Launching new gadgets is always a risky proposition, even for the biggest names in consumer technology, but 2013 was a particularly disappointing year.
When even a company’s own brass refers to a new product as an unripened tomato, for example, chances are good it’s a flop. Such was the case when David Eun, one of Samsung’s executive vice-presidents, recently tried to defend the Galaxy Gear smartwatch, which reportedly sold fewer than 50,000 units this fall.
“What you want to be sure of is that you don’t pluck the green tomato too early, and you want to make sure that you don’t criticize a small green tomato for not being a big, red ripe tomato,” he told a conference in November.
It was perhaps as good a defense as could be mustered for what is likely to go down as the biggest gadget bust of 2013, a year that was filled with conspicuous flops.
'Consumers don't buy gadgets, they buy experiences. They buy access to ecosystems, content and services they desire, they buy brands that deliver status, they buy social acceptance and recognition.' - Krista Napier, IDC Canada
The Gear was savaged by reviewers in just about every respect – it worked only in conjunction with Samsung’s Galaxy Note 3 phone; it didn’t do much beyond supplying notifications and text messages; it was big and bulky; and its $300 price was deemed high.
It wasn’t a green tomato that needed time to ripen, according to Silicon Valley technology analyst Rob Enderle, who favoured a different analogy: “It was a complete train wreck.”
The wave that never came
The Gear was supposed to be the spearhead of the new wearable-computing wave, which began the year on a tsunami of hype. In 2013, pundits predicted, computing would flow off desktops and laptops, and even smartphones and tablets, to literally surround us with wearable high-tech gadgets.
In 2013, there was a relative dearth of big tech hits, as well as a sales slowdown – or “maturing” – in several established markets, including smartphones and tablets. Instead, the year saw a large number of lacklustre product launches, both in wearables and in other categories.
The record-breaking gadget adoption rates of the past three years have been replaced by moderate growth or slight declines in most product categories, including Apple’s hugely successful iPhones and iPads, according to Toronto-based consultancy Solutions Research Group. Demand is soft in everything from cameras, e-readers and GPS units to game consoles and televisions.
Price isn’t always the determining factor, says Krista Napier, manager for mobile and consumer research at IDC Canada, since premium devices from the likes of Apple and Samsung have sold well.
Tech flops can often be attributed to three factors, according to SRG president Kaan Yigit. A new technology can be too far ahead of the curve, where consumers simply aren’t ready for it.
It can be behind an alternative offered by competitors, missing its best window of opportunity. Or its timing may be right, but the execution isn’t.
The trouble with 'corporate ego'
New BlackBerry devices and Microsoft’s Surface tablets, both of which sold poorly this year, are excellent examples of the second two factors.
“Many times I think tech companies see the train wreck coming, but can't help themselves and still put out the product because of corporate ego,” Yigit says. “As well, it's too late to pull the plug by the time it's obvious that they may have a flop on their hands.”
Products can fail because they’re too focused on single functions or because they don’t support a holistic offering of related apps or digital content, which is incredibly important these days in an environment where everything is connected.
“Consumers don't buy gadgets, they buy experiences. They buy access to ecosystems, content and services they desire, they buy brands that deliver status, they buy social acceptance and recognition,” says Napier.
“If a company develops a device with all of this in mind from the start, I think there is less chance it will flop in the first place.”