Every now and again, someone comes up with a revolutionary idea for a product or service and brings it to market. Just as often, however, the supporting technology isn’t there, consumers aren’t ready to embrace it, or management mishandles how to properly launch such a product. Whatever the reason, some ideas just aren't meant to take root, no matter how groundbreaking, ultimately falling victim to bad timing.
Finding the good in a failed product can be difficult at the time but in hindsight, it’s those same products that often serve as precursors to existing technology. In this article, we will be profiling nine such ideas that were conceived and brought to market well before their time. While some weren’t exactly failures, most were – and all are responsible for playing a role in current devices or services that make our lives more comfortable and enjoyable.
Sega Channel on-demand gaming service
Cloud gaming platforms such as OnLive and Gaikai may seem like a revolutionary concept but in a way they’re both descendents Sega Channel. Launched in December 1994, Sega Channel was an initiative that allowed a gamer to use a special adapter to connect their Genesis console to their cable television’s coaxial connection.
Through a monthly subscription fee, players had access to 50 on-demand games that changed every month. It took about a minute or so to “download” each game at which time it was playable just as a full retail version would be.
The catch, however, was that your local cable company had to support Sega Channel. This meant they needed to install new equipment on their end, get the sales team up to pace with the service and purchase the physical adapters.
The service was ultimately offered to about a third of US homes and at its peak, boasted around 250,000 subscribers. But by 1998, 32- and 64-bit consoles from Sega, Sony and Nintendo as well as the substantial investment for cable companies brought an end to the Sega Channel. Service was terminated on July 1998.
WebTV set-top box
Getting online in the mid 1990s was an expensive affair, not because of the cost of dial-up service but because you needed a computer. While PCs weren’t astronomical, they certainly weren’t as affordable as they are today. What’s more, computers were still seen as a luxury that were difficult for the average Joe to operate.
A savior arrived in late 1996 by the name of WebTV. This set-top box, which sold for less than $350 and connected directly to your television, delivered the World Wide Web to the living room. WebTV was the first commercial device to access the web without a PC and marked the first television-based use of the web.
The device got off to a slow start but that didn’t stop Microsoft from putting an offer on the table to purchase the startup for $425 million. WebTV would eventually be rebranded as MSN TV and over the years, Microsoft would release a broadband version of the set-top box.
Surprisingly enough, Redmond continued to operate MSN TV until last July when it finally shut down. This successful concept of bringing Internet content to the television certainly helped spark modern devices like the Roku box and Apple TV, to name a few.
LiveJournal social network
Before Friendster, MySpace and Facebook (in that order), there was LiveJournal. The site was created by Brad Fitzpatrick in 1999 to keep his high school friends in the loop about what was going on in his life. The service was later expanded and allowed users to maintain a public journal (or blog, or diary – or whatever you wish to call it).
It’s tough to pin down exactly why the service never reached superstardom like MySpace and later, Facebook, but there is some pretty damning evidence. Early on, the site worked on an invite system where a new user would need an invite from an existing user to join (alternately, they could pay for an account). This was reportedly necessary to curb the growth rate as it might have otherwise grown faster than the system architecture could have handled.
Others believe a series of missteps from management (like the controversy surrounding advertising) ultimately kept the Web 2.0-era platform from becoming more than it could have. Ownership of the site has changed hands multiple times since 2005 and while the site still exists with an Alexa rating of 134, it never reached its true potential.
XBAND console gaming network
Before Xbox Live, Nintendo’s Wi-Fi Connection and PlayStation Network, there was XBAND – an unofficial gaming network for the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis. Developed by Catapult Entertainment and released in the mid 1990s, the XBAND was a modem that allowed SNES and Genesis gamers to connect to and compete against other players across the country.
The modem used dial-up to connect players which reportedly worked alright for less graphic-intensive games although titles like Mortal Kombat 3 were virtually unplayable. Gamers were charged a monthly subscription fee to use the service and even had access to e-mail, leaderboards and daily newsletters.
Only a handful of advertisements for XBAND were ever produced and combined with the limitation of a dial-up connection as well as the fact that Catapult Entertainment had to reverse engineer each game individually to enable network play, the service had little chance to succeed. As such, it shut down on April 1997.
Nintendo Power Glove motion controller
The Wizard, a film starring Fred Savage that follows video game prodigy Jimmy Woods, is perhaps best known for giving American gamers their first look at Super Mario Bros. 3 months before its release (and revealing the location of one of the game’s three warp whistles). While the title went on to earn a Guinness World Record as the best-selling video game to be sold separately from a system, it’s a different product that was prominently featured in the movie that served as a precursor to another hit from Nintendo: the Power Glove.
