As the days progress at fast pace, we become more and more immersed in 2015. Before it is too late, it can be useful to look back at what went wrong in the previous year, to learn what were the errors that can be prevented for the future. The field studied is innovation and technology. Technology can help us in all kinds of ways, and there has been lots of technological innovations during 2014 that people benefitted from. The ones that are often less discussed are those that might be considered failures.
Quite interestingly, failure is an established word in the contemporary vocabulary, particularly in the world of entrepreneurship and innovation. The angle through which we interpret “failure” can differ though. Thomas Edison famous quote “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10000 ways that won’t work” has inspired generations of inventors and entrepreneurs to not give up. But now, others start to ponder if the emphasis on failure is a bit overrated. As writer and entrepreneur Sean Shaw mentions in his recent book “Smartcuts” if one doesn’t learn from our failures, one can be caught in a vicious circle where persistence becomes stubbornness.
Amongst many others, Antonio Regalado (2014), reporting for MIT Technology Review, set out to address this problem, reviewing some of the technologies that have “flopped, fizzled and flamed out”, as Regalado puts it. Understanding this is not only to point fingers and laugh and where things went wrong. It also has the benefit of understanding innovation and how to improve at it. Regalado defines success with technology innovation as follows:
“Success means a technology solves a problem, whether it’s installed on a billion smartphones or used by a few scientists carrying out specialised work.”
What could then be considered as some of the failures of 2014:
1. Google Glass – Google Glass was initially introduced in 2012. As Regalado explains the concept involved ccomputerised glasses that allowed the user to access maps and emails and take videos and pictures of what they are looking at. The cost of a pair of Google glasses was $1,500. Unfortunately the project was not a success. In fact, as many developers stopped working on apps for the product. It was found to be not particularly useful, and also users reported that those around them felt quite disturbed by people wearing Google Glass.
2. EEG Exoskeleton – $15 million was awarded to Miguel Nicolelis, a professor at Duke University in the USA to build and deploy an exoskeleton based on robotics that would allow the wearer to control it by their mind. Unfortunately the plan was too grand. The problem lay in the fact that brain signals needed to be captured by an EEG cap, but those signals are not good enough to drive an exoskeleton. The goal of having a paralysed person get out of a wheelchair and go and kick a football at the opening of the Brazilian World Cup was not met. As Regalado reports, disappointingly the ball was rolled down a ramp and a paralysed person being steadied by people could be seen instead.
3. Heartbleed – An issue that is important to all of us is security. The former year, the Internet faced a major problem concerning a bug in a Internet software that is used by 81% of websites. The bug, entitled the Heartbleed bug corresponds to a serious vulnerability in the popular OpenSSL cryptographic software library. It affected the Internet routers that websites use to protect customers’ personal information. Someone took advantage of the lapse in the system to in steal 4.5 million records from one of the country’s largest hospital networks.
4. iCloud – Apple’s iCloud service had to face a major scandal when private photos stored in iCloud were leaked online for the whole world to see nude celebrity photos. Apple defended itself mentioning that iCloud had been subject to a phishing attack. The event happened in an awakward moment for Apple, when they were about to introduce unlimited photo storage in iCloud.
5. Bitcoin – Bitcoin was supposed to be flying by 2014. However, it was not to be, and the value of the currency (a bitcoin) has dropped 62% since the start of 2014. It is also reported to not be used for any more cash than it was one year ago (Regalado, 2014). The idea seems good, but it really has not taken off, and it has been further hampered by the fact that its first app was an easy way to purchase drugs online. It can certainly be said that Bitcoin has not been a success thus far.
6. STAP Cells – A team from Japan and Harvard University claimed that it was possible to transform any cell into a stem cell by bathing it in acid. Unfortunately it all turned out to be a big lie. When other laboratories tried to repeat the experiment it quickly became apparent that the researcher that worked on the project had made up the results. In August 2014, the researcher’s boss committed suicide, as Regalado explains.
7. Microsoft’s Band – Microsoft released a fitness tracking gadget that supposedly should be the finest fitness gadget of the year, even though it was released very quietly The product though was not very welcomed by the critics that pointed out its many flaws : “It has mediocre battery life; it’s not swim-friendly; Bluetooth syncing and pairing can be buggy; the Microsoft Health app isn’t that easy to use”.
8. Sapphire iPhone Screens – in September 2014 the iPhone 6 was launched onto the market, but it had been originally hoped that these phones would include screens made of sapphire, which would have greater endurance. Unfortunately the development plan, costing $1 billion fell down at the point when a factory had been developed and the underlying technology put in place to create such screens. The problem was that Apple hired the wrong company to make the sapphire. Regalado explains how it hired GT Advanced Technologies, but the company had no experience in doing what was needed and could not meet the timeframes demanded.
9. Jelly – Biz Stone is the co-founder of Twitter and in 2012 he launched another company: Jelly. Jelly is a social, mobile crowd sourced Q&A app. It is a mobile application that uses photos, interactive maps, location, and most importantly, people to deliver answers to queries. Unfortunately the app didn’t catch up. The project has evolved to something else.
10. Aereo’s Tiny Antennas – a company called Aereo had an idea to develop small antenna that would allow people to watch TV on their phones and other devices by catching the signals. It was a good idea, but the major TV broadcasters in the US quickly challenged this in court, stating that Aereo should pay for retransmission rights, and the big companies won (Regalado, 2014). The company has since gone bankrupt.
11. Amazon Fire Phone – Amazon launched a phone this year but it ended up being a flop and according to Business Insider Amazon took a 170 million USD charge on unsold phones. The phone is not original at all original, and it costs the same as an iPhone, without its benefits. Besides that its unique features: 3D display and a system to scan products in stores didn’t triggered the interest of the public. Amazon says it will continue to invest and develop the product.
12. Sillicon Valey is White and Male – A survey about Sillicon Valey’s major companies (Google, Twitter, Facebook) concluded what we all would expect unfortunately: Their employes are mostly white and male. Female, black and hispanic workers are a small minority of the working force. The situation worsens when one considers top leadership roles. All companies came up with excuses, some justified, others not so much, as blaming the system, but what is needed is some measures to solve the situation.
What helpful lessons can be learned from this list of “failed” projects? Well, maybe that is up to each other to discover. One, in my opinion resides in raised expectations, brought by marketing campaigns publicizing products and services maybe a bit ahead of time, subjecting them prematurely to sharp criticism. It would be interesting to review this list again in one year, and investigate what has happened to these technologies.
Maria Fonseca is the Editor and Infographic Artist for IntelligentHQ. She is also a thought leader writing about social innovation, sharing economy, social business, and the commons. Aside her work for IntelligentHQ, Maria Fonseca is a visual artist and filmmaker that has exhibited widely in international events such as Manifesta 5, Sao Paulo Biennial, Photo Espana, Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Joshibi University and many others. She concluded her PhD on essayistic filmmaking , taken at University of Westminster in London and is preparing her post doc that will explore the links between creativity and the sharing economy.