If you're interested in technology, you may also have an active interest in learning about hot technology trends.
But you don't want to take every last one of these gadgets and business fads too seriously: some are bound to disappoint.
(Although don't think you can hold me personally responsible for any of my predictions: by the time this article hits the internet, I expect to be living on a sun-drenched tropical island under the witness protection plan.)
To get a sense of how fragile the innovation business is, keep in mind the popular wisdom that teaches us how nine out of ten startups will fail.
Now multiply that by the particularly speculative nature of the technology industry in particular and you'll appreciate how easily things can often go spectacularly wrong.
This article was taken from the book, Keeping Up: Backgrounders to All the Big Technology Trends You Can't Afford to Ignore. If you'd prefer to watch this chapter as a video, feel free to follow along here:
That's not to say that the folks who dreamed up all the doomed businesses we'll soon discuss were fools or frauds. It's easy for us, enjoying the benefits of historical hindsight, to judge their efforts. But we should be sensitive to how different things must have looked in the heat of the moment.
Still, bearing that in mind, there's value to be had from trying to at least understand what went wrong.
So here are some particularly impressive examples from the junkyard of tech history. It can be loads of fun to relive some of the biggest business disasters in history, but there are also important lessons we can apply when assessing this year's crop of "can't-fail" devices.
Lesson #1: Marketing Isn't Everything
In the beginning, there were comments from tech insiders about how this would be the biggest thing since ever. Then came an unauthorized book leaking intriguing information, some ambitious public claims, and a product launch.
In the end, there was Segway: a personal transportation device that was too big and fast for sidewalks, too big and slow for roads, and too expensive for most customers. And using it in the rain or snow wasn't much fun at all.
Today you'd probably have to look pretty hard to find a living, breathing Segway anywhere close to your neighborhood. They're sometimes used for police street patrols and touring, but they haven't eliminated the car or revolutionized urban development.
Nor, as far as I can see, did they make the company's investors fantastically wealthy. In fact, the company's manufacturing plant in Bedford, New Hampshire ceased operations in the summer of 2020.
What went wrong? Well, perhaps the hype was a bit over the top. Ok, make that way over the top. It's never a good thing to pump up expectations to the point they can't possibly be met.
There was also the failure to match the tool to an appropriate environment. Where, after all, was it supposed to be used? But, to be really successful, a new product has to be built on more than clever engineering. It also has to solve a real and pressing problem.
Lesson #2: Too Much Power Isn't a Good Thing
Back in 2013, Google introduced a new consumer compute product they called Glass. This was a sleek headset that could be worn as an attachment to a pair of designer prescription glasses.
When powered on, Glass could accept voice and touch commands to record video of everything the wearer sees, and display data – often with full "awareness" of the wearer's current physical location.
Glass was a single device intended to replace much of the function currently served by smart phones, laptops, and media players.
For the task of integrating our physical world with the endless data that describes it, this was going to be perfect. And then it wasn't.
As more details about Glass became known, questions were raised in the broader tech world. Was it appropriate – or even legal – to silently record videos of other people? Should face recognition software be applied to random pedestrians walking past on the sidewalk without their consent? Was it safe to drive while wearing Glass?
Potential customers had their own questions. Is the product affordable (they started at $1,500)? Is it necessary? Does it fit the vision I have for my public image?
The longer those questions floated around the internet, the more answers came back. Answers, by and large, consisting of a single word: "No." Google Glass, as a consumer product, slowly faded away and eventually disappeared altogether. The massive media promotion campaign had come up empty.
Which is not to say that the product itself failed. As it turns out, Glass has found considerable success in medical environments where, for instance, it could be used to permit remote surgical experiences.
It's also found a home in industrial settings, where front line workers often need instant, hands-free access to relevant schematics and directions.
But it was a long while before all that goodness happened. Perhaps someone should have slowed things down at some point, saying: Even if it's possible to engineer all of those features into a consumer product, is it necessarily a good idea?
