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An Honor Roll Of CE’s Most Successful Failures

Leonardo da Vinci is often credited with having the greatest mind ever. Yet among his inventions, his tank never rolled, his air conditioner never cooled, and neither his helicopter nor ornothopter ever flew.

In fact, few of his concepts ever made it off the drawing board, but that was only because he was too far ahead of the technologies of his time. What his inventions did accomplish, however, was to set a path for others to follow.

In a sense the same could be said for some of the biggest product failures of the consumer electronics industry.

The first such failure I covered was Cartrivision (CV), which arrived on the scene in 1971 in the flashiest exhibit the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) had seen until that time. CV was the first true home video recorder, and was introduced as a complete system that included a recorder, a two-reel half-inch tape cartridge about the size of a paperback novel and a semi-mythical library of pre-recorded tapes.

Most of the actual program tapes on display held public domain stuff. Hollywood was holding out on licenses, CV said, pending the introduction of its rental, non-rewindable, tape cartridges. Privately, in a hotel suite, CV was showing porno tapes. In short, CV was at CES with the complete home video ball of wax, and retailers were begging to be allowed to sign on.

There were some problems though. CV was under-capitalized, its skip-field recording system supplied something less than broadcast quality video and it chose as a hardware manufacturer an inexperienced company that was unable to produce commercial quantities of working recorders.

But all it took was the arrival of Beta and VHS VCRs to turn CV’s home video recording and software concept into a thriving industry.

In the 1980s the videodisc burst on the scene to the applause of Hollywood. Magnavox took the point position by introducing the first Laservision (LV) disc player, a unit made by its parent company, Dutch Philips. It was backed by discs featuring films from Universal, whose parent MCA joined with Philips on the development of the optical disc system, and they in turned joined with IBM in setting up the first disc replication plant.

While LV didn’t exactly take off like a rocket, it generated enough interest to entice RCA to introduce Selectavision, a competing non-laser capacitance system, while yet another capacitance system was promised but never delivered by JVC.

Selectavision took off slowly, but soaked up so much R&D money that management ordered it scrubbed. LV floundered and was eventually picked up by Japan’s Pioneer, garnering a small but loyal following.

But it did set the stage for the introduction of DVD. DVD was digital, compared with analog for LV, and utilized 5-inch vs. 12-inch discs, so its players were less than half the size. Most important, consumers were at last ready for a compact, low cost, high quality play-only home video product. Unlike LV, companies introducing DVD players weren’t plagued by the comment, “But it doesn’t record.”

Arguably the most expensive flop in industry history was the Philips CD-Interactive system. Philips’ management gambled, and lost, countless millions promoting its CD-based edutainment system that suffered from inadequate software, poor marketing and an inability to handle full-motion video. But everything CD-I promised, including a virtually limitless software supply, is commonplace today thanks to the CD and DVD drives now standard in home and portable PCs.

All product failures, indeed. But they served to introduce some of the key concepts that drive our business today.

Bob Gerson, TWICE editor-at-large, has covered the CE industry for more than 30 years. He is the founding editor of the publication and its longtime editor-in-chief.