Zune, Google Glass, and the Newton Still Have a Lot to Teach Us

‘Dead’ gadgets can pave the way to a better future

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19 Aug, 2020

Google Glass

Google Glass

As consumers, we crave the new, the better, the improved.

When it comes to new products, we have a number of ways to let their creators know what we think of them: snail-mailing their company HQ (gone the way of the dodo bird), posting on Twitter or Facebook, emailing customer service, and uploading a scathing or praising YouTube video.

But what companies really care about is how we vote with our dollars. That determines the value of a product to the company that makes it. All the rest of it — the comments and complaints — provides data on what could be done to get more of those dollars.

A new product must either move money spent from a competing product to the new one or compel customers to spend more on the same company.

Google Glass

It seems that society as a whole isn’t ready for people to be walking around with glasses that might be recording them at any moment. Even though mobile phones and other devices are everywhere and constantly used for recording, it’s obvious (usually) when this is happening. Glasses, on the other hand, seemed creepy. When actual violence began occurring against Google Glass-wearers, plans for a wide release were dropped. It now appears that Google is pivoting the product with a goal to market its AR capabilities to companies, universities, and government agencies.

Epitaph:

Though her sight was short,

Her tech was bold;

Glassholes are no more,

But Google Glass might still be sold.

Ford Edsel

Marketed in the late 1950s, the Edsel sedan was meant to be a little taste of the future, sporting a distinctive look, warning lights, push-button ‘Teletouch” transmission, seatbelts, and a rolling-dome speedometer. But its look proved too different for the public, and its price was too high to be the affordable family car it was marketed as but too low for it to be viewed as a premium car. Its reliability and quality control was lax, and the name itself didn’t resonate alongside the competition.

Epitaph:

Oh, dear Edsel,

We barely knew you;

Your name was dreadful

So we bid you adieu.

The Arch Deluxe

McDonald’s was trying to appeal to a higher-end consumer with its version of a high-end burger. But at a cost higher than any other fast-food burger at the time, and still being a burger from McDonald’s, the Arch Deluxe really didn’t have a place in fast food. Loyal McD’s customers already had favourites like the Big Mac and Quarter Pounder that offered similar value for a lower cost. This was a bad fit. And to top it off, just like all other fast-food products, the Arch Deluxe suffered from never looking as good as its marketing made it out to be.

Epitaph:

A burger by any name

Is still a burger,

And yet our Arch Deluxe thought

He was more than the sum of his parts.

Zune

Microsoft’s answer to the iPod, the Zune was actually a well-made product whose only sin was being released too late. Apple already had a lock on consumer music device spending, there was a large ecosystem of content and apps already available, and Zune could never capture enough market share to last.

Epitaph:

Zune was sassy, that’s a fact;

She dressed well and was a class act,

But she arrived too late to the party,

And all her suitors by then were already sacked.

Newton MessagePad

One of Apple’s few true missteps, the Newton MessagePad was the company’s first foray into touchscreen technology. Strangely, it was both a case of too much too soon as well as not enough. Though the hardware and memory were great for its time, it just wasn’t all that much better for notetaking than a pad of paper and a pen. Handwritten character recognition was still buggy, and there wasn’t enough other functionality to make up for it.

Epitaph:

So rad was the Newton MessagePad

That Apple couldn’t wait to release him;

When the time came, even though his stylus was stiff,

Our hero just couldn’t manage the handwriting cliff.

ICQ

ICQ was great in the early days of online chatting, but once AOL acquired it, the product stagnated and wasn’t adapted to compete. By the time AOL Instant Messenger was released and more user-friendly messaging became available, ICQ’s drop in the market was a foregone conclusion. Mobile options have since taken over even more of the market. Recently, though, a stable cross-platform version of ICQ has been making a mild comeback, though it will never be the giant it could have been.

Epitaph:

Old ICQ was of a time

When one had to be a nerd to talk online;

So when someone else came along with a one-step solution,

Old ICQ was left in the dust with his IPs and ports and geek revolution.

Clairol Touch of Yogurt Shampoo

Yes, this was an actual thing, released to an unsuspecting public in the mid-1970s. At the height of the health and natural product movement in the United States, Clairol thought it a good idea to combine the benefits of yoghurt with hair care. It’s easy to see how, at the time, the idea seemed like it might work. The thing is, people didn’t like the thought of dairy in their shampoo. There were even cases of folks actually eating the stuff.

Epitaph:

Clairol, she dared to bare-all

And tell us how she’d rub yogurt in her hair-all.

Blockbuster

Blockbuster was the king of video rental brands and was poised to remain so even as DVD and Blu-ray rentals entered the scene. But the changeover from tape to disc allowed Netflix to swoop in with a mail-order business model for movie rentals based on the minuscule shipping weight of the new formats. Blockbuster, mired in brick and mortar costs and lacking in technology development resources, couldn’t keep up, and now they’re gone.

Epitaph:

Blockbuster, your shelves were always stocked

With the latest and greatest, the classic and schlock;

But a nimble upstart zipped under your legs

And stole from your basket all of your eggs.

We can learn a lot about what not to do when conceiving, designing, and marketing new products by looking at the ways in which flops have come about in the past. A lot of the issues, though varied in the details, come down to overestimating the target audience and underestimating the competition. People are most often not ready for the cutting-edge possibilities as soon as those possibilities may be ready to market — and there is always a startup working on a better way to do what you’re doing right now.

19 Aug, 2020

Startup product manager. Sci fi, Fantasy and Science writer. My book: https://amzn.to/2MdNBs6

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