As we enter another new year and everyone is shouting about bleeding edge technology and predictions for the future, we're taking a different tack. We're looking back at some weird, wacky and wonderful tech innovations that were perhaps just a little too early to market. In a world obsessed with "what's next", it's indulgent to reflect on what has come before and the precursors to things we now see as shiny and new.
"There is only one thing stronger than all the armies of the world: and that is an idea whose time has come."
- Victor Hugo
Hugo's quote reinforces the importance of time to the success of new ideas and innovations. Even the most genius ideas have fallen short in a world not quite ready for them. And, all too often, others go on to take the credit for breaking new ground, when instead the real kudos should go to their understanding when the time is right to dust off existing concepts and try them anew.
So, here are just a few of our favourites.
Microsoft Office - Clippy
Like Marmite, Clippy (actually originally named Clippit) was either loved or loathed. He (yes, he had a gender) had a short-lived career from just 1997 to 2002 (although he was still available in some instances until 2007). As an industry, Clippy was sadly slated as overly annoying and unintelligent. Yet, look at where we are today with chatbots and virtual assistants at almost every turn. So, where did he go wrong? He was designed primarily for 'first use', with a very rigid script that failed to recognise returning visitors. His search function was basic and, as a result, he was often unable to actually assist on the things that users may have needed him for. What's more, he was also the victim of a male-dominated design process, in which negative focus group results from women were reportedly ignored prior to launch, resulting in (surprise surprise) lots of unhappy end users.
Remember life before Google? No, oh well. Before Google, Ask Jeeves was the friendly butler favourite of many a search engine user. In fact, in the late 90s, it dominated for a brief but brilliant period. Launched in 1997, Ask Jeeves was the first search engine to work with human language and natural question style queries. Now the holy grail of Google (natural language search nirvana), poor old Jeeves perhaps peaked too early in a period where his skills were wasted on trivia like:
- Do blondes really have more fun?
- Is there anybody out there?
- What is the secret to happiness?
- What happened to Tony Soprano?
In saying that, Ask Jeeves lives on, having been rebranded to simply Ask.com in 2006, but despite its ingenuity for the time, it has sadly fallen behind several bigger players in the search industry.
Even Google gets it wrong sometimes. A precursor to the now well-used Apple Wallet and near-field communication (NFC) technology, Google Wallet was originally launched in 2011 as a digital, mobile replacement to the traditional wallet/purse. Just like Apple, it not only provided convenience to the end user but was also to deliver an abundance of customer data back to Google. Unfortunately, PayPal filed a lawsuit against Google shortly after launch for "misappropriation of trade secrets" and "breach of fiduciary duty" after Google hired two of their former employees to develop the tech rather than pursuing a deal that had allegedly been under negotiation with PayPal for many years. Whilst, this failed to stop Google Wallet's further development it was pulled in March 2016 with the company moving its focus instead to Android Pay. Its downfall was largely due to structural failures linked to time and execution, such as the installation of NFC technology into retail establishments. This very pricey failure (estimated at around $300 million), however, lay the groundwork for competitors like Apple who are now regularly lauded as the innovator in cardless payment technology.
"Swipe from the best, then adapt."
- Tom Peters
What can we learn from this?
Firstly, 1997 seems to have been a terrible year to launch new technology. But, on a more serious note, it's clear that timing is critical to whether an idea fails or soars. Timing dictates the structure of things around us - how accepted technologies are by the everyday consumer, how accessible these technologies are, trust, infrastructure and so much more.
William Blake once said; "What is now proved was once only imagined." A statement which, as well as marvelling at the possibilities the future holds, reinforces the need to take learnings from the past. Why rebuild the wheel when we can use those principals to propel new ideas into existence?