the blunders of Silicon valley: biggest mistakes made in the tech world

zune-topI was watching the movie ‘Pirates of Silicon Valley’, which chronicles the early years of Apple and Microsoft (and, by extension, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs) and noted several big blunders that were made during that time (and, indeed, since then, as well.)

Perhaps the biggest blunder of all: The Xerox brass not ‘getting’ what Xerox Parc had created.  Xerox Parc, for those who do not know, created the graphical user interface and perfected the mouse (which was invented by Douglas Englebart at the Augmentation Research Center at Stanford in 1967.) The Parc group presented the GUI based Alto computer, the brass had no idea what it was or what to do with it. It was, eventually, marketed as the Xerox Star, it was a failure for the company as it sold about 25,000 units.

While Xerox failed to capitalize on the GUI, a small company named Digital Research failed to capitalize on IBM and their new personal computer. The story goes something like this: Gary Kildall, the CEO of the company, was out flying when the IBM’ers stopped by. Kildall’s wife greeted tham and told them that Kildall was out but would be back shortly.  She spoke with Kildall who instructed her to proceed with negotiations. When the IBM’ers demanded that she sign a non-disclosure agreement, she refused and they left.  This story has been disputed over the years, but, the bottom line is the DR’s reluctance opened the door for Microsoft to lock up the operating system business on the IBM and its clones.  Even better, Microsoft had sold IBM non-exclusive rights to an operating system that they did not own.

Which, leads to another HUGE blunder…Tim Paterson of Seattle Computer wrote the initial version of MS-DOS. He bought a manual for CP\M and patterned his DOS after that.  When Microsoft promised an operating system to IBM, Paul Allen went to Paterson and offered fifty thousand dollars to buy his DOS.  Paterson accepted. Now, to be fair to him, Seattle Computer was a tiny company and fifty thousand dollars probably seemed like a lot for his unpolished little operating system, so you cannot fault him but so much. Still, in hindsight, this was a pretty big mistake.

Next, we have Apple.  They made mistake after mistake in the early years and a few very recently. Perhaps the biggest mistake that Apple made was not bringing Steve Jobs back sooner than they did. This was a company on the verge of imploding (which, oddly enough, is why they fired Jobs in the first place) when they finally brought him back. However, along the way, they: continued manufacturing the Apple II for far too long; failed to keep up with advancing technology; failed to modernize Mac OS; went through too many CEO’s; had a product line that was too big and too broad. When Jobs returned, he did turn the company around, but made some blunders on his own. Perhaps his biggest mistake was canning the Newton.  By the time Jobs took over, the Newton was beginning to make a mark in the PDA world. It was facing huge competition by the cheaper, smaller and easier to use Palm Pilot and was not part of the Mac product line so, after waffling a bit, Jobs shut it down. He also killed the Mac clone business. Now, some would argue that this was not a blunder, but, I contend it was.  Had the clone market been allowed to continue, Mac OS COULD have become a much more entrenched operating system and Mac hardware might have given the PC world a real run for the money.

Microsoft has made more blunders than I can write about here, so I will only mention the big ones.  Like the Zune.  Here, Microsoft had everything going for it: great hardware, decent software, a really good marketplace and subscription plan. They were able to secure the necessary rights for music and video (and, eventually, a few apps) but what they failed to do-and failed spectacularly: advertise the thing.  The marketing of Zune was abysmal.  Add to that, the initial hardware looked as if it were designed by Soviet era designers of missile launchers.  Then, there was the XBOX 360.  Now, I know it is a best selling console now, but this thing was a turkey in the first few years of its life. Due to a design flaw, the console would over heat and die, giving its users the ‘red ring of death.’ Microsoft made good and replaced the consoles as well as redesign the product, but it never should have happened in the first place.

