Some tech flops are famous and well documented: Microsoft Bob. The Segway scooter. The Iridium satellite cellphone. (You think you’ve got indoor-reception problems with your current cellphone? How’d you like a phone with $8 a minute airtime charges that doesn’t work at all without a line of sight to the sky?)
Other dogs came and went so fast, they’re now completely forgotten, lost among the dust bunnies of consumer-tech history. For those of us in the tech-review business, however, these flopperoos live on as painful memories—and cautionary tales.
Olympus M:Robe (2004). “It’s a camera. It’s a music player,” said the narrator of Olympus’s $5 million SuperBowl commercial. Unfortunately, it was buggy and horrible at both tasks. Olympus took the M:Robe off the market the following year.
(Even the name didn’t work. M:Robe was meant to be short for “Music Wardrobe.” Okay, what?)
Akimbo (2005). It was the Hulu concept, years before Hulu: a set-top box that was supposed to deliver any TV show, any time, from over the Internet.
The first problem was pricing: you had to pay not only for the box, but also a monthly subscription fee as well as a per-show price.
The second was selection: American TV companies, terrified by what the Internet had done to the music industry, refused to participate. As a result, the Akimbo’s TV-show catalog included such gems as AdvenTV, “the first on-demand Turkish station in the U.S.,” Veg TV (“vegetarian cooking instruction”) and Skyworks, “helicopter flights over the most spectacular landscapes of Britain.” (The entire list of sports categories was this: Billiards, Extreme Sports, Golf, Martial Arts, Documentaries and Yachting.)
Vulkano box (2010). The dream of a do-everything set-top TV box lives on with the Vulkano box, which was intended to do both what a TiVo does (record TV onto a hard drive for playback later) and what a Slingbox does (let you watch your recordings while away from home, over the Internet).
Unfortunately, the original box could not auto-record a favorite show each week; required laymen to reprogram their network routers with port forwarding; locked up if you tried to scroll the TV guide grid; could rewind or fast-forward at only one speed; and required you to specify in advance, at the time of programming a recording, what device you intended to play it on later (iPod Touch/iPhone, iPad, Droid, Mac, PC, TV and so on).
The company acknowledged that it had some work to do. But in the meantime, the poor slobs who paid $380 to buy the Vulkano box had no way of knowing that they were volunteering to be unpaid beta testers.