Tech Talk: Today's innovations came from yesterday's flops

Ahead of its time: In 1982, the Sony Watchman was released as a portable TV on the back of the success of the Sony Walkman.

Ahead of its time: In 1982, the Sony Watchman was released as a portable TV on the back of the success of the Sony Walkman.

In technology and innovation, it can be as much about when as it is about what. Six years ago, I was involved with a charity event and a standard recipe for such an event was for an auctioneer to take the microphone and spend thirty minutes trying to extract money from wallets in the room. For people paying good money to attend an event, it seemed an unnecessary interruption to the night for the sake of fundraising.

I had an idea to use technology instead. So I cobbled together a few basic online auction tools and setup products online and...it was a flop.

With only 45 per cent of the adult population owning a smartphone at the time, not enough people in the audience had smartphones and not enough people were comfortable putting their credit card details online.

I shelved the idea - until a month ago. Six years after my first attempt, I tried it again. This time around it was an unmitigated success. The only difference? Timing.

With over 90 per cent of the adult population now owning a smartphone and online shopping being tried by 96 per cent of the adult population, the timing was right.

It started me thinking about other flops that were based on timing.

There are over 20 per cent of adults who currently own a Tablet and most of those owners would tell you the market segment was started by Apple with the iPad announcement in 2010. The Microsoft Tablet PC was introduced ten years earlier and despite featuring several innovations we now take for granted, the technology was just not quite advanced enough for consumers who want it to work today.

When we think of electric cars, we immediately think of Tesla. The first deliveries of the Tesla Model S started in 2012. We need to go back a few years though to the GM EV1. It was launched in 1996 and was a huge hit with customers who managed to secure one.

Reminiscent of Kodak's decision to patent the digital camera and then shelve production plans for fear of what it would do to film sales, GM was concerned what an electric car would do to the sales of spare parts and officially recalled all EV1 vehicles in 2003 and destroyed them.

Before the release of the iPhone in 2007, Apple had a previous attempt that was a complete flop. The Apple Newton (or MessagePad) was released in 1993 but, in 1998, Steve Jobs killed off the product upon his return to the company. The concept was good but the battery, screen resolution and touch screen were all below expected.

Many of us watch TV shows on our phones without a second thought. In 1982, the Sony Watchman was released as a portable TV on the back of the success of the Sony Walkman. With a 5-centimetre black and white screen and a limited selection of channels and poor reception, it was decades ahead of its time - and a flop!

In 2019 more than 50 million smartwatches will be sold, with the Apple Watch the dominant model. In what seems like a case of déjà vu, Microsoft had two failed attempts at a smartwatch before Apple released a successful model. In 1994, Microsoft co-developed the Timex Datalink and then in 2004 the Microsoft SPOT smartwatch was released. With poor graphics, connectivity and display, the technology could not deliver on the promise.

With all of these examples, a thought leader needed technology to catch up with their vision.

Tell me your best example of technology before its time at ask@techtalk.digital.

  • Mathew Dickerson is the founder of regional tech and communications company Axxis Technology. Contact him at ask@techtalk.digital.