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They Did What?: 

The tech flops Google, Microsoft and Apple hope you’ll forget

Not every idea can be a winner. While it’s tempting to believe that everything the likes of Google and Apple touches turns to gold, even the most successful companies have missteps. Here we celebrate nine of them…

Tech Flop #1: The Nintendo Virtual Boy

(Image: Wikimedia)

22 games. If you played one per hour, you’d be done before the first day was up. (Image: Wikimedia)

You can’t have a list of tech flops without considering the noble Virtual Boy – Nintendo’s first attempt at 3D graphics, nearly two decades before the 3DS would make portable 3D genuinely accessible.

Yes, “portable”. Hard to believe from the picture above, but that’s how the Virtual Boy was marketed. Not just that, but it displayed all games in a strange red-scale style, very much like your console was possessed by dark forces at all times. Worse still, it gave users horrendous headaches. Maybe it was possessed after all.

What it wasn’t possessed by was good games. Only 22 were ever released – and just 14 of those in the United States – before it was quietly discontinued a year after release, selling 770,000 units at $180 a pop.

Tech Flop #2: Google Buzz

(Image: Fortune)

We couldn’t even remember what the logo looked like. Like a remixed Chrome, it turns out. (Image: Fortune)

While Google has managed to branch out comfortably beyond just being the King of Search (it’s now, if not King, then at least high-ranking royalty in the field of mapping, smartphones, email, cloud storage and online video), it didn’t make its profitable tech-omelette without breaking a few tech-eggs. If you’ll excuse the confused metaphor.

We were torn between Google Wave and Google Buzz for this one. In the end we picked Buzz, purely because Wave created its own big, uh, waves in tech circles to begin with, before failing the mass-adoption test. Buzz, on the other hand, excited nobody. A kind of Google Apps integrated answer to Twitter that nobody asked for, it was discontinued after a year and a half of overwhelming disinterest. Or underwhelming interest. Either way, it’s dead, and nobody asks why.

Tech Flop #3: Microsoft SPOT

The grandfather of the modern smartwatch. Only without the smarts. Or the looks. Tells the time though! (Image: Smart Watch News)

The grandfather of the modern smartwatch. Only without the smarts. Or the looks. Tells the time though! (Image: Smart Watch News)

We’ve covered the Microsoft SPOT before. It was a smartwatch before smartphones were the supercomputers in everyones’ pocket. It was also from the days before mobile data was fast and reliable, so it used pretty patchy FM radio signals to get its data.

Not only that, but SPOT watches were bulky, none too stylish, and with poor battery life. That doesn’t sound like any other wearable tech we know, does it?

Tech Flop #4: Nokia N-Gage

The Nokia N-Gage: endorsed by 100% of blue hedgehogs. (Image: Amazon)

The Nokia N-Gage: endorsed by 100% of blue hedgehogs in 2003. (Image: Amazon)

Okay, in recent years, Nokia’s star has fallen considerably, but back in 2003 it was a company that rarely put a foot wrong. Until they stumbled on to the idea that consumers wanted to play games on a hybrid mobile/console.

Nothing inherently wrong with the idea, as the massive growth of gaming apps shows, but Nokia got just about every design and commercial decision wrong: from the pricing (phone: $299, games: $34.99) to the fact you needed to remove the battery to change cartridge. On top of that, if you never played on one, imagine using those buttons to control a game. Yeah, it was as bad as you think. It didn’t work brilliantly as a phone either: a jack of no trades and master of none.

Some of these design flaws were fixed in the N-Gage QD, but it didn’t stop Nokia putting the device out of its misery in the west from 2005.

Tech Flop #5: Sony Xperia Play

A better gaming/phone hybrid. But not without its problems. (Image: Wikipedia)

A better gaming/phone hybrid. But not without its problems. (Image: Wikipedia)

The idea of a hybrid phone/games console lay dorment for a while (ignoring the Gizmondo, which had a fascinatingly weird history, but wasn’t made by a tech giant so doesn’t qualify for this list), but was revived by Sony four years ago to take advantage of the burgeoning Android gaming market.

