Innovation Failures of the 21st Century … Amazon Fire and Google Allo, Mercedes Home Battery and Nike FuelBand … without failure, we don’t learn how to be better

June 17, 2020

Innovation failures are nothing new – we remember back, almost fondly, to the DeLorean car and New Coke, Sony’s Betamax rival to VHS and Philip’s Laser Disc, Persil Power detergent and Harley Davidson fragrances, Bic disposable underwear to Crystal Pepsi, Coors Zima water and Starbucks Mazagran carbonated coffee, Apple Newton tablet and Google Glass eyewear, Google+ social network and Amazon Local.

While the text books are full of stories of success, we can often learn more from the flop.

For those of us without distant memories, the sci-fi DeLorean car looks remarkably like the Tesla X with its wing opening doors, Coke now comes in a wide range of flavours which was never thought possible, the Newton foresaw the iPad for Apple, and whilst Google’s Glass project never really took off, both Apple and Microsoft now see eyewear as the next platform for personal computing.

So which are the most celebrated “failures” of the last decade, and what can we learn from them?

Some of them failed because they were fanciful dreams of technologists with little real insight into the latent needs of customers, others were just plain crazy, and some were just ahead of their time.

Google Allo (2018)

Google has tried again and again to field a viable messaging alternative to Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, or Apple’s iMessage, and it has failed each time. The latest casualty is Allo, which launched in September 2016. After less than two years pushing Allo, Google announced in April 2018 that it was “pausing” development of the app in favor of a new messaging effort it’s calling “Chat.” This means Allo is effectively dead, even if it is supported for a few more years. Google’s own head of messaging Anil Sabharwal admitted that Allo didn’t even come close to meeting Google’s hopes. “We set out to build this thing, that it [would be] a product that we would get hundreds of millions of people to get excited about and use,” he told The Verge. “And where we are, we’re not feeling like we’re on that trajectory.” Why did Allo fail? To begin with, it did not have the advantage of being the default messenger on Android phones. Google had to push users to download it, and this was difficult, given the traction other platforms had already gained. Plus, Allo had no real differentiating features. It was basically just another good enough messaging app. In the end, only 50 million people downloaded it, The Verge reported. Allo’s failure can be seen as another Google defeat in the field of social apps. It’s not just messaging that has been a third rail for Google. More broadly, social apps have been a problem. From Google+ to Google Wave to Google Buzz (see above), and now Allo, Google can’t seem to build social platforms. It seems Google is better at delivering services like search, advertising, email and maps, than it is at content and connecting people.

Facebook Portal (2018)

Facebook Portal was released in 2018 as a standalone device designed to help people hold better video conferences. With computer vision AI and an auto-zoom feature, the Portal was able to follow people as they moved to better frame the video shot. The device was released just 8 months after the Cambridge Analytica scandal that embroiled Facebook, and consumers were suspicious of adding a Facebook camera to their living rooms. As Recode put it in its October 2018 review, “Facebook could improve video calls. The question is whether people will let it.” The answer so far has been a resounding “no.” Facebook initially said that the devices wouldn’t collect data for ad targeting, but reversed this statement shortly afterward, acknowledging that data from the devices could be used to inform the ads Portal owners see on other Facebook properties. Sales remained “very low” through the device’s first year, according to Fast Company, with some sources suggesting Facebook shipped as few as 54,000 units of the product’s first iteration. Facebook released a smaller, second-generation version of the device in September 2019. It remains to be seen whether global social distancing in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak will spark a surge in sales.

Mercedes Home Battery Pack (2017)

Daimler, parent of the Mercedes-Benz car brand, decided that it would go after the US home energy market. It teamed up with Vivint, which installs solar systems, and marketed an energy storage battery that looked quite a bit like Tesla’s Powerwall system. Like the Powerwall, the Mercedes-Benz battery was intended to store energy from solar panels. The major flaw in solar power is that it obviously is basically produced during the day and in sunny weather, so storage systems are needed if electricity is to be generated at other times. However, in April 2018 Mercedes-Benz announced that it’s dissolving the US subsidiary set up to run this home energy business and ceasing manufacturing of home battery packs globally. What happened to the would-be Tesla killer? It was expensive for the market, and basically over-served its customers. One Daimler spokesperson told Greentech Media: “It’s not necessary to have a car battery at home: They don’t move, they don’t freeze. It’s over-designed.”

