Ten tech products that died on arrival
Proof that no matter how much time, effort, and money you put into something, it may sink like a stone and stay at the bottom
ITworld’s own Andy Patrizio has declared Windows 8 dead on arrival, a product so out-of-touch with its intended audience that that it was doomed from the start. The tech industry is surprisingly littered with such sad stories of failure, many from extremely successful companies. These products take years to develop, and sometimes the train is hard to divert, even when it becomes clear it’s heading in the wrong direction. Many of these dead-on-arrival flops had high corporate hopes behind them; others were already giving off the stench of death, and were briefly released only to be mercifully put down in short order.
The first GUI-based PC available for mass purchase, the Lisa had a hefty price tag of nearly $10,000 and a powerful enemy in Steve Jobs, who had been forced off the Lisa project, which had been named after his daughter, a year before its 1983 release. As recounted by his biographer Walter Isaacson, Jobs told anyone who would listen that the new Apple project he had attached himself to, the Macintosh, was coming soon and would provide a GUI OS at a fraction of the price, all before the Lisa even hit stores. Although Lisa’s OS contained features like protected memory that wouldn’t hit the Mac until 2001, it never caught market traction and died by 1986.
If the Lisa died on arrival because of its looming successor, IBM’s PCjr, the subject of a massive marketing campaign and pre-release buzz that declared it would blow up 1983’s home computer market, was stillborn thanks to its older brother, the IBM PC, whose success had taken even IBM by surprise. While Big Blue hoped their reputation for quality would make people choose the PCjr over cheaper offerings from Atari and Commodore, most potential customers were looking for a stripped-down PC clone, not a computer that had a terrible keyboard and was incompatible with 40 percent of IBM software, including the all-important Lotus 1-2-3 and Microsoft Flight Simulator. The PCjr was a massive flop.
Many users of enterprise software products are resigned to x.0 versions being buggy and are willing to wait for x.1 versions before writing them off completely, and in 1988 Ashton-Tate’s dBASE database was in a strong enough position that it seemed capable of riding out the vitriolic press reaction to its dBASE 4.0 release. But instead of getting to work fixing the bugs, Ashton-Tate had already dedicated engineering resources to an entirely revamped product, leading to a user rebellion that targeted the company CEO personally. It took a year for the company to change course, by which point dBASE had lost nearly a third of its market share. Ashton-Tate was sold to Borland in 1991.
Microsoft Windows ME
Microsoft spent most of the ’90s managing two separate OS lineages: Windows 9x, ultimately based on MS-DOS, and Windows NT, a business-focused OS that was considered too advanced for ordinary users. As the fin de siècle approached, Microsoft prepared Windows 2000, a successor to Windows NT 4 that would also serve as the general-purpose consumer OS. But less than a year before its release, Redmond admitted the consumer version wouldn’t be ready in time and instead announced Windows Millenium Edition, a buggy, lackluster update to Windows 98, which PC World called “Mistake Edition.” Windows XP, the true unification of the two codebases, came in 2001, and Windows ME was mercifully forgotten.
In 2001, the tech press was roiled by rumors of something, code-named “Ginger” or just “IT,” being plotted by inventor Dean Kamen, who had previously built advanced all-terrain wheelchairs. Some of the more hyperbolic possibilities bandied about were that it was an super-efficient Stirling Engine, or perhaps a scooter built around such an engine. In fact, it (or “IT”) turned out to be a scooter powered by ordinary electric motors, and while it has sold well enough into specific niche markets, the initial maniacally high hopes for it — that people would “build cities around it” — were so far from fruition from the moment of conception that we can call the dream of Ginger DOA.
In the early ’00s, many gamers were carrying both a cell phone and a handheld gaming device like a Nintendo Gameboy. So Nokia, then a wildly successful developer of cutting-edge phones, reasoned: why shouldn’t we make a device that combines both? The N-Gage, released in late 2003, had a dumb name, which many a tech device has survived, and a terrible design, which most do not; in order to use it as a phone, you had to hold it at an awkward angle that made it look like you were talking into a taco. The gaming controls were no great shakes either. Nokia shipped 400,000 to retailers, but fewer than 6,000 were actually purchased.
Apple G4 Cube
Is a computer with a spot in New York’s Museum of Modern Art really a failure? It is if you were aiming to make money from it. Apple’s G4 Cube, introduced in July of 2000, was touted as a groundbreaking aesthetic work, but it was also intended to serve as an intermediary product between the low-end iMac and high-end Power Mac. Unfortunately, Apple was also selling G4 towers with nearly identical specs for $200 less. That, plus the Cube’s poor expansion options and overall weirdness, lead to anemic sales out of the gate and the decision to kill the product after only a year. By the time MoMA added one to its collection, it was genuinely a museum piece.
Oqo Model 2
The mid-’00s saw on onslaught of tiny Windows-compatible “ultra-mobile PCs.” The briefly popular netbook evolved out of this category, but for sheer splash you couldn’t beat the weird, PDA-sized Oqo Model 02, which Bill Gates held onstage at CES in 2007, and which somehow got dubbed the world’s smallest “full-powered, full-featured personal computer” by the Guinness Book of Records. Oqo’s Wikipedia page lists a litany of awards the Model 02 won (with a prominent  tag), but did anyone actually use one in real life? The numbers were very small. The company was bankrupt less than two years later.
In 2009, Microsoft was working on not one but two Windows CE-derived smartphone OSes to take on the iPhone and Android. One, Windows Phone 7, established a new ecosystem that’s carved out a niche in the market. The other, Microsoft Kin, was an epic disaster. Created by the group that had built the Danger Hiptop, the Kin was supposed to be a social media-focused device for twentysomethings. But its social hub only refreshed every 15 minutes, you couldn’t use it to upload pictures to Twitter, and it lacked an app store. Nobody bought it. Less than two months after it was unveiled, Microsoft killed it and cut its losses.
In 2011, RIM was in trouble, and BlackBerry had been eclipsed by Apple and Android. In a Hail Mary move, the company bought itself a new and well-regarded operating system, QNX, and opted to first build it into a tablet device that would take on the iPad. While the tech specs were good, the execution was awful: the PlayBook lacked the ability to send or receive email and BlackBerry messages (one of the few remaining BlackBerry-unique features on the market) without a connection to a separate phone, and it introduced an bewildering set of new development environments that alienated longstanding BlackBerry app devs. Sales were much, much lower than expected, which contributed to the company’s current sad state.
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