You simply have to be successful with a good invention. Many start-ups succumb to this misconception. But it’s not just young and small companies that fail with innovative products; even large corporations are not immune to flops. No matter how much they pump into marketing and PR, many a promising idea is simply not accepted by the market.
Between 75 and 90 percent of all product innovations do not succeed on the market. These three examples of innovation flops, which have one thing in common, show how difficult it is to actually launch innovations: All of them had the potential to be a real breakthrough innovation. In this article, you can read why Google’s data glasses, the parallel-opening hardware for windows and the Segway one-person transport system were not a success, and what you can learn from examples of innovation that failed.
1. Google Glass: The web in front of your eyes
Judging by the technical features and the resulting possibilities, Google Glass had what it took to change the everyday lives of all of us. The glasses made it possible to use pretty much all the features of a smartphone without even having to pick it up. The wearer could see the desired information directly in his or her field of vision (augmented reality), take photos and videos using voice commands or gestures, or have a foreign-language menu translated just by looking at it. And that was not all, of course. Google Glass was conceived as a platform of its own, for which developers were to implement their own apps; their own “Glassware,” so to speak. The possibilities for success with this innovation seemed unlimited.
Glasshole instead of see-through
In 2014, Google then brought the device, often dubbed “data glasses,” to the people as part of an Explore program. According to estimates, several tens of thousands of test users bought the glasses for around 1500 US dollars. But the enthusiasm failed to materialize. US consumers rejected the product, mainly because of privacy concerns. The wearers’ surroundings in particular felt uncomfortable with the camera, which was clearly visible and could not be switched off. Cinemas, bars and casinos soon banned the wearer, partly for privacy reasons. The term “Glasshole” was invented for people who wore their Google Glass almost always and everywhere. Some quite entertaining videos about this species circulate on the web. In addition, the battery of the device did not last long, the glasses themselves heated up, and had a number of other teething problems.
No sales launch for Google Glass
Google ultimately decided against a sales launch. However, the Internet company has not completely abandoned the project. Now the Google X lab is continuing to research a new version of the data glasses. Why Google’s Glass fell through with consumers seems clear in retrospect:
Google allowed itself to be dazzled by the diverse technical possibilities of its data glasses, and did not ask itself whether consumers even want or need such a device. Perhaps a reality enhanced by information from the web is (still) just too much?
Even now, contemporaries get on their nerves when they are too preoccupied with their smartphones. Because the other person never knows for sure whether the other person is busy with what’s happening around him or whether he’s just mentally drifting away in the online world. A device that makes even greater demands on the senses of sight and hearing, without those around them noticing, further intensifies their discomfort.
Google has disappointed the public’s self-stoked high expectations with a technically immature product (battery, heat development, design). The highly held motto of Silicon Valley “better done than perfect” can therefore also be exaggerated.
In contrast to the numerous successful innovations and disruptive innovation examples, this anecdote shows that even Google is not immune to failure.
2. Parallel opening instead of tilting
Technical immaturity cannot be accused of the parallel stop hardware for windows: Special hardware allows a window not only to open or tilt, but also to be fixed in a position just a few millimetres away from the window frame. This position has many advantages:
Compared to the conventional tilted or open window, air circulation is more efficient: Fresh air enters the room more slowly and evenly. There is no unpleasant draught despite the open window.
Because the fresh air flows more slowly and evenly into the room, it also warms up more quickly. This prevents loss of heating energy, especially in winter.
Even in the heaviest rain, a window equipped with a parallel shut-off fitting does not allow moisture into the room.
The windows are burglar-proof even when open. Especially because they are not visible from the outside as open.
Handles do not have to be placed in the middle of the window but can be mounted further down. This makes it easier for children and the elderly to operate.
The fitting can also be equipped with a motor and a radio remote control. So, you can ventilate at the touch of a button when they are not even there. This option helps to prevent damage to the building fabric – for example, due to mould.
Consumers want to retain control and experience ventilation
However, the innovative fittings still eke out a niche existence. Why? It is probably due to consumer psychology. Just as with doors, we want to retain control over our windows. We want to see when they are open and when they are closed. And we want to be able to do that ourselves, if possible. Therefore it became one of the examples of innovation that failed.
3. Segway: Revolution for urban mobility
With the Segway Personal Transporter, the user experiences anything but a loss of control. That’s because the one-person electric vehicle can be operated really intuitively after a familiarization phase. It also works flawlessly and is actually an ingenious invention. The company itself, Segway Inc. also had the financial resources to stage the Personal Transporter in the media as a revolutionary solution for urban mobility.
Still only a niche after 15 years
But popular revolutions don’t happen – history teaches us that. Even 15 years after its market launch, this future does not seem to have begun for Segway. Why?
The Segway is only part of the solution for one-person mobility. Every means of transportation needs an infrastructure: for Segway, that would be electric charging stations, special parking spaces, and also the certainty of where it is even allowed to ride it. All of this was lacking at the time of market entry and is still lacking to some extent today.
The purchase price, for which an inexpensive small car is already available, was also incompatible with the positioning as a means of mass transportation.
