROKR E1 – Apple Testing the iPhone Waters?
Before Apple had the iPhone, it had a little experience with cell phones. That is, Motorola released the ROKR E1 that was fully supported by iTunes, including downloading music directly. Given that iTunes was the largest computer distributor of music, and there was no other compatible phone at the time, it should have been a perfect fit. But the marriage didn’t work out, and the ROKR fell to the wayside.
What was wrong? Well, the ROKR simply did not have the PDA pedigree to keep the relationship strong. The phone could only hold a paltry 100 songs, forcing the power iTunes user to have to do some serious debating about which tunes to take with them. Downloading to the phone was such a slow process that they had plenty of times to reconsider their choices (as well as to run a few errands), which did not help. On top of that, when the phone played music it was so sluggish with other operations that it was a pain to use.
The ROKR E1 was soon abandoned, but it may have been a catalyst in Apple eventually producing the iPhone. Lessons learned taken to heart?
5. Nokia N-Gage – A case of mistaken identity
If anything, recent history has shown us that cell phones and gaming are a strong combination. People like to carry one device that can do many things, and the rise in pocket(able) horsepower makes this a reality. So when a giant of cell phones such as Nokia releases a combination early on, it should get attention.
Well, it did get attention – perhaps of the worse kind. The phone offered the gamer a way to talk on their Gameboy replacement, but the taco shape proved to be very unfriendly to anything but game playing. To hamper the gaming, the buttons were designed for a cell phone. The device did not excel at either gaming or talking.
Add to that a very weak game library, and the N-Gage device soon went the way of the Betamax. The N-Gage name itself did not, and it evolved into a gaming download service for many cell phones starting in 2008.
6. Apple Hockey Puck Mouse – Even Less Mighty than the Mighty Mouse
Apple is no exception when it comes to releasing turkeys, and they have yet to deliver a quality mouse product in my opinion. However, the Mighty Mouse’s shortcomings look rather nice when compared to the Hockey Puck disaster.
The original iMac mouse, round in shape that all too well resembled a hockey puck, fit the hand about like, well, a hockey puck – not well at all. Any attempt to actually get comfortable with an awkward hand position was cut short by a cord that was way too short.
To sum it up, it looked nice, but it did not work well with actual human hands.
7. QuickTake – Early Digital Camera That Did Not Deliver
While we are talking about Apple products, let’s mention one that missed its mark for the simple reason that the mark had not been defined yet – The Apple QuickTake.
Apple’s strategy, at least with their latest products, seems to be simple enough – let the market get established, and then release a more refined, easier to use product. This is the case in the iPod and the iPhone. When Apple tries to establish the market (Newton), it fails. And so it was with Digital Photography.
The Apple QuickTake, actually manufactured by Kodak, featured an under-whelming 0.3 megapixel image. But even with this small pixel count, the unit could only hold 8 of these pictures in its memory. It was hardly a replacement for any kind of real camera, unless you planned on taking very few pictures on your vacation. But given the picture quality produced with the 640×480 resolution, we could not blame the end user for keeping it to a few pictures.
Fixed focus and a complete lack of zoom helped to bury the camera in the eyes of consumers, and not even an enhanced 200 model built by FujiFilm could salvage the product. When Jobs returned to Apple in 1997 he wasted no time in pulling the QuickTake from the Apple shelves.
8. CueCat – Forced upon the Masses
Back before typing in WWW was commonplace, someone came up with the ideal of linking the printed magazine to a website with a piece of hardware. Enter the CueCat.
The ideal was that the reader would buy the magazine, read an article, and then take the article to the computer, swipe the CueCat wand on a special slanting barcode within the article in question, and it would read the special barcode and take them to a website about said article.
Obviously the ideal of simply typing in a printed URL was considered to be beyond the magazine reader. (I wonder what they would think about the reader doing a little quick Google research on the topic at hand?)
CueCat mailed literally hundreds of thousands of these devices to subscribers of popular magazines, free of charge and branded by the magazine. In fact, about half a million were sent to Wired subscribers alone.
Now, let me ask you this – if the user is savvy enough to hook up the device and install it on their computer, don’t you think that they would be more than capable of typing in a URL if they wanted more information? Apparently that was the case, and today, if you dig deep enough in any major landfill, you will probably unearth a few hardly used CueCats.
9. The Original DIVX Disc – A very Non-Green Solution to Digital Distribution
The now-defunct Circuit City thought they had a winner with the Digital Video Express. The ideal was simple – you rented a DIVX disc for $4 (which resembled a DVD), and you could watch it for 48 hours. After the 48 hours the disc was rendered inoperable, and instead of returning the disc you could simply chuck it in the nearest landfill where it would linger for any number of years.
But it wasn’t the disposal of the disc that caused its demise – rather it was the product itself. To use the disc you needed a special DIVX player that connected to the mother ship via a telephone line.
The title selection was also rather limited, and the quality was not great. Many titles were available in only pan-and-scan, and special features were often limited to a single trailer. Paying more for less did not gel with the consumer base, and soon the experiment became a 114 million dollar write off for the (then) electronics giant.
10. Cuil. The search engine that was not to be.
Okay, technically Cuil is not a “product”, but was so bad it deserves to be here.
The PR on this one was strong. Even such big blogs of the time as Huffington Post was speaking its praises. So what went wrong – outside of perhaps a name that was rather irksome?
Well, it takes more than buzz to have a good product. You actually need a good product to provide some form of service. On its launch day Cuil was down throughout the day. Many excited users would see only a sign about overloaded capacity. So, maybe the PR was a little too good? Or maybe the PR and the tech guys lived on different planets, and the tech guys were completely out of touch with the demands? Little word of advice here – if you plan on taking on Google, have the capacity to handle even a small percentage of their user base.
Not to mention Cuil also had erroneous search results – not the thing you want from your search engine. And the name had issues all around it. People were not sure how to spell the “cool” sound-alike and if you accidently typed in culi.com you landed on an Italian porn site.
So there you have it – ten product releases that didn’t measure up.
There are many products that we enjoy in our everyday life. But for each one that is successful, you can find many others that fail. Whether it is a fickle public or lack of research on the part of the producer, one thing is certain – there will be new products all the time, and many of these products will not survive the test of time. And some will be doomed from the start.
What do you think is one of the worst tech product releases ever? Do you have one that’s not on our list? Please share it with us.