Technology has become so associated with the holiday season that unboxing new kit is now a revered tradition for many people – you know, like deciphering cryptic assembly instructions and untangling endless strands of LED lights. However, technology gifts aren’t always a sure thing: The coolest and most-sophisticated tech gift one year can turn into something you’ll trade around to groans and laughs at a white elephant party the next year. Let’s take a moment to consider some great tech gifts of the past that didn’t work out so well. Who knows, maybe they have some bearing on the present! (Smartwatches, we’re looking at you.)
As the twentieth century drew to a close, Sony was at the top of the consumer electronics market, and the company pounced on the 1999 holiday season with … a robotic dog? Yup! I didn’t just make that up. Sony’s Aibo looked like an angular mashup of a puppy and an armored battle tank, but was much cooler than Zhu Zhu pets. Sure, Aibo went around rooms avoiding obstacles – but not by bumping into them and randomly changing direction. Instead, Aibo used a camera to detect and avoid obstacles entirely. Aibo also recognized objects, particularly its own “toys,” which it would bat around and play with while no one was looking. If owners talked to Aibo and petted it, Aibo would get happy and calm. When Aibo’s batteries drained, Aibo would act tired and try to find its “bed” – which, conveniently was also a charging station. Aibo could respond to voice commands, could “grow up” from puppy-like behaviors to an adult dog via installed software, and was even programmable. It could stand guard at a door until it opened then start barking, or take a picture using its camera and send it to you via email using Wi-Fi. Did I mention Wi-Fi? Later Aibos had Wi-Fi.
A decade and a half later, why aren’t our homes littered with cool autonomous robotic dogs, cats, snakes, and goldfish? Price. Back in the day an Aibo pet could easily set consumers back $2,000 or more – that’s almost $3,000 in 2013 dollars. Sony kept at Aibo until 2006, but canned its robotics products in 2006 to tighten up its bottom line. At least Aibo still has an active enthusiast community who are (ahem) teaching the old dogs new tricks.
In some ways, it’s a shame: Aibo is still the most sophisticated robotics product ever offered to consumers. At least, the most sophisticated robot that’s not a vacuum.
What two words always indicate a horrible holiday gift idea? Format war. Today Blu-ray is the standard for high-definition optical discs, but back in 2006 and 2007 there was a fight for who would take over for standard DVDs: Sony’s Blu-ray, or Toshiba’s HD-DVD. They weren’t compatible, and the stakes were high: HDTVs were just starting to move into consumers’ living rooms in serious numbers.
In January 2008, Toshiba claimed more than a million HD-DVD players had been sold to consumers. But the battle was already lost when number-one movie studio Warner Brothers threw its weight behind Blu-ray, and it didn’t take long for the likes of Best Buy and Walmart to follow. A million buyers – or gift recipients – suddenly had tech lemons on their hands.
HD-DVD is just a footnote now, but echoes of the format war are still with us. Apple has never shipped a Blu-ray drive (in 2008 Steve Jobs described Blu-ray licensing as a “bag of hurt”), and consumers’ initial reluctance to buy either gave Netflix streaming (and Hulu and Amazon) a chance to prove people may not need a disc player if they have a decent Internet connection. And that was a big, sharp, long nail in Blockbuster’s coffin.
But personally, I still pronounce Blu-ray as “blurry.” I mean, what was Sony thinking with that name?
“Hey, check it out! My new car has that free satellite radio.”
“That’s HD Radio, not satellite.”
“Whatever. What’s HD Radio?”
More than 10 years after being approved by the FCC, almost nobody knows what HD Radio is. The basic idea is that AM and FM stations can bundle digital transmissions alongside their standard analog broadcasts; one of those will be the same as the main station (per FCC requirements) but others (up to three) can be entirely different. For instance, a local NPR station carries programming from BBC World Service on one of its HD Radio channels, which is kind of cool.
HD Radio has a few problems. First, there’s nothing “high-definition” about it – “HD” is just branding, although digital signals can sound better than traditional radio in some circumstances. More importantly, consumers have no incentive to buy new HD Radio receivers because existing stations aren’t going away. Although analog television mostly shut down in the U.S. in 2009, the FCC has no plans to shut down thousands of analog radio stations, so most people just keep on keeping on – and so do the untold millions of AM and FM radios that can’t receive digital content.
