When we think about recent flops in new technologies, one of the first that springs to mind is Google Glass. It’s surprising how something that looked like a promising augmented reality experience could so quickly become the subject of ridicule. Perhaps Google Glass was ahead of its time, but what was clear was that it quickly brought stigma to its user base with the internet ridiculing glassholes everywhere.
While we have 2015 to thank for Google Glass, 2016 brought us almost as many equally terrible technology fails.
NEST THERMOSTAT (AND SMART HOMES IN GENERAL)
I know of lots of happy Nest product owners, but every now and then there’s a big smart home product blunder that slows down the growth of the smart home. Last year in January it was the Nest Thermostat that made BBC News by leaving its users in the cold. While the majority of users weren’t affected for long, it does highlight one important lesson, namely that reliability is key, especially when you’re competing with age-old reliable technology.
The same painful lesson continues across a wide variety of smart technologies from smart locks (that aren’t so secure) to accidents caused by self-driving cars (and the endless debates of who’s liable).
No matter what you’re involved in, whether it’s a big tech start up or even just improving a website, we can all learn from this lesson. When competing with existing products and services that are tried and tested, it’s essential to take small steps rather than giant leaps forward!
THE DEATH OF VINE
Vine originally started as a tool for people to share short moments of their lives with friends, and quickly (and completely accidentally) evolved into a highly creative platform. The short, six-second videos made for a creative challenge and provided nice quick distractions for its users.
So why did Vine die given that it was the originator of the short video clip and initially so popular? Simply put, Vine didn’t move fast enough when finding a viable way to monetise the videos and couldn’t prevent competitors from eating away at its market share. SnapChat became the life moments sharing platform that Vine intended to be, while Instagram monetised their video clips more successfully thanks to the more flexible 15-second (now 60-second) limit.
Since the demise of Vine, SnapChat investors are starting to worry that history may repeat itself with Facebook already stealing some of the market share following the introduction of its clone of SnapChat’s ‘Stories’ feature.
Don’t let monetisation of a content-based platform be a complete afterthought. While it might work (at least for a short time) for loss-making social media platforms, it’s always wise to have a longer-term plan, especially if you’re running a small operation and are relying on its income.
TAY (THE SLIGHTLY CONTROVERSIAL AI)
The tale of Tay, Microsoft’s AI is a short-lived one, but an important lesson in both reputation management and the sometimes vindictive nature of hordes of internet trolls. In a single day, Tay went from a slightly annoying millennial and naïve machine into a fully blown racist and Donald Trump supporter.
A coordinated attack by users to teach Tay to respond inappropriately resulted in a mixture of cringeworthy and hilarious Tweets. In fact, the embarrassment caused Microsoft to shut down Tay for good after only a single day.
So what can we learn from Microsoft’s AI blunder? The obvious lesson is that after launching a new project, keep a close eye on it. Treat new products and services like a baby – watch and nurture them. Otherwise, just like Microsoft you may end up with a demon child that quickly becomes far too much to handle!
The Pebble had over $10m pledged on Kickstarter and looked set to be one of the leading fitness trackers in the market. With the Pebble working on both Android and iOS devices, it quickly gained popularity with a large developer community providing over 1,000 compatible apps.
So where did it go wrong for the Pebble? The wearables market matured a lot faster than most people would have expected and polarised into two extremes. At one end, the Apple Watch claimed the premium sector and capitalised on the iPhone’s market share.
The more affordable mainstream end of the market was primarily covered by FitBit, a slightly more mature wearable fitness company. There are several other wearable providers supplying a mixture of smartwatches and fitness trackers but Apple and FitBit dominate the market.
The moral of this story is that sometimes creating something cool isn’t enough. You need to understand your position in the market and keep your finger on the pulse of how the market is evolving.
As most markets mature, you tend to find that two opposites begin to thrive: a premium offering and a budget one. Sometimes it’s not the obvious contender that wins the battle, but the one that invests heavily, not only in its product design but also in its marketing.
THE FINAL DEATH OF 3D TV
Following the demise of Sky TV’s 3D channels in 2015, all remaining enthusiasm for 3D TV died. In 2016 Samsung withdrew from the 3D TV market and officially abandoned its attempts at making 3D TV a mainstream format. The final nail in the coffin came in January this year with LG and Sony also ceasing production of new 3D TVs.
When Avatar kick-started the 3D trend in cinemas in 2009, it seemed almost certain that 3D TV would become a thing. However, it simply wasn’t the case; the appeal of 3D screenings in the cinema didn’t translate to the home market and take-up was poor. A lack of 3D content, headache-inducing glasses and generally looking a bit of a nerd were probably to blame.
What can you take away from the inevitable death of 3D TV? Clearly, you need to be able to recognise the difference between a one-hit wonder and a long-term winner. While this isn’t easy, and it’s very important to jump at an opportunity early, it’s also essential to recognise when a technology isn’t being adopted and to move on. Had less effort been put into smart TV developments and more had gone into 3D TV, we could have seen much greater things.
