Products: success and failure

We’re surrounded by products, day in and day out. The world is full of things to buy – not all of which are books. Personally, I’m a sucker for high-end tech. Some people buy designer jeans or expensive cars; I wear army surplus combats, drive a car that’s so small and fuel-efficient that I don’t have to pay road tax, and spend my hard-earned cash on personal tech with specs higher than I will ever need.

I’m not an IT professional – or even a particularly skilled amateur – but I love finding a new bit of tech that makes my life easier or more fun. Some women buy new clothes; I buy new apps.

Product Failures

So I find it interesting to look at what products succeed, and which ones fail. This article describes four products that failed:

  • The Ford Edsel – the only other time I’ve heard of this is in one of the Herbie films where an Edsel gets cut up and made into sculpture. A classic example of trying to be all things to all men and ending up not pleasing anybody. Plus, if you add all those knobs and whistles, they’d better work. Plus, not look weird.
  • The Microsoft Zune – Microsoft’s answer to the iPod, which I vaguely remember. Failed because it didn’t do anything new, or better than the iPod, and additionally had the square, clunky Microsoft design aesthetic. Might appeal to today’s hipsters, but back in the day, it was just uncool.
  • McDonald’s Arch Deluxe – ‘grown-up’ burger. The thing is, you don’t go to Macky-D’s for grown-up culture. You go for food that is fast and cheap.
  • The Google Glass. Apparently, released onto the market (and to journalists) before it was an entirely finished product. Prototypes are often less-than-stunning – and that was the Google Glass.

The last is the most interesting for me. It reminded me a lot of this article about care robots in Japan – and how Japan’s interest in robotics in the care industry has met with an unenthusiastic response from prospective users. At least in 2011, Japanese people wanted to be cared for by human beings, not robots – no matter how good the robot was.

Part of the failure of the Google Glass seemed to be an emotional adverse reaction from potential customers – just as elderly people in Japan didn’t want a humanoid robot caring for them (although non-humanoid robotic tools appear to be less of a problem), people found the Google Glass creepy, scary, and threatening – even to the level of assaulting the wearer, or ejecting him from shops simply for wearing a set. I wonder how much of this has a parallel with the Western fear of Muslim women wearing the face-covering niqab – culturally, we place great importance on being able to see people’s faces. We’re used to spectacles – since they’ve been around for about 750 years – but any other face-covering is weird and scary.

Another part of the failure of the Google Glass, I think, is that it was a cool bit of tech that did a job that very few people needed done. While having instant access to email and weather reports sounds cool – it’s actually not what most people either need or want. For the majority of the population, having your mail on your phone is quite enough. Apparently, Google Glass hasn’t gone away – but I predict that when it returns, it will be directed towards the sector of the population that really does have a need for it: e.g. police and security personnel, surgeons, on-location reporters. It seems unlikely that, culturally, society at large will be willing to accept Google Glass as personal tech for some time to come.

Apple: Product Success

Our household is a Mac household: Macs, iPads, iPhones, Apple Watches. My husband and I both like the Apple ecosystem – it’s reliable, efficient, and viruses are less of a problem (though my husband’s Mac still managed to catch one).

But one thing I notice about Apple is that they are very careful about what new products and features they introduce:

  • iPod/iPhone: kicked off serious changes to the music industry. Then – with the introduction of the app store – the rise of customisation of personal tech by enabling the consumer to buy little tiny programs that did a limited set of things, rather than a one-size-fits all big-program approach.
  • NFC technology: much whining about how Apple was falling behind because Android phones had NFC before the iPhone – but when Apple put NFC into the iPhone, it was coupled with the launch of Apple Pay, which revolutionised the way we pay for things. Either that, or they timed their market entry perfectly to catch a significant uptick in contactless technology adoption.
  • Apple Watch: latecomer to the smartwatch market, but I see Apple’s market share is now about half of the smartwatch market.

And this summer, we’re hearing much sneering about how Apple is missing a trick on the home automation market, with Google Home and Amazon Echo busily carving up the market between them. Personally, I think we’ll see – as predicted – the Apple entrant into the market next month, and I’ll be surprised if it isn’t something special. Apple’s strategy seems to be to wait until the technology available enables the manufacture of a product really worth having, rather than just a tech toy, before they enter that market themselves. More cynically, one might say that they wait for other people to make the mistakes, then swoop in with a beautiful, finished product that doesn’t have any embarrassing gaffes attached to it.

The Apple product philosophy seems to be, “Forget what’s cool, or what we can do – what can we make that is useful?” Then, of course, they make the useful product cool.

Back to Books

And, to relate this back to books and publishing…

Firstly, many of the same rules apply to books as to other products:

  • Don’t try to be all things to all men: figure out who your target demographic is, and write the book they want to read. Even if the target demographic is people exactly like the author, the market might be small, but they’ll be really happy. The more different people you try to please, the less chance you’ll please anybody.
  • Steer away from just mashing together as many genre conventions as you can, in the hope that this will increase popularity. It won’t: it’s more likely to look like parody. Or just silly.
  • If you’re going to offer something similar to what is already out there, you’ll have your best success if you add something new and interesting, something that is uniquely you. Otherwise, people will just stick with the market leaders, or at best you’ll have to fight everyone else for your share of the pie.
  • Know what people want from your kind of book. And give them that thing. You might give them other things as well, but you need to give them what they came for. People read romances for the happily-ever-after; they don’t read it for the hero and heroine to die tragically in the last chapter.

And when it comes to the book, the item itself? People want to read. E-books have taken off because they give people what they want – the author’s words – in a format that is convenient and fits into today’s busy lifestyles. Likewise, audiobooks are on the rise because they’re downloadable now, and they enable people to ‘read’ while they’re doing activities that otherwise make reading dangerous (like driving, or ironing).

Will electronic books ever include ‘expanded content’ like video, or background tracks? Well, maybe. But I wonder if those things come under the heading of ‘cool but ultimately useless’ because even though they’re possible (and people are already doing it) they’re just not what people come to (fiction) books for. I expect sound and video will become very much a part of textbooks, where they can be truly useful – but fiction is a different landscape, and like Google Glass as personal tech, I don’t think they’re what readers really want.

Of course… I might be wrong!

What do you think?

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