Samsung Galaxy Note 7 (2016)

Few corporate flops on this list have been as explosive as this one. Launched in August of 2016, the Note 7 boasted powerful hardware and had consumers chomping at the bit to get their hands on them. The anticipation quickly faded, though, as reports of Note 7s catching fire started hitting the news. By September 2, Samsung had stopped sales of the device. Next came a formal recall in the US on September 15th and a worldwide recall on October 10th. The product was completely abandoned on October 11th.

Keurig KOLD (2016)

The well-known coffee maker tried to get into the at-home soda machine market, but failed big time. For one, its machine was $369 compared to $79 for SodaStream. The pods themselves were also expensive, ranging from $3.99 to $4.99 for a pack of four. Each pod made an 8 oz glass of soda. Users complained that the machine was too loud and took a long time to cool down. The company pulled the product.

Nintendo Wii U (2016)

While a few Wii U consoles were still being produced early in 2017 in the Japanese market, the system that marked a low point in Nintendo’s corporate history was effectively killed at the end of 2016. The Wii U was a resounding failure. The Wii U sold only about 13.6M units in its entire lifetime. Meanwhile, the Nintendo Switch, its successor launched in 2017, is expected to sell that many units by April of 2018, just a year or so after launch. What made the Wii U so unlovable? It was a relatively complicated system with a UI that wasn’t up to the already mobile-influenced user standards of the time. It failed to innovate on its predecessors’ introduction of physical play and motion as an integral aspect of gaming. It also had relatively few hit titles tied to it once the buzz around launch titles had dissipated, so enthusiasm wore off. Nintendo’s huge success with the Switch, a whole new type of console that is portable and is being bolstered by a succession of hit games, shows the Japanese company learned its lessons well.

Hoverboards (2015)

Hoverboards seemed like the next big thing, until they started exploding. Thousands of hoverboards from at least eight brands were recalled in 2017 because the lithium-ion batteries in the devices caught fire. But the problems were occurring well before that, as several airlines banned hoverboards altogether in 2015.

Nike FuelBand (2014)

Nike’s wearable fitness tracker was well-received by reviewers, but failed to find a following with consumers, accounting for just 10% of the market two years after its release in 2012. By April 2014, Nike had fired most of the team behind Fuel.

Amazon Fire Phone (2014)

The Kindle Fire tablets were a hit with consumers, so the development of a phone wasn’t much of a surprise. But the device turned out to be clunky, have limited app options, and even the Firefly feature (which recognized products and songs) couldn’t win over customers.

Juicero (2013)

Juicero was a California-based startup that raised $120M for its fresh-squeezed juice device. But after it was found that its $400, Wi-Fi-enabled machines were no more effective at making juice than squeezing the pre-packaged fruit with your hands, the company shut down within months of its launch.

Facebook Phone (2013)

The Facebook Phone was surrounded by speculation from the moment the first rumors of it surfaced, so almost any product would have failed to live up to the hype. What the public got was the HTC First, an Android-skinned device whose main feature was being geared towards the Facebook Home application. The phone’s exclusive carrier, AT&T, drastically slashed the price to 99 cents in a “temporary sale” that became permanent until the phone’s death.

Lululemon Astro Pants (2013)

Yoga pants are designed to be form-fitting, but some models of pants and leggings from the yoga gear giant proved to be a bit too revealing, becoming translucent when wearers bent over. Inflammatory remarks from founder Chip Wilson only exacerbated the public relations fiasco. Wilson later issued an apology and the company issued a recall.

Pond’s Toothpaste (2012)

Pond’s is one of America’s oldest cosmetics brands, but when it launched a toothpaste in 2012, its customers couldn’t get on board. Ironically, the toothpaste itself wasn’t the problem — though most consumers failed to distinguish Pond’s toothpaste from Colgate’s — it was the Pond’s brand. Customers so strongly associated Pond’s with beauty and skincare products that they weren’t accepting of a different product. The toothpaste was eventually pulled off the shelves.

Bic for Her (2012)

Bic received heaps of derision in 2012 when it launched a line of Bic for Her pens designed specifically for women. Advertised as being built for women’s comfort and available in colors such as pink and purple, many consumers considered the product to be sexist and its Amazon page attracted a slew of mocking reviews — with some satirically suggesting that they would need their husbands’ or fathers’ permission to buy the pens.

Google Nexus Q (2012)

This weird black orb thing was a media device that could connect to your TV and speakers and stream a list of various music tracks and YouTube videos that you and your friends co-created. It only played Google-approved content (YouTube and music) and just couldn’t compete with other media-streaming offerings like Apple TV.

