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Bombs ahoy!

How different life would have been if only these gadgets had not bombed!

india Updated: Sep 25, 2010 19:50 IST
Rajiv Makhni

There’s a quote from Arthur C Clarke that most technology keynote speakers use when they are about to give their state of the art sermon: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” It’s a great quote, one that sets the stage for whatever is coming up next as mysterious, makes expectations soar sky high and also makes technology seem enchanting.



Unfortunately, it also has one more unintentional side effect. It usually jinxes great technology to end up as a ticking Tech Bomb!



In last week’s column, I had segregated products as good and those that were great but were destined to fail. Ninety per cent of my column was dedicated to the good stuff and just a tail note was for those that seemed great but some inherent flaw ensured that they would be dead on arrival. And it’s this tail note that got all the response. Most people were intrigued by this concept. Wouldn’t companies be smart enough to realise that before they released a product? Wasn’t it easy to see a large blunder looming and take corrective action? The answer is no. And all of history is literally littered with these massive Tech Bombs.



Iridium


The Idea – The first ever worldwide wireless phone service. It was a stunning idea in every way possible. Sixty six satellites deployed across the world, a mesh network to connect to and the biggest names and money backing it. In less than two years, it became one of the most spectacular bankruptcies of all times.



The Flaws – Phones that were too big and heavy, technology that wasn’t ready for use and most importantly, costs that were so exorbitant that between the phone and usage, you could be US $5000 out of pocket even before closing your first transcontinental deal.



If Only – They had priced it right and gone easy on the hype, we may well have all been using world satellite phones and never have been subjected to the butchering of international roaming charges on our mobiles.



Speech Recognition


The Idea – Was a winner from the word go. We communicate by talking, we speak six times faster than we can type, we are more creative when we vocalise an idea. Thus build a system that could recognise our speech and turn into text on a computer or device. Ninety nine per cent recognition accuracy was achieved. And here we are still typing on keyboards ten years down.



The Flaws – One per cent of goof ups still leads to a lot of correction, accents were a big problem, you needed a good microphone, training the system was a huge pain, most of us didn’t work in a soundproof room. Thus ambient sound and privacy were major issues.



If Only – This had worked flawlessly! We would all be dictating mails, we could truly express ourselves in our text messages and most importantly, I could be speaking my columns rather than typing them.



HD-DVD


The Idea – The next generation DVD for High Definition media and content. The DVD was the most successful media of all times – this was the next step up. It could carry more information, was easy to manufacture and had huge backing by all. True winner to take consumers into the world of HD. By 2008, it had lost over two billion dollars and was abandoned forever.



The Flaw – It got into an unnecessary format war with BluRay, even though HD DVD was by far the leader. A series of blunders including poor negotiation with studios and retailers and some bad HD DVD players sounded the death knell for this plastic platter.



If Only – It had survived, not much would have happened. The time for physical media is more or less over. Even now the eventual winner, BluRay, is not a stellar success and may not even exist in a few years from now.



There are many more. Virtual Reality (wearing a helmet at all times!!), DVD-Audio, wearable tech clothing (ugly styling, great problem when washing), satellite radio like WorldSpace, Betamax, Nokia N-Gage, Rear Projection TV, the UMPC and Palm’s entire last three years (maybe HP can still pull them from a suicidal downward spiral), it’s a graveyard of good products buried six feet under flaws and errors.



The silver lining within all this comes from one more phrase: ‘To rise from the ashes’. Sometimes, a great technology will get a second lease of life. Where the flaws are ironed out and the potential is realised. Two of the other greatest Tech Bombs in technology were also ‘The Tablet’ (Apple’s Newton, HP, many from Microsoft) and the ‘Ebook Reader’ (various companies in the last ten years). It took some clear-headed thinking by the right companies to reinvent the whole category, to make it a stellar success – to make that one device indistinguishable from magic.



Rajiv Makhni is managing editor, Technology, NDTV and the anchor of Gadget Guru, Cell Guru and Newsnet 3.0. Follow Rajiv on Twitter at twitter.com/RajivMakhni.