Hardware is hard: The tech products that fooled or failed us

The tech history books are littered with the corpses of products that died on the vine. But there's a special sort of gadget or technology that on the face of it looks like it has what it takes to take the world by storm, only to fall flat on its face.
1 of 18 Adrian Kingsley-Hughes/ZDNET


Before the Apple Watch there was Pebble. And in many ways Pebble had many advantages over the Apple Watch. It had great battery life, a display that worked well under all lighting conditions, and robust developer support. It was also a highly-successful Kickstarter project.

One thing that it did not have, however, was the status symbol of being an Apple product.

The Pebble ride came to an end in 2016 when the company's assets were sold to Fitbit.

Apple AirPower charging mat
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Apple AirPower charging mat

The AirPower mat was Apple's answer to hassles that the Apple devoted encounter when having to charge up their iPhones, Apple Watches, and AirPod earbuds. Rather than mess about with different chargers and cords, AirPower was supposed to offer a single charging mat that users could place their devices onto and have them charge simultaneously.

Apple teased us with AirPower at the iPhone X launch event back in September of 2017, but a year later it had scrubbed almost all traces of it off its website.

AirPower seemed like exactly the sort of gadget I'd expect from Apple. A single bit of kit that solved a real-world problem and that tied the hardware ecosystem together.

Turns out AirPower was such a magical device that it disappeared altogether!

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Google Glass

A common theme when it comes to tech products that initially seemed like a cool idea but then went on to fail us is that they died a death from a thousand cuts. Faced with one or two issues -- the lack of applications, the crazy $1,500 price tag, or how the idea of a head-mounted camera creeped people out -- and Google Glass could have made the leap into mainstream, but all these issues combined meant that it never really stood a chance.

And that photo of Robert Scoble in the shower didn't help. It really didn't.

Google Glass may very well have dampened other companies' enthusiasm in pursuing smart glasses for years to come.

4 of 18 F.J. CARNEROS, Getty Images


The Segway -- the two-wheeled, self-balancing electric vehicle -- was supposed to revolutionize personal transportation.

As a product, the Segway certainly was an interesting idea, and represented a moonshot in terms of reducing congestion and pollution in built-up areas. But as a solution, it was far from ideal. Not only was no thought given to the practicalities (for example, where do you park it? How do you charge it when out and about? How will it coexist with cars and pedestrians?), but it also fell foul of regulations in many countries.

The price -- a cool $5,000 -- also didn't help.

While there may have been solutions to all these issues, the Segway never gained the market traction required to turn it from a cool idea into a mass-market product. However, it's nice that the Segway exists, albeit as a niche product.

Jawbone ICON
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Jawbone ICON

Remember when Bluetooth headsets were cool? Well, maybe they were never cool, but they were darn useful if you happened to be on the phone a lot. And before quality Bluetooth earbuds came along, they were the very best way to listen to music and audiobooks without the hassle of cables (as long as you were happy with just one ear taken up).

And one of the very best out there was the Jawbone ICON. The hardware was excellent (it had some of the best noise cancellation tech that I've ever used), but it died because people fell out of love with headsets (if that hadn't killed it, the rise of Bluetooth earbuds such as the Apple AirPods would have).

Then Jawbone itself died as it failed to make traction in the fitness band market.

Apple Bandai Pippin
6 of 18 Evan-Amos - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pippin-Atmark-Console-Set.jpg

Apple Bandai Pippin

Did you know that Apple was once involved in the games console market? The Bandai Pippin @WORLD featured a 66 MHz PowerPC 603 processor, had a built-in 14.4k modem, a CD_ROM drive, and ran a version of ran a version of Mac OS System 7.5.2.

Predictably, Apple also had a whole raft of accessories for the Pippin.

But it was a flop. While some 100,000 was made, it's alleged that only around 40,000 were sold before the plug was pulled on it. 

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How many people in 2016 wanted a $699 juicer that was tied to a pricey subscription model that supplied the user with overpriced juice packs to press?

Not many people it turned out.

Within a year the price of the Juicero had been slashed to $399, and the company was the subject of widespread criticism when it became clear that the expensive machine was no better at squeezing the juice packets than someone using their hands.

By September 2017, Juicero had withdrawn the machine and juice packs from sale, and began buying back the Juicero machines from customers.

Snapchat Spectacles
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Snapchat Spectacles

Hardware is a lot harder than software, as Snapchat discovered with its flash-in-the-pan Spectacles project.

The endeavor started out strong, with the company building up hype by initially only selling them from pop-up booths at limited locations, but as availability widened, demand took a huge nosedive, so much so that Snapchat is now trying to offload the hundreds of thousands of unsold pairs it has on its hands at college campus bookstores.

So, what went wrong? Well, the fact that you can't post videos from the spectacles to the web certainly has something to do with is, as has the inability to apply face filters, but in the end it was just a crazy, ill-thought-out idea by a software company who kidded itself for a while that hardware was easy.

9 of 18 Adrian Kingsley-Hughes/ZDNET

Microsoft Kin ONE and Kin TWO

The Kin ONE and Kin TWO were Microsoft's billion dollar plan to take on the iPhone.

Released in May 2010, Verizon stopped selling the handsets within two months after it was reported that only 500 units had been sold. The project lived on for a bit longer after Microsoft updated its unsold Kin inventory in an attempt to reinvigorate sales, but it just couldn't stand up to the dual pressures from the iPhone and Android devices.

Smart toys
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Smart toys

Smart toys are one of those ideas that on the face of it seems smart, but in reality turned out to be a bad idea.

Giving a child a toy that can record sound, images and chat, which it can then upload to some server somewhere... What could possibly go wrong? The answer is, quite a lot.