Perhaps the biggest blunder in recent years was that of Palm.  Palm, the once shining beacon of Silicon Valley, was sold so many times and, in the process, not only lost its way (and lead) it made a series of blunders that should have killed it off years before it finally did implode.  First, they failed to keep the founders of the company, who went and started Handspring and LICENSED the Palm OS from Palm. Then, Palm bought that company for far more than it was worth. Palm perfected the smartphone concept, but failed to capitalize on it, mainly because they did not update the Palm OS quickly enough. Worse, they split the company into two parts: hardware and software.  The software company, PalmOne, then sold itself to a company called Access. While the hardware company maintained rights to the operating system, they had to pay Access to use it.  The last device from Palm to use the operating system was the Centro, a cutesy little smartphone that was too small and too under powered. It initially sold well, but, in the end, just served to hasten the demise of the once great company. Finally, Palm hired a former Apple executive to run the company. They introduced the Palm Pre and webOS, an innovative mobile operating system based on Linux.  The problem was that only Sprint carried the phone at launch. Poor hardware served to help sink the Pre, along with the ultra popular iPhone.  As Palm floundered, it put itself up for sale. Hewlett Packard purchased the company and, after introducing three webOS devices, decided to can the whole thing. And, that was that. 

Which leads to HP’s big blunder…it was fantastic.  The aforementioned acquisition of Palm led HP to announce the TouchPad tablet. The device was nice and powered by webOS. Problem was the price: it was too damn high.  Not a month after it was released, HP dropped its nuclear weapon on the device: they announced that the Palm division was shutting down. No more hardware would be produced, but existing hardware would receive support.  HP had thousands of unsold devices. They blew them out at a hundred bucks each and, naturally, they sold well. For a time, the TouchPad was the number two tablet, behind the iPad.  So, not only did HP tick off TouchPad owners, they ticked off OEM’s and suppliers as well. Companies that made accessories were left with stock that was now worthless. 

There are so many more…IBM’s failure to keep up with the PC world, New Coke, Sony’s PS3 (too expensive, too difficult to code for, billions in losses, etc.) and more.  Perhaps, however, the BEST blunders, in the tech world, anyway, was not from a company, but from the government…the FCC, to be specific.

First up, color television. In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, color was the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Over time, two formats became the clear contenders: RCA’s all electronic color and CBS’s electromechanical format. The RCA format was compatible with the now millions of sets in use.  The CBS format, however, was not.  The CBS format utilized a huge color wheel that was attached to a motor. The motor would synchronize itself with the video via a signal in the video. This meant that the colorcast (as they were called) would not be able to be interpreted by the black and white sets already in use. It also reduced the resolution to 405 lines.  Despite the problems, the FCC adopted the CBS system in 1950. Unfortunately for CBS, there NO sets capable of receiving the broadcasts. CBS went so far as to buy a television manufacturer to produce sets. With the goal of producing the sets in quantity, CBS failed. It became clear that the system would not gain acceptance and, to help them bow out gracefully, the government ordered that the production of the sets be halted. Only 200 sets actually shipped.  The FCC re-evaluated the RCA method and, after a few changes, it was adopted. The government lifted the production ban and, on January 1, 1954, NBC broadcast its first commercial color program, the Tournament of Roses parade.

The next big blunder, again from the FCC, was AM Stereo. In the 1980’s, the FCC approved stereo audio for television and, to help ailing AM radio, allowed AM stations to broadcast in stereo. The problem, however, was that they failed to adopt a standard. There were two competing formats and they were not compatible. Radios with one format could not receive stereo broadcast in the competing format.  The end result: consumer confusion, consumer ignorance (many did not even know about AM stereo) and the continued decline of AM radio. The sad thing was that both formats improved the quality of AM sound a great deal. An apathetic public just did not care enough.  AM Stereo is as alive today as the mechanical television.

So, the next time you make a mistake and begin to beat yourself up, just think about one of these blunders…all of which were costly for those involved. I am sure you will feel better.

Facebook ipo a failure? really? What constitutes a success then?

People are calling the Facebook IPO a failure because it did not triple it’s opening price. Indeed, it retreated.  So what. I’d hardly call it a failure. Yet, people are already touting the end of Facebook.  Well, if that is the case, it has to be the most successful failure in business. Ever.

So, if that is a failure, what other ‘successful failures’ are there?

Let’s take a look.