SAMSUNG GALAXY NOTE7’S EXPLOSIVE RECALL
The recall of the Samsung Galaxy Note7 made mainstream news several times in 2016 to such an extent that, even now, if you take a flight there is still an announcement that you can’t take a Galaxy Note7 on a plane. Why? Simply because within a month of its launch there were almost 100 reports of phones smoking, igniting or exploding, especially when they were on charge.
This situation was extremely embarrassing for Samsung; it had to recall its flagship product and suffered the tarnishing of its brand. That’s even before you take into account the massive financial loss associated with the recall and the potential lawsuits.
The Note7 fiasco is a cautionary tale. Sometimes only perfection is good enough. The manufacturing defect was later discovered to affect only 0.01% of handsets sold. To put this into perspective, it means that at worst, just 1,000 out of almost 10 million units had defects. But this was more than enough to tarnish a popular brand. Thorough testing is vital no matter what product or service you’re working on: if people depend on you (especially for their safety) then reliability is always key.
GLOWING PLANTS – A KICKSTARTER BLUNDER
The Kickstarter campaign for glow in the dark plants raised almost $0.5m dollars and the idea of biohacking generally excited the Kickstarter community. People jumped on board really fast in 2013 and the project didn’t struggle to fund itself, thanks to a great video and what looked like a strong team with an impressive scientific background.
Now, almost three years after the campaign was funded, backers are still waiting to receive seeds for their glowing plants. What originally started out as an exciting project for its backers has become a symbol of everything that is wrong with Kickstarter campaigns: false promises, poor excuses and generally over-hyped marketing.
The lesson for this one is obvious: only promise what you can deliver. If you’ve set your customers’ expectations high, then you’d better deliver within a reasonable time frame, or you’ll be remembered as a failure no matter how good what you ultimately deliver is. Ensure your marketing matches your product or service, and stay true to your word; after all happy customers are repeat customers!
MODULAR SMARTPHONES DIE BEFORE THEY BEGIN
The idea of modular smartphones seemed to be a good one: why offer three variations of a phone when you can let your users decide exactly what they want? Enjoy taking photos using your phone? Then choose a higher spec for your camera. Want to be able to store more music? Then go for greater storage.
The biggest player in the market of modular smartphones was Google which brought us project Ara.
As part of an effort to streamline its hardware projects in September 2016, Google axed project Ara which had been running since 2013. The project failed to meet its original 2015 deadline and dragged on into 2016 following several hiccups along the way. There were also doubts as to how popular the product would prove to be, so in the end Google chose other more promising projects over Ara.
There’s an important lesson to be learned from this: deliver what your customers want. The whole rise of the smartphone was about simplicity, about merging your phone and your music player into a single device – an all-in-one device that simply worked.
Asking your customer to choose the bits they need, assembling these and thinking ahead is probably too much in a world that wants increasingly simple devices. Before starting any new project make sure the market and demand exists. In simple terms, understand your customer before you invest in any new venture.
VIRTUAL ASSISTANTS STILL DON’T QUITE HIT THE SPOT
Ever since the world was introduced to Siri on the iPhone, there’s been some excitement around virtual assistants with Google, Cortana and, more recently, Alexa joining the scene. These virtual assistants have expanded beyond your smartphone into devices around the home, including Amazon’s Echo which acts as a hub and remote control for your smart devices, alarm clock, Spotify and pretty much anything else you can imagine.
While using Alexa to control my Philips hue lights, I’ve learned the painful lesson that voice control isn’t quite what it’s made out to be. The number of times I’ve repeated “Alexa, turn off en-suite light” which confuses her into thinking I actually said, “Alexa, turn off on suite light” is getting silly, to the point that I’ve started to consider renaming the devices where Alexa can’t quite get her head around my northern accent.
And the lesson here is…? Well, clearly good tech takes lots of little steps forwards and while virtual assistants haven’t quite hit the mark yet, I have faith that they will get there. There will be winners and losers along the way, but the winner will be the one who makes small, regular updates and moves forward in an iterative manner.
APPLE WATCH SALES FALTER
While the Apple Watch is clearly the most successful premium wearable currently on the market, it doesn’t mean that success comes without any problems. In December 2016 it was announced that sales dropped for the quarter by 71% year-over-year – a somewhat new challenge for Apple to overcome.
Why the sales drop? Well there are many different opinions on the matter. To start with, when compared to a phone, a watch is a much longer-term possession that you don’t really consider upgrading in the same manner as you would your phone. In addition, the market appears to be shifting towards simple, fashionable devices with a much lower price tag to target impulse buyers.
The clear lesson here is that simplicity is key. This is especially the case when it comes to creating mainstream products and services. If you want to make people’s lives easier, keep things simple! This goes for everything from your order process to the product itself: the fewer barriers you put in the way of your customers, the more likely you’ll make the sales you’ve been dreaming of.
WILL 2017 BE ANY BETTER?
Every year there will be tech fails; it is simply the nature of the beast. I have high hopes for sustained growth of VR in 2017 and expect a lot of exciting projects to be announced. Even the biggest and best organisations such as Google and Apple have failures, but by learning from them and relentlessly creating new products and services, everyone has a chance at success in tech.