Let's face it: Most new tech products don't make it on the market. For every iPhone there are more than a dozen smartphone flops, and for every hit app there are thousands that fall into complete obscurity. Some things in tech, however, fail so spectacularly that they leave a dent on the Internet as they crash through the floor. These notable failures should be remembered, both as a source of amusement and as a warning to tech companies not to try this sort of funny business again.
Last week, I highlighted the five most important tech breakthroughs of the past five years. This week, we'll do exactly the opposite, casting a deservedly harsh light on some of the worst flameouts in Silicon Valley over the same time period. In several cases, the failures are spread out across multiple products, which means there's no one launch date -- but that doesn't make the flop any less spectacular.
5. Apple Maps takes a detour into Failistan
Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) hyped its Maps app with typical Apple fanfare, but the public's reaction was decidedly less accepting. I think my colleague Morgan Housel summed up this reaction pretty well in a tweet last fall:
BREAKING: APPLE MAPS SAYS HURRICANE SANDY TO HIT CALIFORNIA BY MIDNIGHT-- Morgan Housel (@TMFHousel) October 28, 2012
The product is glitchy in a way that only a rushed-to-market alternative to the most comprehensive mapping effort ever made (that's Google's (NASDAQ:GOOGL) mapping alternative, if you were wondering) can be. A small group of Aussies nearly died when Apple Maps sent them on a detour into a remote desert, and that's just one of the many directional and visual failures its users found within weeks of launch. Google's triumphant mapping return to iOS saw its Maps app become the most downloaded after Apple basically threw in the towel. Apple wound up firing the exec in charge of its mapping service. The following image is apparently a real screenshot from Maps. Hope you've got four-wheel drive.
4. Google is socially awkward
Wave. Buzz. Plus. Google's history of social-media flops actually stretches back beyond these three stinkers, but they're the ones that were launched in the past five years. Wave was Google's effort to build a more robust instant messaging platform, with all sorts of multimedia capabilities. It was shut down a year after its 2009 launch. Buzz, which was an attempt to merge social media with Gmail, was another fast flameout, opening in 2010 and closing in 2011.
Calling Google+ a failure is a bit more controversial. Earlier this year, the company reported 359 million active users. Heck, I've got a Google+ account, even though I barely use it. And maybe that's part of the problem. Only 135 million Plus accounts were actively engaging with the social network, which is far behind Facebook's (NASDAQ:FB) active user base of nearly three-quarters of a billion people.
Many people sign up for Google+ simply because it's tied up with Google's other services, like Gmail, YouTube, and (most importantly) the Android platform, and then they largely forget about it. The average Facebook user spent nearly seven hours on the site per month in 2012. The average Google+ user was only on the site for three minutes. Google+ might succeed over the long run if it becomes the de facto social layer on Glass-style wearable interfaces, but as of now, it's hard to call the service anything other than a virtual ghost town with millions of ghosts.
3. Facebook can't get anything right after going public
Remember when Facebook was the hottest IPO of the new millennium? Feels like so long ago, doesn't it? It seems like the social leader can do no right since its IPO went so, so wrong.
Graph Search, the company's first major post-IPO product launch, was hyped to the moon early this year as an alternative to the existing search options. If you survey your friends -- the majority of whom probably have a Facebook account -- you're not likely to find a single person who's actually used Graph Search. The only thing it seems good at finding has been criticism.
Then there was Home, the social-OS overlay of Android that proved to be so unwanted that the only true "Facebook phone" went from launch to a $0.99 price point to removal from the market in about two months. Barely a million people have downloaded the app, which is widely panned by downloaders on the Google Play store. Most recently, Facebook launched Instagram Video, a me-too short-form video function that's been widely panned as a Vine copycat that's just a few seconds too long.
Even the companies closely associated with Facebook have flopped since the social network's IPO last year. Zynga (NASDAQ:ZNGA) has declined from an all-time high of 311 monthly active users in the quarter following Facebook's IPO to 253 million active users, and daily active users actually peaked at 72 million in the quarter of the IPO and have now fallen by nearly 30%. The company recently had to lay off hundreds of employees as it faces the fact that clicking on cows just ain't what it used to be.
2. 3-D TV was a product nobody really wanted
Can a product (first launched in 2010) that's sold more than 40 million units in a year be a failure? Well, yes, if no one uses the product for its unique purpose. People hate wearing glasses, and for many people, 3-D technology simply gives them a headache, or worse -- 3-D TVs come with warning labels not to let young children watch. The purported benefits of 3-D video gaming have also failed to materialize, as adding a 3-D layer to your favorite action shooter tends to make it less clear and precise. Even Disney pulled out of supporting the format on its ESPN network. If sports fans don't want to watch a LeBron James dunk in stereo-vision, what hope does the technology have to win over the rest of us?
1. Next-gen consoles crash and burn
The Nintendo Wii U was already an unmitigated failure before the unmitigated failure that was the Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) Xbox One launch event. Only 3 million of the new consoles had been sold as of last month. Its monthly sales are running well below those of both the Xbox 360 and Sony's PlayStation 3, even though both of those are more than five years old.
And where do we start with the Xbox One? Microsoft's now getting dinged by its "Xbox 180," as the company was forced to walk back a number of hated policies. Gone is the always-on Internet connection. Discs can be reused. Regional restrictions have been lifted. Still, this backtracking doesn't seem to have soothed the rabid outrage that poured forth against Microsoft after its launch event, which spent so little time talking about, you know, playing games that it's become just another running joke in the clown show that is the Xbox One.
Don't expect the PS4 to be the savior of consoles, either. There's nothing revolutionary in Sony's entrant, and where the prior generation of consoles only had to be better than their predecessors, today's consoles compete with cloud-based gaming (in the form of Valve's Steam service and others), mobile gaming, and a renewed surge of smaller console makers like Ouya that prefer to build low-cost hardware to run the Android OS. Gaming is thriving on more platforms and in more diverse forms than it has in decades. Game consoles? Not so much.
Do you agree with the selection of these flops? Got any others you'd like to add? Let the world know with a comment.
Fool contributor Alex Planes holds no financial position in any company mentioned here. Add him on Google+ or follow him on Twitter, @TMFBiggles, for more insight into markets, history, and technology.
The Motley Fool recommends Apple, Facebook, Google, Nintendo, and Walt Disney and owns shares of Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.