Some of the most successful ideas and technologies of today are essentially reiterations of ideas that failed miserably a few years earlier. Here is a list of some of the biggest flops of the 90s tech boom that you may find surprising:
- Digital Video Rentals
- Online Shopping with Same Day Delivery
These things are all resounding successes that are major parts of our technological landscape today. Well, in their first iteration, all three of these ideas failed miserably.
The Newton: The Father of the PDAs
You may not remember the Newton, because of how badly it flopped. It was basically a prehistoric palm pilot, developed by the ever-Innovative Apple computer. It flopped largely because of its badly implemented handwriting recognition and the failure of its marketing to convey its benefits. Apple was mocked at the time for its silly “electric notepad” and sent slump-shouldered back to the drawing board. With a few minor tweaks, innovators from other companies perfected a good UI for PDA’s and sales of Palm Pilots and similar devices skyrocketed. This is just one example of how close an embarrassing failure can be to a massive success.
DivX: The first Digital Rental Service
Long before Netflix got into the digital video distribution business, DivX sought to pioneer the market in 1998. Operated through Circuit City, users would pay $ 4 to buy a DivX disc with content viewable for up to 48 hours. After that you’d either pay a continuation fee or throw away the disc. The problems with this system seem obvious today, but it made a lot of sense at the time: no longer would users have to make a separate trip to the store to return their old discs and no more would they risk incurring late fees. The fact that it required a separate player to use and the perception that DivX discs were just inferior versions of DVD’s killed the product. With minor tweaks and the failure of DivX in mind, Netflix quickly took up the slack with its own digital distribution system. What a loss it would have been if they’d shied away for fear of suffering a similar fate!
Kozmo.com and Urbanfetch: Brilliant Ideas, Before Their Time
If you lived in New York or London in the late ‘90s and early noughts, you probably remember these services. Through them you could order almost anything under the sun— DVD’s, candy, stuffed animals, sometimes even half-priced Dreamcasts— and they’d be delivered to your door by bike messenger in an hour or so. These services failed mainly for infrastructural reasons— they used their own personnel for deliveries, rather than the postal service and simply didn’t have the fortitude to survive the tech bubble burst in 2001.
In their wake, Amazon.com has stepped in to fill the “anything, anytime” void. They expanded their bookselling service to include almost any product one might think of. While they don’t necessarily deliver in the same day, next day service is almost as good and their use of outside postal services allows them to keep their operation streamlined. For those who absolutely need it now, there are also services like Grubhub and Seamless, which cleverly partner with local restaurants to coordinate food delivery. It’s a good thing these businesses didn’t turn tail in the wake of Kozmo’s demise, or I’d have to leave my house a lot more often!
From these examples of how not to approach innovation, the contours of what a successful innovation strategy looks like should be coming into focus. Real innovation is an emergent phenomenon, forming at the intersection of hard work and careful research. It requires bold vision, paired with the discipline and strength to carry it out. Don’t settle for imitation or half-measures and always be willing to revisit past mistakes, both your own and others’. You never know when you’ll find a hidden treasure in the wreckage, just waiting to be recast as a disruptive innovation. Know more about the different types of myths related to innovation only at the University Canada West.