Epic fails don't just happen by accident
I’ve been in this industry long enough to remember some spectacular failures. For example, does anyone remember Philips’ CD-I (Interactive CD-ROM), which seemed kind of slow and klunky even upon its introduction? Or Commodore's CD-TV, an underpowered, CD-ROM-based system that suffered from meager software support and tepid marketing? Consumers didn’t exactly take to something that was clearly inferior in pretty much every way to personal computers.
Or what about DCC (Digital Compact Cassette) from Philips? DCC was intended to replace the cassette with a digital medium, yet failed with consumers. Why? Well, few people had been saying “gee, I'd like to buy my CD collection all over again in a new, untested format that works only with some $600 machine and uses a data compression scheme that colors the sound.” At the time, a $200 cassette deck with Dolby S sounded just fine—and people also remembered the VHS vs. Beta videocassette format wars, which kind of poisoned the format well. What’s more, the companies pushing these formats forgot about retailers, who weren’t thrilled about carrying two new formats for which there was no demand. (And hopefully, you never met the CX noise reduction system for LPs, the Elcaset, or RCA’s vision of quad.)
It’s hard to say what will be the epic fails of the future, although the Microsoft Watch certainly didn’t take the world by storm. FireWire 1600 and 3200 were approved in 2008, but try finding either one. And outside of consumer electronics, we have epic fails like Cosmopolitan magazine yoghurt, Colgate kitchen entrees, and Bic underwear (I did not make any of those up).
What do all these have in common? Nobody asked us.
Manufacturers need to produce items because people want them, not just because they think or hope people might want them. Sure, if you're a company like Sony and you're sitting on Columbia Records' back catalog, the idea of replacing everyone's cassettes with a new medium is tempting—but not realistic. Look at DCC's main selling point: that it could record digital cassettes but also play back older, analog cassettes. However, why think that consumers would throw away their analog decks just because they bought a DCC? And if they didn't have a bunch of analog cassettes and a suitable deck sitting around, then the ability to play analog cassettes has no value anyway.
In the future, companies would do well to talk not only to their marketing departments, but to real consumers—not arbitrary "focus groups"—to find out what people truly want. But also this takes a bit of humility, and Windows 7 is a great example of what can happen when a company starts talking to real people. After the Vista debacle, Microsoft took the criticisms to heart and rather than insisting "we know what's right for you," they swallowed some pride, admitted they'd made an operating system that needed a serious overhaul, and put their efforts into giving people what they wanted—and Windows 7 was a huge hit. Draw your own conclusions.
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