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See Inside July 2011

Why Gadgets Flop

A few lessons from the consumer electronics industry's most notorious failures



Scientific American

According to the old saying, you learn more from a failure than a success. Well, if that’s the case, the consumer electronics industry ought to have a master’s degree by now. There was the ­ROKR E1 from Apple and Motorola, the first iTunes phone that, idiotically, held a maximum of 100 songs. There was Google Wave, a piece of Web software more baffling and complex than the 1040 tax form. There was the KIN smartphone, which Microsoft spent several years and around $1 billion to develop, only to withdraw it from the market after only two months.

(Not to harp on Microsoft, but let’s not forget its SPOT wireless watch, Smart Display wireless screen or Zune wireless music player. In fact, besides the ­Xbox and PC peripherals, has Microsoft ever successfully launched a new piece of hardware?)

When a Hollywood studio sees that a finished movie is awful, it saves itself millions of dollars in marketing and distribution costs by burying it in a closet somewhere. Why doesn’t the tech industry follow suit? Could it be that these companies don’t realize that their products will tank?

That seems hard to believe. Almost anyone can identify these turkeys, sometimes just by hearing about them. (“Wait, Microsoft is selling a watch that requires a $10 monthly subscription, has to be recharged every other day and doesn’t fully work outside your own area code? You’re kidding, right?”)

Smart companies should inspect the smoking wreckage of their predecessors’ marketplace disasters and learn the factors at work. For example:

The Upgrade Paradox. Both the hardware and software industries have adopted a business model in which a new version, with more features, is introduced each year. At the outset, this cycle works for everyone. We, the people, cheerfully upgrade every year just to stay current. The tech company captures repeat business. Ultimately, though, simply piling on new features impairs the product rather than enhancing it. As Apple’s Steve Jobs has said, the real art is knowing what to leave out, not what to put in.

Good Design Isn’t Easy. Our gadgets are under warring design constraints. We want our electronics tiny and pocketable, but we want big screens and keyboards. We want our devices rugged but also inexpensive. We want them powerful but with a long battery life, packed with features and easy to use. Finding a design that strikes just the right balance in all these areas is darned hard.

Pressure to Ship. Far more products fall behind schedule than surge ahead of it. Meanwhile the money people want to see a return on their investment. Eventually the pressure to ship the new product becomes intense—especially at the holiday season—even if everyone knows it’s not quite finished. That’s what happened to the disastrous BlackBerry Storm, the first touch-screen BlackBerry, whose original version was so buggy and half-baked that it became the laughingstock of the Web.

Fix It Later Syndrome. Tech companies seem to think it’s okay to ship a poorly developed product (especially software or a Web site), filled with bugs and bad design, and then fix it later. “It’s only software,” they say. “Let the first customers be our guinea pigs.”

Which is fine—unless your product is so bad, it doesn’t even make it to version 2. Beware the fate of Remo Williams: The ­Adventure Begins, a movie so bad, the adventure never even continued.

The Broadway Flop Effect. I spent 10 years working as a conductor and arranger of Broadway musicals, many of which were flops. (I hope that wasn’t because I worked on them.) Everyone in the cast and crew was perfectly aware that we were working on a flop. But nobody ever spoke up. We all just showed up for work and did as we were told. Why? Because it was a paycheck. We would be idiots to suggest to the management that the emperor had no clothes.

Even if a tech project team knows that its product is a dog, there’s no incentive for the rank and file to speak up—and plenty of incentive to keep heads down and see it through to its disappointing end.

So, yes, there are all kinds of factors that contribute to consumer tech turkeys. What is fascinating is how rarely the problem is the nature of the technology itself. Far more often the real problem is simple human nature. 

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