None of this makes HD Radio bad. After all, once you buy a receiver, HD Radio programming in your area is free – depending where you live, you might have many options. And, eventually, you’ll get used to awkward conversations and quizzical looks from friends and family. “No, it’s not satellite … uh, no, it’s not high definition either. No, you can’t listen to this station on on your old clock radio …”
Oh sure, we laugh now, but around 2007 some people truly thought, “You know, all I do is check Facebook and email. An underpowered laptop with a 7-inch screen, cramped keyboard, and Windows XP sounds perfect!”
Netbooks were supposed to be the product category that kept the PC industry growing for years to come – and, to be sure, there were some solid, well-designed examples. But most netbooks exemplified many PC makers’ ugliest traits as they raced for the lowest prices. Netbooks became best-known for their dim screens, pathetic battery life, chintsy keyboards, poor performance, old software, poor materials, and craptastical designs. Still, companies like Acer and Asus made good bank on netbooks, Microsoft spent a lot of time making sure Windows 7 could be shoehorned into lower-performance hardware. And there is something to be said for an inexpensive, portable device that can handle Internet tasks.
It’s just that, thanks to the iPad, that word is “tablet.”
Vestiges of netbooks live on today in convertible tablets like Asus Transformer line and Microsoft’s Surface devices, and super-slim notebooks like the MacBook Air and Ultrabooks cater to folks who want their computers slim and portable. Almost no one misses netbooks today – but if you’re one of them, there are some steals on Craigslist.
Or you could, uh, just buy a Chromebook.
When word broke in 2004 that SimCity and The Sims creator Will Wright was making a new species evolution game called Spore, it seemed like nothing could go wrong. Spore has an undeniably ambitious premise: Players develop and guide life forms from single-cell organisms through multicellular creatures to tribes to civilizations who, eventually, reach out and colonize the galaxy! Anxious gamers expected Spore to become a powerhouse franchise like The Sims, Rock Band, or World of Warcraft.
But when Spore finally shipped in 2008, it was one of the biggest disappointments of the holiday season – despite selling a couple million copies in its first week on the basis of pre-launch hype. The initial release was rocked by technical glitches and massive backlash against an invasive DRM copy protection regime that stayed on users computers even when the game was uninstalled. (Unsurprisingly, Spore became the most-pirated game of 2008.) But more importantly, there really wasn’t much playing to do. After years of hype and anticipation, Spore lived up to being fascinating but proved to be pretty shallow as a game. Spore was also isolating: There’s an online component where users can share content, but it’s a far cry from the trash-talk and heavy interactivity of contemporary online games, or even the frivolousness and fun of The Sims. EA dutifully rolled out expansion packs and game variations, but the damage was done, and gamers never got the bitter taste of disappointment out of their mouths.
In 2010, hot on the heels of James Cameron’s Avatar, Consumer electronics companies were doing their best to convince consumers that 3D would be the next big thing: most major studio movies would be 3D, more sports and entertainment would use 3D, and if you didn’t have a 3D-capable television you would be missing out. Get with the program!
Things haven’t quite worked out that way. Despite some artful examples like Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, consumers quickly realized that most 3D in Hollywood releases was pure cheese, and the promise of mainstream 3D television content kind of came and went. Even the BBC and even ESPN have shut down their 3D efforts. It’s not like 3D TVs are dying on the vine – sales are still increasing, and some units are available for under $600 this year. But consumers don’t regard 3D as a necessity.
Why not? For some people, it’s the hassle of fiddly glasses (and expensive); for others, it’s a paucity of content. For other people, 3D causes headaches or motion sickness – and for some people the 3D effect just doesn’t work at all.
Nintendo surprised everybody in 2006 when its original Wii console turned into a sales monster, remaining difficult-to-find for most of 2007 as everyone from traditional gamers to senior citizens fell in love with its motion-savvy controller and (mostly) squeaky-clean gameplay. Years later, Wii sales started to decline and all eyes were on Nintendo’s 2012 launch of the Wii U, which offered controllers with embedded touchscreens that could even be used without a television.
So do you know anybody with a Wii U? Probably not. Despite strong first-month sales, Nintendo recently reported fewer than 4 million Wii U consoles had been shipped (not sold) worldwide in the console’s first nine months on the market, and game developers have been less-than-enthusiastic about developing games for the console. Nintendo is hoping Wii U sales will pick up this holiday season with the availability of The Legend of Zelda: Wind Walker HD and Super Mario 3D World – two of Nintendo’s most respected game franchises. Plus Nintendo has been emphasizing the Wii U can tap into Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Hulu Plus at prices substantially lower than the Xbox One or PlayStation 4. But we’ll probably know by January whether the Wii U will survive to see the 2014 holiday season.