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Analysis

Ten tech firms that blew it

Posted on 17 Jun 2011 at 17:00

With the web moving towards open, non-proprietary media formats, RealPlayer has shrunk into – frankly deserved – obscurity. In 2000, it was the most-used internet media player, according to Nielsen; last year, it was a rapidly declining fifth.

QuarkXPress

QuarkXPress was the first publishing application with the power to replace traditional layout and typesetting methods completely – and it ran on a modest desktop computer.

In 1998, the Zip drive claimed 87% of the “high-capacity” disk market, according to analyst IDC – in an era when “high capacity” meant 100MB

Publishers small and large leapt at it. Within ten years of its launch in 1987, it had reportedly cemented a 90% share of the booming desktop publishing market.

Although Quark’s success came quickly, however, the software itself evolved at a glacial pace. In those ten years it gained a mere handful of new features – and missed some important ones, including the ability to produce PDFs.

While both the Mac OS and Windows repeatedly refined and redesigned their user interfaces, Quark stuck with exactly the same crude, chunky front-end it had always used.

Things got worse in 2001, when Apple introduced the brand-new OS X. QuarkXPress took two years to provide an update that ran natively in the new OS, angering many of its users. Worse still, rather than trying to address complaints, Quark CEO Fred Ebrahimi dismissed them, inviting those who were unhappy with Quark to “switch to something else”.

Most professionals did just that. While Quark had been taking its users for granted, Adobe had been perfecting its own DTP package. Originally launched in 1999, successive versions of Adobe InDesign quickly came to offer a fuller set of features than QuarkXPress, with a more sophisticated interface and a much faster update cycle.

Today, Quark’s market share has plummeted to around 25%. The company still sells publishing software (see our review of QuarkXPress 9), but there’s no doubt that its heyday is behind it.

Iomega

In the days before external hard disks were affordable, and online backup was as fanciful as taking Kylie home for tea, Iomega dominated the external storage scene. In 1998, the Zip drive claimed 87% of the “high-capacity” disk market, according to analyst IDC – in an era when “high capacity” meant 100MB.

Yet Iomega’s grasp on the external storage market wasn’t to last. The infamous “click of death” – where misaligned heads caused Zip disks to all-too-audibly fail – severely dented Iomega’s reputation for reliability. However, its rigid adherence to its expensive, proprietary storage format was ultimately its undoing.

Tech firms that blew it As our 2002 review of the Iomega Zip 750 noted, the device itself cost £145 and the 750MB Zip disks another £10 each. With CD-RW drives at that time costing only half as much, and blank discs only a few pennies each, Iomega was fighting a losing battle. And instead of encouraging an eco-system around its Zip products, Iomega resorted to suing companies attempting to sell “Zip-compatible” media.

In 2008, Iomega – whose share price had fallen from a high of over $100 to $3.60 – was bought by storage giant EMC. It still produces a wide range of consumer products, but its days as a household name are over.

Palm

A decade or so ago, Palm could do little wrong in the eyes of PC Pro’s reviews team. The “perfectly formed” Palm III won our December 1998 PDA Labs, while the legendary Palm V, with its metallic case and hinged leatherette cover, was a design classic.

It achieved Hoover-like levels of recognition among gadget fans: you didn’t buy a PDA, you bought a Palm Pilot.

Palm was therefore almost perfectly placed to make the transition from PDA to smartphone. So what went wrong?

The internal turmoil at Palm HQ certainly didn’t help. 3Com’s takeover prompted Palm founders Jeff Hawkins and Donna Dubinsky to strike out on their own and form the ill-fated Handspring, which split the loyal fanbase and Palm’s product development.

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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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