The Power Glove was a motion controller accessory for the original Nintendo console. It was released in 1989 and billed as the first device of its kind to recreate human hand movements on a television screen in real time. It featured traditional NES buttons on the forearm as well as a bank of programmable buttons.
Despite being backed by Nintendo, the company wasn’t involved in the design or release of the accessory. Only two games were ever released with specific features designed for the Power Glove and considering the fact that it wasn’t terribly accurate nor easy to use, it only sold 100,000 units in the US. What it did do, however, was help pave the way for another hit Nintendo product, the motion-sensing remote that shipped with the Wii console in 2006.
Palm Treo smartphone
Apple’s iPhone is often credited with jumpstarting the smartphone revolution but it wasn’t the first device to pioneer many of the features it shipped with. Originally developed by Handspring, Palm’s Treo line of smartphones first hit the scene in 2002 and really began to outpace the competition by late 2004.
During the mid-2000s, the Treo was the smartphone to beat. Multiple models were released over the years and included features like a touchscreen display, Bluetooth support, removable battery, a full QWERTY keyboard and a camera. Most devices shipped with Palm OS 5 although a handful were also available running Windows Mobile near the end of the Treo’s run.
I recall writing an editorial in mid-2007 just ahead of the iPhone’s launch where I compared Apple’s upcoming phone with the Palm Treo 700p. I ultimately found the Treo could do nearly everything the iPhone could, albeit not as gracefully, and there was a solid third-party app market at the time in Palm’s corner.
A few years later, a failing Palm was sold to Hewlett-Packard for $1.2 billion. HP would release a few devices based on webOS, the next-gen operating system that Palm was working on at the time of the acquisition. They decided to discontinue production of all webOS devices a year later, however. webOS has since been licensed to LG for use on their line of Smart TVs.
VCR Plus+ video recording system
The videocassette recorder (VCR) allowed users to record broadcast television onto a removable magnetic tape cassette. Much like today’s DVRs and TiVos, people used VCRs to record broadcasts to view at a later date but unlike modern digital recorders, one had to physically wait around and press the “Record” button when a desired program came on or go through the arduous task of entering in the specific date, time and channel manually. That is, until the VCR Plus+ arrived on the scene.
The technology allowed users to enter a simple six-digit code into a standalone VCR Plus+ device (this functionality later came baked into most VCRs). The codes contained the information necessary to instruct the VCR to record the exact program you wanted. Simply punch in the number and position the device so that it would point at your VCR. At the right time, it would beam a record signal over to the machine to initiate recording.
Programming codes were published alongside television listings in the newspaper and in TV Guide. New technology like TiVo and DVRs from cable and satellite providers eventually rendered VCR Plus+ codes useless and in May of 2010, the last batch of VCR Plus+ codes were delivered to publishers.
Microsoft SPOT smartwatch
Alongside Google Glass, smartwatches are expected to lead the charge in wearable technology. The Kickstarter-funded Pebble single-handedly launched today’s smartwatch push but if you go back a decade, Microsoft was pretty serious about their smartwatch then, too.
Microsoft’s take on the smartwatch worked alongside a technology called SPOT (Smart Personal Object Technology) that would beam useful information to all sorts of electronic gadgets over FM waves. This meant a Microsoft watch could gather information from MSN including sports, weather, news and stock tickers.
The watches were produced by a number of quality watch makers but their bulky size and poor design really held the idea back. With a price tag of around $150 mixed in with a monthly subscription rate, the gadget never really took off. Microsoft killed the project roughly five years after inception.
Nintendo Virtual Boy 3D gaming system
It’s still too early to know whether or not the Oculus Rift will be a commercial success but with any luck, it won’t be met with the same fate as another pioneering 3D gaming device – Nintendo’s Virtual Boy.
Billed as the first system to display true 3D graphics, the Virtual Boy launched in 1995 for $180 at a time when the 16-bit console wars were winding down but 32-bit systems were still a few months out (it was Nintendo’s first 32-bit machine). The system used a method known as parallax to create the illusion of depth.
The machine sat on a table or a desk and gamers put their face up to the goggles to play. It included a controller with two directional pads to help control elements in the 3D world. Only 14 games were ever released for the console in North America including Mario Tennis – the game that shipped with every system sold.
In spite of a heavy marketing push, the device was a commercial flop. Complaints included the high price tag, lack of color (images were displayed in red only) and the fact that it was uncomfortable to use. Nintendo discontinued the Virtual Boy less than a year after launch. In total, 770,000 units were ever sold.