First, lets look at Nintendo’s Wii.  Pundits wrote this thing off the day it was released. Yet, it went on to sell tens of millions of consoles and games. It still sells well today, but not at the level it did just two years ago.  Even so, it was called a turkey and that it was something a lot of people bought, played once or twice and put in a closet. Yet, those games dominated the charts for months at a time. Even now, it manages to garner high numbers for its games.  Has it lived out it’s life cycle? Yes. It is aging quickly now, but our Wii sees heavy use even today.  Not only is it the second biggest successful failure, it is, in my opinion, the best console ever.  It is the only I have ever seen that got my kid to actually stand up and get engaged in a game and not just sit on his duff.

Next, comes another game console, the Sony Playstation 3.  This turkey lagged behind Microsoft and Nintendo for years. Only recently has it really started to gain any momentum, but this comes after Sony lowered its price, several times and dumbed the thing down. But, it has sold millions. I suspect many of those sales were just for Blu-Ray since it was, at one point, the cheapest blu-ray player.  So, I will call it a successful failure.

Going back a couple of decades, and citing a company that no longer exists, we have the Pontiac Fiero. The Fiero began life as a commuter car. A two seater, it was meant to be a short haul means of transport. That it looked kind of sporty gave it a false image. People started buying them in droves. Dealers could not keep them in stock. Prices went through the roof…and so did the flames. Reports of the car bursting into flames for no apparent reason and reliability issues plagued the car. Pontiac scrapped it after just four years and 370 thousand vehicles produced.

Windows Vista.  What can I say? Vista is one example of why a company needs to stay in the good graces of the media.  Vista ‘failed’ because the tech press – and APPLE – were relentless in criticism against the operating system.  There were a few legit issues early on-like drivers-but they went away.  The biggest problem was with PC makers using components that were not capable enough to handle the operating system and ones in which Microsoft just stamped OK. Like Intel’s abysmal graphics chipset.  That, and the poor reception in the press, doomed the operating system.  Yet, just two years later, when Windows 7 shipped, Microsoft managed fool not only the public but the tech press into thinking Windows 7 was a gigantic leap over Vista. It isn’t. It is Vista 2.0.

There are lots of products and services that started out with a flash, but just kind of fizzled…like Zune, Pets.com, Sega’s Dreamcast or the Palm Pre.  These really were failures. As much as I liked all three of them, Zune, Dreamcast and Pre were failures. Big time failures. Yet, I would not call Facebook or Wii or even PS3 out and out failures. Each was a success.  Facebook will be around forever, but I suspect it will far surpass MySpace or any other such site and will be around for a few more years.  I don’t think I’ll buy stock, though.  No, I’m sure. I won’t buy the stock.

What other ‘successful failures’ can you think of? Leave a note in the comments.

Oh, Like this post if you agree. (See what I did there?)

Digg This

Just because the tech is old, doesn’t mean it is worthless, right?

So, it’s happened again. One more piece of technology I purchased is relegated to the dust bin. My HTC EVO Shift 4G is not only NOT listed on HTC’s current lineup for Sprint, they no longer support it! It is just at a year old (the phone, not my personal phone that is) and will not be getting the Ice Cream Sandwich upgrade to Android.  Worse, Sprint seems to be deprecating the phone as well. But, at least they will give me $68 (US) on the buy back program (compare that to the $18 for my wife’s Blackberry flip phone.)

So, once again, I find myself looking around at the technology that I have.  My Kindle Fire is the most current piece of tech in the house. EVERYTHING else, mine or a family member’s, is either no longer made, been replaced with a newer model or just plain old. BUT…just because something is old does not mean it does not have any useful life left in it.

For example, our original iPad is used everyday. I use it when I am home, my wife uses and my four year old step son uses (he probably uses it more than any of uPandigitals.)  The white 7 inch Pandigital tablet has been rejuvenated now that I got it’s Android update corrected. I found that using it in conjunction with a stylus from a Nintendo DS makes the abysmal touch screen actually work.  I installed the Go EX Launcher and an Ice Cream Sandwich theme to make it look fresh and put a 2gb SD card to store apps.  It is almost like new. Almost.