It had a handful of problems that have stopped it seeing a successor to date: firstly, the price. Retailing at $449.99, it was more expensive than the Nintendo 3DS ($249) and the upcoming PlayStation Vita ($299). True, it was a phone as well, but phones age faster than consoles, and the specs weren’t quite as cutting edge as you’d hope. On top of that, the control pad section made the phone quite a bit chunkier than the more fashionable smartphones on the market.

Finally, of course, smartphone games aren’t really designed for D-pads and face buttons. So adding the additional controls – which only a few developers did – didn’t really add anything. Technically it was never discontinued, but a four year old Android smartphone is unlikely to be in many gamers’ pockets nowadays, we’d venture.

Tech Flop 6: Amazon Fire Phone

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The Amazon Fire phone has five cameras on the front. Five.

It’s only nine months old, and you can still buy one if you want, but in tech circles the Fire Phone – at least its first iteration – is dead in the water. Its Amazon-flavored version of Android is a turn-off to many, most notably because it lacks the Google Play store. What it offered in terms of innovation got mixed response: it has five cameras on the front of the phone, designed to allow you to peek behind things. Most viewed it as a gimmick. Its been highly discounted, and cost a lot in terms of R&D.

Although it reviewed moderately well, new players in the highly crowded phone market have to offer something truly different or absolutely outstanding. The Fire Phone – strange head-tracking front cameras aside – offered neither, and was quite pushy about selling more stuff from Amazon. At least Siri doesn’t peer-pressure you into buying an iMac.

Tech Flop 7: Oakley Thump Sunglasses

Oh, just look at them. (Image: Laptop Mag)

Oh, just look at them. (Image: Laptop Mag)

Just eight years ago, you could pay money for these monstrosities. How much money? $495 to you sir.

Why are you walking away?

Are you getting your wallet?

It’s okay, we’ll wait here.

Oh, you’re not coming back. We don’t blame you – the Oakley Thump sunglasses were the answer to a problem that literally nobody has ever had: “I can’t listen to music and wear gaudy eye-wear at the same time.” These make Google Glass look fashionable, and that’s a pretty stunning achievement.

Not only that, but for your $495 (four hundred and ninety-five dollars) you only got 256mb of flash storage in your mp3 player. That would have been puny five years earlier.

Tech Flop 8: BlackBerry Storm

(Image: cellphones.ca)

The first keyboardless BlackBerry failed to win any popularity contests. (Image: cellphones.ca)

You may think that BlackBerry is a company that’s had more misses than hits, and there’s some truth in that especially recently, but the BlackBerry Storm was the first big misstep in 2008.

Recognizing the success of the iPhone, but seeing that some people didn’t trust a touchscreen phone for long-form typing, the Storm was a weird halfway house: it didn’t have a physical keyboard, but the screen would click when you pressed it. You needed to press hard to do anything other than highlight the letter you wanted. If you held the phone in portrait mode, the keys would represent two letters, letting the software intelligently ‘guess’ which letter you wanted. It wasn’t always that smart.

What could be more fundamental than getting the keyboard wrong on a BlackBerry? How about no Wi-Fi? Yep, astonishingly the BlackBerry Storm didn’t support Wi-Fi. In 2008. Bizarrely, BlackBerry’s business phones like the 8820 and Bold 9000 would support Wi-Fi from the get-go, but RIM didn’t foresee consumers demanding it in the same way. They probably felt the same way about chairs or water.

If that wasn’t enough, Android launched the same year. Suffice it to say, Google’s mobile O/S coped a bit better…

Tech Flop 9: Motorola Rokr E1

It's an iPhone... but not as we know it.

It’s an iPhone… but not as we know it.

The year is 2005, and you’d really like to combine your iPod and phone into one handy, dandy product. Step forward Apple and Motorola, who joined forces to create this iTunes powered handset. “Great,” 2005-you says, before reaching to dispose of the iPod.

Not so fast. Although the Rokr E1 supported an SD card of up to 1gb in size, the firmware only allowed 100 songs to be loaded at a time. It had no wireless transfer of songs, and it didn’t support Hi-Speed USB. It was slow and cumbersome.

Unsurprisingly, Apple didn’t come back for the E2, instead going on to sell the iPod Nano before returning to the phone/mp3 player hybrid with a little something called the iPhone. It’ll never catch on, we bet some journalists said at the time…

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