Lesson #3: Sometimes the Pieces Don't All Fall Where They're Supposed to Fall
Sometimes measuring success and failure isn't so easy. Take WebTV as a case in point.
Who doesn't own a TV? (Besides me, I mean.) Wouldn't it make sense to create an inexpensive and easy-to-use product that leverages billions of existing home TVs for non-standard but popular uses? How about a device that can turn the TV you already own into a web browser and email portal?
If that doesn't sound so exciting today, back in the mid-90's the idea behind WebTV had its definite charms.
Just imagine the secondary revenue streams this could generate. Wouldn't advertisers climb over each other to pay big bucks to have their products pitched to all those TVs?
Had WebTV managed to deliver on the "easy-to-use" angle, things might have gone differently. But it turned out that the primary demographic for the device was heavily skewed to older people who needed a lot of (expensive) customer support coaching through the setup process.
Their inability to keep up with the fast-changing internet browsing standards also made it tough to provide a consistently optimal browsing experience – especially for users sitting ten feet away from the screen on their couches.
How did things actually play out? On the one hand, within two years of their launch, the company was purchased by Microsoft for more than 400 million dollars, who rebranded the service "MSN TV." In one form or another, they stuck around until long past the death of dial up internet access. So that's a good thing.
But, arguably, they failed to capture nearly as much interest and adoption as they could have. The real prize was in becoming a dominant portal for internet access.
Because the platform was proprietary, the company could effectively have controlled the entire internet experience of hundreds of millions of users. The potential scope of the product would have dwarfed the modest revenues they actually achieved. So that's not a good thing.
Were they too far ahead of their time? Did they miscalculate by insisting on a closed, proprietary platform? Did they fail to see the monstrous growth in the standalone personal computer (PC) industry coming?
Either way, it wasn't exactly a fairy tale ending.
Lesson #4: Timing is Almost Everything
The tech industry moves fast. I'm sure that little nugget of wisdom won't leave any of you wrapped in stunned silence. But when you think about how much work is needed before you can convert a fresh, new idea into a ready-to-ship product, it's remarkable anything innovative ever gets off the ground.
Bad timing, then, is a risk faced by the people behind pretty much any new technology as it makes its way to market.
By way of example, the existence of strong competition from companies like Nintendo and Sony's PlayStation were probably largely to blame for the premature death of Apple's Bandai Pippin gaming console back in the mid nineties.
Although, the fact that, at peak, there were never more than 25 game titles that would run on the device and that, like all Apple products, it was priced much higher than the competition, couldn't have helped.
All wasn't dark and foreboding for Apple in those years. Looking back with what we now know, the strong presence of their iPod digital music player platform was probably what doomed Microsoft's Zune.
On that one, Microsoft had the bad luck (or lack of foresight) to get stuck between an iPod device made dominant by its simplicity, and the looming age of the smartphone (where standalone portable music players become irrelevant).
Clearly, as Shakespeare would have it, "ripeness is all."
But there's another thing about timing: eventually, you'll need to deliver the goods. There's a limit to how long we'll wait for that bright new technology that's been on everyone's "must-have" list for too long without making an actual, real-world appearance. Beware empty promises.
You should also keep a critical eye out for good, old fashioned bad business practices – the kind that never seem to go out of style. I'm thinking about unrealistic business plans, unfamiliarity with a business' core, underlying fundamentals, and unreasonable, greedy start up costs.
Actually, I'm thinking about the catastrophic disaster that characterized the dot-com boom and subsequent bust around the start of the 21st Century. The take-any-business-model-and-build-it-a-website paradigm looked good, but it was applied far too broadly and often ignored the obvious context in the process.
Here's the long and the short of it: don't blindly trust popular trends and buzz phrases.
YouTube videos of all ten chapters from this book are available here. Lots more tech goodness - in the form of books, courses, and articles - can be had here. And consider taking my AWS, security, and container technology courses here.