Good Tech, Bad Timing: The Power of the Market

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In many ways Apple's first "personal digital assistant" paved the way for the iPhone. But the Newton never really caught on.
In many ways Apple’s first “personal digital assistant” paved the way for the iPhone. But the Newton never really caught on.

In the 21st century, we’ve become accustomed to technology developing at lightning speeds. But for every successful electronic device, there is a string of failures that didn’t hit the mark. And not all of these devices flop due to bad engineering. The forces that shape product adoption go far beyond effectiveness into the sociocultural — that is, the time and place of the release. 

“The technologies we use today aren’t necessarily the best technologies that were available,” explains Maggie Koerth-Baker, science editor at BoingBoing.net, in the New York Times Magazine.  And we don’t necessarily use logic when deciding which technologies to adopt.

Take for example the Newton, Apple’s ‘personal digital assistant’ released in 1993. While developing the Newton, Apple pulled out all the stops to ensure success. It “hired psychologists to make sure that everybody on the team was mentally healthy and even started a ‘buddy program’ for engineers who were on the verge of burning out, ” tech reporter Tom Hormby wrote in Gizmodo. All the resources Apple poured into the Newton catalyzed a successful launch. But product sales fizzled and the Newton was discontinued nearly 10 years before the first iPhone hit the shelves. So, why didn’t consumers adopt it?

An Endegene whitepaper lists a number of reasons why the Newton didn’t take off with consumers, despite its technical promise:

  • It was too big. The Newton was about 4.5 inches by 7 inches, nearly 1 inch thick and weighed nearly a pound.
  • It was too expensive. It cost around $700 for the first model and up to $1,000 for later versions.
  • It was cumbersome to use because it had software problems and operated slowly. The handwriting recognition, a featured part of the Newton, was notoriously inaccurate.
  • It was announced too soon. Apple announced the Newton almost two years before its launch.
  • It was just too premature. Despite a few competing products launched before the Newton, the market wasn’t familiar with such a device.
The Newton (left) was discontinued nearly a decade before the launch of the first iPhone (right).
The Newton (left) was discontinued nearly a decade before the launch of the iPhone (right).

“In the end, we cut corners and ignored problems to try to meet a price range and a ship date that we had prematurely announced to gain an edge in a reckless public relations battle,” Newton project leader, Larry Tesler, told Endegene.

“We were just way ahead of the technology,” Steve Capps, the Newton’s head of user interface and software development, told Wired. “We barely got it functioning by ’93 when we started shipping it.”

The dream of an electronic personal assistant was shattered by shifty hardware and software, but most of all by a timing mismatch with the market. But Apple learned from its mistakes and went on to produce the iPhone — a technology well timed with customer tech budget and their desire for connectivity on the go.

Some said Sony's Betamax technology was superior, but it was VHS that came away with the market-share victory.
Some said Sony’s Betamax technology was superior, but it was VHS that came away with the market share.

Why sometimes superior products flop

The laundry-list of early product failures also includes Sony’s Betamax, which many describe as superior to VHS. But again, the Betamax just didn’t take off. Betamax is actually older than VHS. Betamax was launched in 1975, while JVC’s VHS launched a year later. For about a decade, the two VCR formats battled for market dominance. So, why didn’t Betamax claim victory? That’s a question many have tried to answer. 

One case study mentions a meeting seven months prior to the launch of Betamax. During the meeting, Sony chairman Akio Morita showed the Betamax to executives from Matsushita, JVC and RCA in an apparent attempt to get the rival companies to develop VCRs with Sony’s system. “Sony’s apparent arrogant attitude did not go over well with potential partners,” the NYU Stern School of Business explained. This early reluctance to partner proved to be Sony’s demise.

Another case study echoes the theme of inclusiveness.  VHS won out because it had a better choice of movies to rent than Betamax did. Sony chose to hold tight to its IP — licensing titles for use, while VHS let its technology free allowing filmmakers to create their own VHS tapes. This tight-fisted approach to technology proved to be Sony’s demise. “[Sony’s] decision to not enable the format to be standardized negatively impacted distribution and availability, which resulted in a product failure,” Tim Berry of Palo Alto Software wrote.

While Betamax had the better functionality, it couldn’t beat subpar delivery of a broader range of titles. By the late 1980s, VHS dominated the market.

Although most of us likely couldn't imagine using a screen like this, it's easy to see the similarities between the early Newton interface and that of the iPhone.
Although most of us likely couldn’t imagine using a screen like this, it’s easy to see the similarities between the early Newton interface and that of the iPhone.

Clearly, having a superior product just isn’t enough, as the Betamax case study shows. There are other ingredients involved. Investopedia lists reasons why products fail, and the top of the list is timing. Timing really is everything, as the Newton’s failure reveals. It is equally clear that fulfilling consumer needs is important, and both of these unsuccessful products failed to do so. 

But maybe, just maybe, the failures of the Newton and the Betamax are okay in the long run. Both VCR formats ended up obsolete with the launch of DVRs, of which Sony is a huge manufacturer. And if Apple gave up after the Newton went belly-up, maybe we’d never have an iPhone or iPad. These case studies, and the dozens like them, prove what grandma always said: Sometimes the best things are worth waiting for.

Image credits: 1) Flickr/Travis Isaacs; 2) Flickr/Blake Patterson; 3) Flickr/hcalderonmeister; 4) Flickr/Windell Oskay

Gina-Marie Cheeseman

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by Mashable.com.

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