My first run-in with consumer technology suckiness was in 1991, when Apple's first laptops didn't have a video output. You could open the laptop and insert a card to add a VGA port. I wrote a column on it, noting that when it was installed, my laptop broke and started emitting black smoke.
I ran into the product manager two years later at a conference. He said it was dangerous to put their device into the laptop and it should never had gone to market. Thats when I learned that gadgets fail because the product is bad, but most of the time it's the people, policies and priorities in the company.
Microsoft Spot Watch (2004)
The technology and design and product were great, a watch where you could get your stocks and email and everything on your watch. It tanked because nobody wanted to charge their watch every day, and pay $10/month to use your watch, and stops working when you leave your area code!
Olympus M-Robe (2005)
These guys spent a ton of money to advertise their product on the superbowl. However, I couldn't take a picture of a breakdancer with it, like they did in the superbowl commercial:
Akimbo Box (2005)
The problem with this was that it was $300 for the box, $10 monthly fee, $3 for the show (which expires in 24 hours) but they couldn't get any shows from any US cable or network shows. It was a great idea, it's just the lawyers would not play ball. That lives on in:
Vulkano Box (2010)
You install it at home, like a Tivo, and you can view the video anywhere over your mobile phone. Here's a video about it:
The Six Factors for Highly Successful Products
Factor 1: The Upgrade Paradox
If you improve a product enough times, you eventually ruin it. With Microsoft Office, you think you own it, but really you have just signed up for a club with annual dues. If you don't upgrade, first you will be made to feel like a user, and eventually you will be shut out entirely. They did try marketing a plain word processor, called Microsoft Write, but nobody bought it! Everybody wanted to surround themselves with unnecessary power, like buying an SUV.
But, there's a price to pay for this. Photoshop is in its 15th version, and I know a guy who has paid $6000 for updates to Photoshop over his lifetime.
This is true in the hardware world too: machines are getting smaller, but our fingers are staying approximately the same size.
Factor 2: Good Design is Hard
I used to be a Broadway conductor, and I got involved with a sheet music company called Finale. In the early days, it was amazing, you could do a ton of symbols, but incredibly complicated to use. Unfortunately, the hardware was too slow to keep up with real-time music playing.
Surprisingly, simplicity sells. The iPod became the dominant music player by only including a small number of features and doing them well. Google never has more than 22 words on their front page. The Flip camcorder is so stupid simple it's embarrassing. It doesn't even have a zoom or menus! It has one button on the back, that's start and stop! It now has 35% of the entire camcorder market. I've met the CEO of this company, and he told me that what he does is to turn down new features.
Factor 3: Pressure to Ship
You set a date, and sometimes it's the right date and sometimes it's not. The Blackberry Storm was terrible when it was released, but they wouldn't admit it.
After a terrible release of Microsoft Office which caused me to send email to the wrong email addresses, I had a meeting with a manager from Microsoft. He said they had a list of bugs and they worked down from the top to the bottom, and drew a line and decided only to fix bugs above that line. I know from having worked on a number of flops that I didn't tell the director or producer that it was terrible, and nobody else spoke up, but why? Because it was our paycheck! We just kept doing our job, going through the motions, not speaking up, and that's exactly what happens inside these companies. Nobody wants to stop the progress and pull the trigger.
All software shipped is going to be incomplete. 1.0 won't have everything. iMovie 8 was terrible and removed a bunch of features that weren't released until iMovie 11 just now.
Factor 4: Marketing/Engineering Breakdown
A lot of developers working on the PalmPilot didn't even understand the device they were working on, because they never leave their computers!
Factor 5: Too Many Cooks
James Cameron is famous for writing, casting and directing the movie. He makes all the decisions himself, much like Steve Jobs. Microsoft put in 15,000 man-hours watching people work with Windows Vista, whereas Apple conducts no focus groups, it's just what Steve Jobs thinks will be cool.
Factor 6: Ingrained Tradition
After complaining about their manual translation, Samsung flew their six-member documentation team to my house. They explained how they've always done manuals: the engineers write the manuals. These Korean documents are shipped to London, to a translation firm who has never seen the product, and then shipped to the United States with the products, where the end users throw the product into the ocean.