Unintended Uses Often Fuel Success Of New Technologies - Twice

Unintended Uses Often Fuel Success Of New Technologies

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Not too long ago I wrote a column on the industry's successful failures. That is, new products or product concepts that originally flopped, but were successful when reintroduced as technological advances became available, or when consumers were ready to accept them.

Along that same line, it turns out that it's not the anticipated application that determines the result of a new product introduction. Instead it's often that consumers embrace a product and make it a huge success for reasons the original developer never even thought of.

I think the biggest case in point is the VCR. The first Betamax was introduced as a single-speed machine, and available tapes offered a choice of 30 minutes or one hour of record-play time.

Even when VHS appeared and offered up to four hours of recording on a standard T-120 cassette run at half speed, VCR sales didn't soar and Sony maintained its market share. It wasn't until pre-recorded movies arrived on the scene — initially mainly porno, but soon followed by more conventional feature films — that recorder demand took off.

Because of Betamax's short play time the initial choice of duplicators was VHS. While Betamax play time improved, it was left in the dust by the scarcity of titles and the fact that, thanks to RCA's leadership, VHS was the format adopted by all the major U.S. TV makers, except for Zenith. As to why RCA opted for VHS over Betamax, that's a story for another column.

Then there's the audio compact cassette. Philips developed the compact cassette as the challenger to the millions of 3-inch reel-to-reel capstan drive voice recorders Japanese companies were selling annually in world markets. With no threading, the cassette recorder was easy to use, and improved density tape made it more than adequate for voice recording despite its dead slow 1 7/8 inches-per-second (ips) speed.

Philips was using a miniaturized version of a cassette developed by RCA, and so with no enforceable patent, made the technology freely available to all manufacturers who would agree to conform to its standard.

The first to break that bond was, I believe, the Japanese recorder maker Nakamichi, which introduced a stereo version that recorded at 3 3/4 ips, and the higher speed made the sound quality acceptable. Philips forced Nakamichi to drop the product, declaring, as one Philips executive put it, "People who want to record music should use reel-to-reel."

But the stereo genie was out of the bottle and Philips developed a stereo standard that called for the left and right channels for each side of the tape to be recorded side by side to enable compatible playback on monaural machines. That, of course, opened the way to a boom that included home recorders, car stereos and blank and recorded cassettes.

And what sells computers today? Innovative office software? Computer games? If you said yes, you're on the wrong planet. It's the Internet. It's chat rooms, e-mail and the incredible amount of free research material now available, none of which were even considered when Apple, Microsoft and IBM launched PCs.

And don't believe for a minute that MP3 was developed to enable equipment owners to engage in online music piracy, but that's what drove the market.

Teenagers, and their parents for that matter, don't primarily use cell phones as tools for vital communications, and I doubt the rocket scientists of the 1930s, '40s and even '50s thought that direct-to-home satellite TV was going to be the most utilized result of their efforts.

I can't wait to see how we consumers are going to use the next breakthrough products, and I bet the developers will have never even dreamed of it.

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