And smart toy company VTech learned that lesson back in 2015 when its data center turned out not to be as secure as it hoped, and the data that its toys had been slurping up was made available to hackers.

On the face of it, any information that a kid could input into a smart toy might seem worthless, given that most kids don't have credit cards and such. However, there's a real risk of ID theft if users were required to register personal information, and children are particularly valuable to fraudsters because they have a clean credit history. Children's social security numbers and birth dates are also much sought after by criminals.

Additionally, a breach could expose a wealth of highly sensitive information such as photographs (and in my experience, children can be pretty indiscreet photographers), the child's thoughts and feelings, communications with loved ones and so on.

And remember, once any data is leaked, it's then out there, forever.

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Rokr E1

The iPhone wasn't Apple's first attempt at breaking into the phone market. That aspiration began in 2005 with a collaboration with Motorola. The fruits of this relationship was the Rokr E1 -- a candy bar-shaped phone with a built-in iTunes player.

The Rokr E1 lacked enough storage space, it didn't have Hi-Speed USB so copying music over to it was painfully slow, and there was no way to move files wirelessly.

It also didn't help that the Motorola Rokr E1 was launched the same day as the iPod nano.

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Before the likes of Netflix and Blockbuster made renting DVDs painless, and well before the plethora of streaming companies emerged, there was DIVX.

No, not DivX the codec, but DIVX, Circuit City's attempt at pushing a simplified disc rental system. You paid $5 for a disc that you could play for a couple of days. Problem is, you needed a separate player to play the disc. On top of that, if you wanted to play the disc for more than two days, you needed an online account and such -- something that wasn't all that common in 1998.

Needless to say, DIVX died. It was discontinued in 1999, with Circuit City making a huge loss and having to give buyers of DIVX players $100 refund for buying into the format.

While VHS vs. Betamax, or Blu-ray vs. DVD might have been bigger, more public battles, the DIVX failure was different because it was an ambitious solution to genuine rental model problems, but failed to get traction in a market where other formats were also duking it out.

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Amazon Fire Phone

Not everything Amazon touches turns to gold.

In 2014 the company decided to expand its successful hardware range by introducing a smartphone.

The Fire Phone featured a gimmicky 3D display, was bulky and heavy, and could only run a fraction of the apps that a standard Android handset could. Apart from Alexa -- which back in 2014 was a lot dumber than it is today -- the Fire Phone's 'killer' feature was a technology called Firefly which could identify products, images, and audio.

Amazon customers -- normally more than ready to hit buy on things -- weren't impressed, and the Fire Phone was rushed into a coffin.

14 of 18 Adrian Kingsley-Hughes/ZDNET

Microsoft Zune

Alarm bells usually go off in my head when a company decides to try to break into an already established market with a product of its own.

Jealous of the massive market share that Apple's iPod was enjoying in 2006, Microsoft tried to enter the market with a media player of its own -- the Zune.

Credit where credit is due, Microsoft did try to differentiate the Zune from the iPod. Problem was, the Zune-to-Zune file-sharing feature required a poor Zune owner to know someone else who also owned a Zune.

Microsoft tried to keep Zune alive by releasing an updated Zune HD, but that wasn't enough to keep the Zune out of Silicon Heaven.

15 of 18 Adrian Kingsley-Hughes/ZDNET

Essential Phone

A handset that had the backing of the "Father of Android" himself, Andy Rubin, looked like a surefire winner, but the Essential Phone turned out to be anything but.

The problem was that a premium price tag didn't equal premium features, and a barrage of software updates failed to correct that. And the subsequent price cut from $699 to $499 after only two months did more to underline how bad the Essential Phone was rather than revive interest in the device.

Hardware is hard.

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The hoverboard was the logical follow-on to the Segway, with dozens of manufacturers deciding to flood the market with cheap two-wheeled scooters.

For a few months it really started to look like the hoverboard was going to succeed where the Segway failed. It was a smaller, lighter, cheaper version of the Segway, and it quickly permeated into the mainstream.

And then reports of the fires started to emerge. Some while being ridden. Others while charging.

Things go so bad that Amazon cracked down on some of the worst offenders, but the final nail in the coffin was in February 2016 when the Consumer Product Safety Commission decided that hoverboards in their entirety were unsafe.

Google Nexus Q
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Google Nexus Q

Google Glass isn't the only hardware failure that Google has had in recent years.

Ever hear of the Google Nexus Q? No? I'm not surprised.

Google's Nexus Q was unveiled at Google's I/O conference back in July 2012, and immediately was offered for pre-order in the Google Play store alongside the Nexus 7 tablet. However, within days the Android-based social streaming media player was removed from sale and those who pre-ordered informed that they would receive a free "preview" device.

While Google claimed it decided to "postpone" the launch of Nexus Q in order to "work on making it even better," the truth is that it strangled itself on its massive price tag. The $299 orb required a set of speakers that set cost an additional $399, and you then needed $49 for a pair of cables to connect the overpriced device to the even more overpriced speakers.

Apple Newton MessagePad
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Apple Newton MessagePad

No list of tech that failed us would be complete without the Apple Newton.

The Newton PDA (which was actually called MessagePad, with Newton being the name of the operating system, but it was the Newton name that stuck in people's minds), which was priced similar to the iPhone, only back in 1993, promised to make handwriting recognition the next big thing. It didn't -- well, unless you count being ridiculed by The Simpsons and Doonesbury a big thing.

While a failure for Apple, the Newton was a success in that in catalyzed the market for PDAs, something that the Palm Pilot took advantage of.

And it could be seen as the precursor to what could be the most successful tech product of all time -- the iPhone.

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