Similar to Google Glass, Segway Inc. did not think about who exactly should use the innovative device. Instead of occupying one or more niches, the company went straight for an undefined “mass market.”
However, there is definitely room on the market for an alternative, electrically powered means of transportation for urban areas, as demonstrated by the success of the Chinese start up Ninebot. When Gao Lufeng and his fellow student Wang Ye founded the company, they always had Segway as their model. Until April 2015, when Ninebot bought Segway Inc. with the help of some venture capitalists. When the imitator buys out the inventor, it is really bitter.
Copycat plows niche
It remains to be seen whether Ninebot can permanently change urban mobility with its far more affordable product range and a new Segway portfolio. At the very least, the number of producers trying their hand at the rolling, electrically powered version of the seven-mile boot is growing. Like the makers of the IO Hawk, for example, for which there are even cheaper alternatives. However, these means of transport, marketed under the term “hoverboards,” sometimes have life-threatening defects.
Touchscreens, continuously variable automatic transmissions and OLEDs are classic technology innovations. They are novel, technical solution concepts, but not independent, directly usable products. Novel because they are neither known nor have been used in this form before.
4. Swatch Paparazzi
In 2003, Microsoft founder Bill Gates announced intelligent watches that could receive information continuously by radio from home PCs and other devices. This sounded so good that even Swatch founder Nicolas Hayek was persuaded and built the Swatch Paparazzi with Microsoft’s radio technology. Among other things, it was to deliver weather reports to the “smart” watches. The Paparazzi never caught on. In 2011, Microsoft discontinued the project and Swatch was left without a partner.
5. Apple Newton
Apple is surrounded by the aura of having produced only successes. However, this is not true. The Apple Watch, launched in 2015 with high expectations, is spurned even by many Apple fans, and sales figures are in free fall accordingly.
One of Apple’s biggest flops was certainly the Newton, a personal digital assistant (PDA) introduced in 1993. Available at a luxury price of $700, the Newton was supposed to “define the digital age” and was “a revolution for your jacket pocket,” said Apple boss John Sculley at the time – and he was way off the mark with these statements. The Newton was quickly scrapped, and the project is said to have cost $100 million.
6. Sony Betamax
New in the 1970s, videocassettes were supposed to bring the cinema experience into living rooms. Sony’s Betamax cassettes competed against Video 2000 from Grundig and Philips and VHS from JVC. Betamax offered the best picture quality and Video 2000 could store up to 16 hours of recordings. Nevertheless, both technologies lost the “format war” against the cheaper VHS cassettes. That the inferior VHS technology prevailed was due in no small part to Sony and Philips refusing to license their formats to the porn industry.
7. Microsoft Windows Phone
Microsoft experienced a fiasco with its Windows Phone cell phone operating system. Microsoft’s answer to Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android did not arrive until late 2010 – two to three years too late. Customers had long since become accustomed to the iPhone and Android phones and left all smartphones with Windows operating systems on the left. In 2013, Microsoft tried to succeed in the smartphone market with the purchase of Nokia, but the ship had sailed. In 2016, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella pulled the emergency brake and largely shut down the smartphone division.
Why are there so many examples of innovation that flopped?
Because there is a lack of customer focus, market research and an innovation strategy.
99 out of 100 product launches fail. There are many reasons for this: competitive pressure, no clearly defined target group, inaccurate market research, and product managers who want to defend their right to exist in the company regardless of losses. The result is products like the Google Glass, Parallel opening or the Segway. Admittedly, these are extreme examples. But these flops are symbolic of oversaturated markets where companies forget to focus on their strengths.
Revolution always comes from the bottom up
Many managers rely on the wrong innovation strategies. They have no concepts and do not know themselves exactly where the journey should go. So, they try, for example, to diversify their existing products horizontally, often without getting their employees on board. This is fatal, because: On the one hand, the knowledge of their employees is wasted in the company. On the other hand, revolutions usually always come from below, from the hungry. If you don’t involve them and set priorities together, you will fail in the market. “Day-to-day business comes first,” is so often said. The only problem is that if management lacks commitment, product managers and employees are powerless.
Of course, for management it’s true: At the end of the day, annual, quarterly and sales targets have to be met. There’s not much room for innovation. Innovations always have a big unknown and are associated with high risk for many managers. An overly conservative innovation strategy is the result – which means: Nothing actually happens. Product managers have to stick to the guidelines from above and develop products that flop.
Conclusion on Examples of Innovation Flops
Bad market research = bad products
The fact that an entire product launch cycle can fail because of faulty management decisions is also due to companies’ lack of market orientation. As a result, many suppliers fail to develop products that meet their customers’ needs. What is the reason for this? Inaccurate market observation and research. Many companies believe they know their customers inside out. They rely on customer information from sales, i.e., information that every market participant also has. This alone is not enough to develop innovative products that stand out from the crowd. If you want to develop good products, you have to get below your target group, watch the people. Flops occur when you spend all day in your house or on the golf course and think you know the world of your customers.
Joining forces in innovation management
Another mistake is insufficient internal cooperation between sales, marketing and product development. Only when these areas cooperate across departments in market segments can companies develop products that offer added value for customers. Once again, management’s innovation strategy is the crucial point for establishing such structures in the company.