HP Touchpad (2011)

Following Apple’s unveiling of the iPad in 2010, dozens of companies released tablets of their own. HP launched its TouchPad in July 2011 — and discontinued after only 6 months. Sales of the device, which ran on HP’s proprietary webOS operating system, were disappointing. The product was largely ignored by the tech press in favour of Apple’s iPad 2, which went on sale in March 2011. Just 25,000 of the TouchPad’s initial 270,000-unit run were sold, prompting HP to dramatically reduce the price of the HP TouchPad in August. Retailers sold out of the significantly cheaper tablets almost immediately, but the product was ultimately discontinued.

Jawbone Fitness Tracker (2011)

Wearable company Jawbone was once valued at more than $3B. However, intense competition in the wearables market and a protracted legal battle with dominant incumbent FitBit resulted in considerable financial losses that ultimately sank the company. Jawbone, which was founded as AliphCom in 1999, originally developed military-grade audio hardware before moving into the consumer market with its popular Bluetooth-enabled wireless speaker. Jawbone diversified once again in 2011 when it unveiled its fitness-tracker wearable. Despite the popularity of Jawbone’s Bluetooth speakers, the company was beset by problems for more than a year prior to its closure. Jawbone struggled with inventory shortages and a series of high-profile executive departures, and customer service standards deteriorated as its legal battles wore on. The company finally entered liquidation in 2017.

Netflix Qwikster (2011)

Just as Netflix’s streaming service was beginning to take off, CEO Reed Hastings hit upon a plan to wring more money from consumers who wanted to continue receiving DVDs in the mail a la the service’s original process. His solution: rebrand the mailing option as “Qwikster” and require users to register (and pay) for both services. It was a PR nightmare and the idea was dropped weeks later.

PlayStation PSP Go (2009)

The PSP performed admirably, despite its weird format choice of UMDs for its games. The Go was smaller and sleeker, but lacked the ability to use UMDs, so there was little incentive for PSP fans to “upgrade” to this one. Go also had a weak catalog at the exact moment when phone games were storming onto the scene, trampling this underwhelming console beneath their heels.

Twitter Peek (2009)

This was a dedicated device that just sent out and received tweets, but couldn’t even do that properly, giving users only a 20-character preview of their tweets. Users passed on this gimmicky handheld.

Tata Nano (2008)

In 2008, Indian car manufacturer Tata Motors launched the Tata Nano, an ultra-compact hatchback designed specifically for the domestic Indian market. Tata Motors launched the Nano with motorcyclists in mind. To appeal to them, Tata manufactured the Nano as inexpensively as possible; the Nano was priced at 100,000 rupees, or approximately $2,500 in 2008 dollars. The company hoped the Nano’s compact design and low price would make it a popular choice with residents of urban areas, many of whom relied on motorcycles and mopeds for personal transportation. However, the low price tag led to numerous cut corners in production, which resulted in serious safety flaws. Reports of Nanos bursting into flames after rear collisions were common in the months after the vehicle’s debut. Tata ultimately sold fewer than 8,000 Nanos before pulling the vehicle from the market entirely.

Microsoft Windows Vista (2007)

Windows XP had been the Windows version for five years when Vista hit the scene, so many customers were loathe to change over. Even moreso when reviews revealed that the new OS was less user-friendly than XP. This led to users paying to have their Vista systems downgraded back to XP and Microsoft admitting its mistake and allowing computer manufacturers to offer XP on new computers. It hastened production on Windows 7.

Joost (2007)

Founded by the guys behind Kazaa and Skype, Joost was supposed to deliver content at near-TV quality via a peer-to-peer format. Despite financial backing, an innovative technological concept, and some early content deals with the likes of Viacom and others, a lack of international rights and pullouts by content providers ultimately hamstrung this fledgling service.

Heinz  EZ Squirt Ketchup (2006)

The idea was simple enough: take ketchup, traditionally some shade of red, and turn it different colors through the magic of science. Seeing as how ketchup is the beloved condiment of choice for kids of all ages, this seemed like an easy win, and for a while it was, driving Heinz’s market share above 60% for the first time ever. The novelty wore off quickly and though it remained in production for 6 years, this house on fire had long since burned out.

Evian Water Bra (2005)

As one of the best-known brands of purified water in the world, Evian occupies an enviable position in the broader beverage industry. In 2005, the company decided to diversify by manufacturing a support brassiere that could be filled with water. The garment’s primary purpose was to offer women a cooler alternative to traditional bras during hotter months. It also featured a small pouch that could hold a bottle of mineral water. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the bra failed to catch on and was discontinued shortly after its introduction.

Segway (2001)

These two-wheeled, self-balancing scooters looked dumb and cost a fortune, so when they didn’t catch on, no one was surprised. Now reserved for mall cops only.