My old Palm Pre serves as a backup mini-tablet. It is no longer used as a phone, but it still works and the Wi-Fi functionality is better than the HTC.  Facebook and Twitter work fine and I have Boggle, Tetris and a couple of other games as well. Oh, Shrek Racing on the Pre works great and allows us to play two player – Pre and iPad. Works great.  Glad I did not rip it apart like I was going to do.

An old AMD Athlon based (single core, 1.8ghz) PC that was my son’s computer (with Vista shoehorned in) is still chugging along as a backup computer (currently on loan to my sister while I revive her much better computer).  It may be old and have outdated technology, but it got my sis back on the interwebs.

54647704My ZuneHD still works great, it is used everyday as my podcast player. I can also load it up with movies and, along with the dock, use it as a video player.  Throw it in a bag and take it with you on vacation.  No need for a pile of DVD’s.

My original Kindle (the funky wedge shaped one) still works and gets use. When we have no power, it doubles as an internet device since the browser will work on many sites (the ones I would need in such a situation anyway) and it just sips the juice.

That old Zenith CRT television is now the display for a slew of old video games.  An Intellivision, Odyssey II, NES/SNES combo thingy and two Atari Plug and Play consoles in addition to a raft of plug and play games that were popular a couple of years ago. And, since I have a VCR or two AND an old Laserdisc player, this set is still useful. Couple it with the government purchased digital converter I got in 2009, we can still watch local TV on it.  And, at 27 inches, you can see it too.

I have quite a bit more tech that is no longer in the desirable column, but it is mostly unused. Unused because the functionality is reduced to a point where it is useless, broken, rendered useless by a service (PEEK, I’m looking you) or just plain too slow to be useful (like the 1995 era Toshiba Laptop I have. It works great, but lacks an optical drive, the screen is terrible and it is SLOW. It does boot faster than anything in the house, though.  That’s some100_0862thing, right?

I hate throwing things away. Likewise, I hate looking at gear that used to be the hot thing but no longer is and is probably not worth anything.  Like the TWO Peek devices I have. They look great, the industrial design was fantastic and the screen was nice. Peek, however, is no longer around as a service (I canned it long ago anyway) but the devices, supposedly, can be hacked into little Linux handhelds.  Not sure what one would do with a hacked Peek, but it might be fun to play with. One day.

Yes, one day I will play around with some of this stuff. Like the Peek or the ZipIt 2. Yeah, ONE DAY.

Digg This

Zune Hardware: RIP

While Microsoft has yet to officially acknowledge it, it appears that the Zune hardware family is now dead.  Bloomberg is reporting the device is dead and, in fact, a visit to the Zune.Net website seems to confirm this news.  The rotating graphic on the Zune.Net home page no longer features the Zune HD hardware. Instead, it shows the PC, Windows Phone 7 and the Xbox.

This should come as no surprise: Zune hardware has not exactly killed the iPod (any model) nor has it set the world on fire.  It does have a loyal following and the HD received very good reviews. It is a nice device, far and away better than any other similar device on the market.  The Zune Marketplace, however, has begun to catch on, thanks to the Xbox.

Xbox integration has been key to the service’s success. A recent report shows that the video rentals and purchases have outpaced any other service, including iTunes. 

Much of the Zune hardware functionality has been rolled into the Windows Phone 7 family.  Indeed, one look at the user interface and media player features of Windows Phone 7 will show just how much the Zune influenced Windows Phone 7.

While the loss of the player hardware is devastating to the platform, it does not spell the end of the Zune services. Those will live on as well as the hardware features which are now part of Windows Phone 7.  Microsoft did the right thing in killing the hardware. Why continue down that road when they have a superior phone platform? (thought a phoneless phone, like the iPod Touch, probably has some legs.) 

One thing is not clear: what happens to the name?  According to Windows guru, Paul Thurrot, the service will lose the Zune branding and become something else, likely with ‘Xbox’ in the title.  Since Xbox has more recognition than Zune, it is probably a good idea, though it could serve to confuse those who have started to use the service on the Xbox.

I will continue using my Zune HD until it does not work any longer or I get a Zune Phone, or, rather, a Windows Phone 7 phone.  See what I did there?