10 Biggest Tech Flops Ever

May 20th, 2010

Handicapping the success or failure of a given technological product is a fool’s errand. Every one of the items on this list was at one point heralded as a game-changer that would revolutionize our lives, from the way we communicate to the way we consume media, and every item in turn met a brutal demise when it failed to gain traction in the marketplace. They’re the technological flops that serve as reminders that not every new device or development will work the way it’s been promised. If you wound up investing in one or more, well, better luck next time:

1. HD DVD
When high-definition DVDs hit the market, there was a format war between HD DVD and Blu-ray Discs reminiscent of the VHS-Beta battles of 25 years earlier. Several movie studios supported both formats for a while in hopes avoiding a market fight that happened anyway; these included Paramount Pictures and its subsidiaries, BBC, Magnolia Pictures, and more. However, Sony’s decision to package a Blu-ray player with its PlayStation 3 game console, as well as shifts in alliance, led to a slight edge for Blu-ray, and the format began to gain dominance. In early 2008, the final studios switched to Blu-ray exclusivity, and Toshiba announced it was halting production on the players, effectively ending the format war and ruling in Blu-ray’s favor. The players and discs still work, but they aren’t making any more.

2. Apple Power Mac G4 Cube
Apple’s known for its wild successes, especially with products like the iPod and iPhone, but the company’s also had its share of misfires. Case in point: the G4 Cube. Its aesthetic beauty couldn’t outweigh the fact that it was overpriced, prone to cracks in the case, and tough sell in general because it didn’t include a monitor. Debuting in 2000, the product was put out to pasture in 2001.

3. DVD recorder
It made sense in 1999 to assume that people would want a stand-alone DVD recorder that would record and playback discs the way VCRs had used VHS tapes. But the tech never caught on, thanks to the growing popularity of TiVo and other DVRs, which allowed for easier recording and deletion than DVD recorders. Add to that the fact that people used their computers’ DVD burners for video and picture use, and the stand-alone DVD recorder disappeared from U.S. markets.

4. MiniDisc
Positioned as a replacement for casette tapes, Sony’s MiniDisc flat-out fizzled. A tinier optical disc that looked like a CD, albeit housed in a permanent plastic case like a floppy disk, MD struggled from the beginning by only offering a limited number of albums. The technology was also priced too high for many consumers, especially when blank CDs entered the market in the mid-1990s and made it easier to record your own music mixes or copy albums you already owned on CD. Just like that, MD became the 8-track tape of the 1990s.

5. UMD
The Universal Media Disc, or UMD, flopped for many reasons, including one of the biggest obstacles to tech success in the late 20th century: a lack of adaptability and personalization by the consumer. People are free to burn and make their own CDs and DVDs, but the UMD is a tiny disc that plays a movie and does nothing else. You can’t make your own. The format still works with Sony’s PlayStation Portable, but not with the PSP Go. The format’s as good as dead.

6. Motorola Rokr E1
The amount of hype surrounding the Motorola Rokr E1 in 2005 was huge: Here, at last, was the first cell phone designed to work with Apple’s iTunes. However, to prevent it from competing with the iPod, users could only store 100 downloaded songs on the phone at any given time. What’s more, the absence of high-speed USB made for ridiculously slow file transfers. When Apple released the iPod Nano later in 2005, Motorola CEO Ed Zander accused Apple of trying to undercut the phone. Apple distanced itself from the Rokr, all but killing it, and would later find wild succcess with the iPhone.

7. Segway
The Segway PT was breathlessly described as “It” before its release, leading people to wonder just what the mystery machine might do to change our lives and the world around us. The Segway made its public debut on ABC’s “Good Morning America” in December 2001, but the personal transportation device never managed to crack the mainstream beyond simple brand recognition. Many cities have banned Segway use on sidewalks because they’re not necessary medical devices like wheelchairs. Inventor Dean Kamen predicted at the outset that Segways will replace cars just as cars replaced horse-drawn carriages, but that was a gross miscalculation. The company hoped for annual sales of 40,000 units, but they shipped just 30,000 units total between 2001 and 2007. Segways are mostly seen now in use by city tour groups and cropping up in movies and TV series as a jokey representation of a character being out of touch with reality.

8. Nokia N-Gage
Nokia’s attempt to combine a mobile phone with a portable video game system was, frankly, disastrous, resulting in a clumsy gaming experience and a dreadful talking set-up that required users to hold the unit on its side at a weird angle to speak. Even worse, the phone’s screen would freeze up and turn white if the unit’s memory was overused. Although it clung to life for a while after its 2003 debut, Nokia announced in 2010 that they’d end the service by the end of the year.

9. SACD/DVD Audio
Super Audio CDs and DVD Audio have been low-profile flops, but flops nonetheless. Both high-def formats are loved by audiophiles but might as well not even exist for most people, given their utter lack of success and market presence with mainstream listeners.

10. Apple TV
Appearing in 2007, Apple TV has largely flopped because of its limited uses: The set-top box only allows viewers to use their TVs to view content obtained via iTunes or YouTube, which makes it too narrowly focused to win mainstream approval. Later models have added storage space and lowered prices, but it’s clear that unless drastic changes or made (or we all give up on Netflix), AppleTV will go the way of the Cube.

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