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Analysis

Ten tech firms that blew it

Posted on 17 Jun 2011 at 17:00

We count down ten technology companies that had golden opportunities - and threw them away

Technology is an unforgiving business. Companies that appear to have unassailable leads in their market one minute can find themselves fearfully looking in the rear-view mirror the next. Technology firms are always at risk of being superseded by someone faster, smarter or richer.

In this feature, however, we’re focusing on the companies that contributed to their own downfall, with one or a series of catastrophic decisions that wreaked irreparable damage to their business.

Our top ten spans smartphones, servers, storage and more. We also profile one firm that managed to bounce back from near-oblivion.

Nokia

In early 2007, Nokia was the world’s largest handset manufacturer. It had just released the N95, the first truly consumer-focused smartphone. But only a few months later, Apple revealed the iPhone, leaving the Finnish firm so far behind that it’s still trying to catch up.

It didn’t need to be that way. Well before Apple’s innovations arrived, Nokia not only had the largest slice of market share and a reputation for building high-quality handsets, it also had the idea for touchscreen phones. Nokia showed off a prototype of a web-enabled touchscreen device as far back as 2004, but it canned the idea because of high development costs.

Nokia had even latched onto the idea of mobile apps before Apple made them a worldwide phenomenon. Dubbed WidSets – or “mini-applications”, as we described them at the time – the concept made PC Pro’s list of top techs to watch for in 2007.

Four years on, WidSets were subsumed into Nokia’s Ovi Store, a pale imitation of Apple’s massively successful App Store.

The player also spewed out more pop-ups than a dodgy porn site

Imagine an alternative tech world in which Nokia released the first touchscreen smartphone and popularised the app store. That thought must bring tears of regret to Nokia’s shareholders, employees and the Symbian community. Instead of dominating the mobile market, Nokia was forced to cut a deal with Microsoft to survive.

The deal will reportedly be worth billions of dollars to ailing Nokia, but it could have been so much more than merely Microsoft’s handset maker.

Real Networks

At one point, you could barely watch a video or listen to a music clip online without needing RealPlayer on your PC. It was so ubiquitous that it was bundled as an optional extra with Windows 98.

However, Real Networks ultimately managed to throw itself onto the pyre of smouldering tech failures by irritating the hell out of its own customers. RealPlayer had a habit of installing itself as your default media player for every media file type under the sun, even when you hadn’t asked it to.

The player also spewed out more pop-ups than a dodgy porn site, turning the Windows System Tray into a cheap motel. And it was at the centre of a privacy storm in 1999, when the Real Jukebox software was found to be phoning home with details of songs its users were listening to, forcing the company into a hasty patch.

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User comments

Well Done!

Normally these 10 best / 10 worst lists are extremely dubious. However this is a genuine list of failures which were entirely self inflicted.
Obviously Microsoft should get a "worst ever decision" award for helping Steve Jobs.

By milliganp on 17 Jun 2011

Real player

Why did you have to remind me of that awful software called Real Player. I am going to have nightmares tonight.

By DaChimp on 17 Jun 2011

@millinganp

Not so, MS and Apple have vastly different products now days. MS concentrate on desktop / servers and business products where Apple have ditched their server platform. Their laptops sell well but their biggest revenue generator is iPhone, Pad, Pod

By DaChimp on 17 Jun 2011

A few others

Others that could have joined this are WordPerfect and Lotus - at one point the market leading word processor and spreadsheet respectively, but slow to market with a Windows version letting MS equivalent products take the crown.

By jbarnett on 18 Jun 2011

Very good list!

The only one I thoroughly expected to see in here as well was 3DFX. The company that managed to go from being the undisputed king of 3D graphics on the PC to bankruptcy in just 2 years. Quite a remarkable fall from grace.

By Trippynet on 20 Jun 2011

Solid working ethics

Funny how innovation cannot survive without some "old-fashioned" work ethics, without staying focussed. Something that the SMB needs every day. Maybe the "big" ones should be listening to the smaller business world more carefully...Excellent article. Thanks for reminding me of so many arguments on all of these companies!

By MrESWC on 20 Jun 2011

Wish Google had brought Sun

I just wish Google had brought Sun Microsystems, hate to see what Oracle is doing to it.
Also seems I'm not alone in this thinking:
http://www.zdnet.com/blog/carroll/the-worst-decisi
on-google-ever-made/1998

By stevenutt on 21 Jun 2011

Regarding QuarkXpress...

A really thoughtful list -- thanks.

I typeset thousands of pages and supported a large number of users over many years on QuarkXpress in the 1990s.

QuarkXpress was revolutionary. It changed the process of print production and was a big step towards online publishing -- in other words, the Web.

Quark wasn’t the first ‘desktop publishing’ package, but it was the first typesetting software to really take hold -- much more widely than PageMaker. Along with Photoshop and a few other applications that followed, QuarkXpress planted the idea that publishing (even with high production values) could be done from a computer -- which later morphed into the idea that publishing could be done *to* a computer, whether you were a book publisher, newspaper, magazine or any other content creator or curator.

Quark had a fairly steep learning curve and new users often struggled with some of its basic paradigms (such as the way text boxes linked) but it was highly functional and, although the interface didn’t mature well, most of it was well designed.

But, but, but...

The Quark attitude to customers was terrible.

It’s worth remembering that in the early 90s, there was little in the way of online community, documentation or support for any software -- for QuarkXpress, just a Compuserve forum and some very limited online resources from Quark. Corporate Quark seemed distant and, in my experience, arrogant. Reasonable and obvious feature requests were inexplicably ignored through version after version. Bugs went unfixed.

Users were particularly excited when the PowerPC version of Quark arrived -- only to find it was unstable, and not all that much faster.

It’s worth remembering the real pain this caused for real people: QuarkXpress was used for critical production systems in a variety of deadline-driven industries, and when it went wrong, users and system administrators (like me!) really suffered. Quark just continually refused to take responsibility, let alone admit mistakes. Around the same time, they began to charge (as I remember) $1000 for access to the SDK in order to build plugins for the platform.

Worst of all, Quark continued to use their position as a monopoly to charge exorbitant prices for their products -- which, of course, eventually led to their demise at the hands of InDesign.

As for Nokia...

I found S60 -- despite using the Qt framework -- mystifying and painful.

Prior to working on S60/Symbian, I’d used C++/Qt for many years, and had a basic knowledge of writing apps for iPhone, so I didn’t expect any great problems. However, onn S60 I encountered fragmented, incomplete and inaccurate documentation, a developer community more or less limited to Nokia forums -- with a few contributors who were very helpful, but many who were not. Worst of all, the development toolchain turned out to be fragile and complex.

After S60, I turned to Android -- which felt like light relief.

I know Qt integration has improved since the early Qt/S60 days,

It felt to me that there was a window of opportunity -- at least a year or two -- in which Nokia could have dominated the smartphone market by producing the best development framework (it had Qt!), OS and GUI. After all, Android and iOS were far from perfect -- what platform is?

By samdutton on 18 Jul 2011

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For more details about purchasing this feature and/or images for editorial usage, please contact Jasmine Samra on pictures@dennis.co.uk

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