Nobody wants to be an also-ran. You know it has to be frustrating when another company comes up with a great, innovative idea that really takes off, and your company is left trying to play catch-up, attempting to get into the game late with something similar – but not too similar, unless you want to spend millions on attorneys in a patent-infringement fight.
But what must be even more frustrating is when your company does come up with a grand idea for the Next Big Thing, puts tons of personnel time and money into development, takes it to market, and it’s a flop – then a few years later someone else takes the same concept and turns it into a best-selling item and gets called an innovator for creating the “magical and revolutionary” device or application.
Microsoft has been in that position so often I’ve lost count. Now it seems as if Google might be following in their footsteps with some of their recent innovations. Even the mighty Apple seems to be losing some of its perfect timing shine since the departure of Steve Jobs. And whether you’re too early or too late, bad timing can make the difference between success and failure. Let’s look at some specifics regarding how timing impacts the IT industry.
Early in Microsoft’s corporate life, timing always seemed to be on its side. Others – Xerox PARC and Apple – introduced pointing devices first, but it wasn’t until Microsoft incorporated it in Windows that the idea really took off. There were plenty of web browsers around (Lynx, Mosaic and of course Netscape Navigator) before Internet Explorer appeared on the scene and took over the web world, at least for a decade or so. Netware came up with directory services based servers and was doing okay until Windows NT came on the scene and took it to a new level.
Then came the new millennium and, like an aging dancer with inner ear problems, Microsoft’s rhythm was suddenly off. It wasn’t that the company lacked for great ideas, but all of those ideas seemed to fall a little flat. In some cases, they were simply ahead of their time; the general public wasn’t yet ready for tablets, smart phones and smart watches when they first hit the shelves. Only a niche market composed of those of us who liked to live on the cutting edge ran out to buy them.
Mobility was indisputably the future, and Microsoft obviously knew that and tried hard but just couldn’t get it right. In some cases, it was a problem of implementation: the tablets were too fat, the phones were too difficult to operate with their tiny screens and non-touch-friendly interfaces, the watches were big and clunky and unattractive and didn’t really do much that was useful. Usability was a big problem with these early mobile devices. The Windows interface that worked so well on big screen displays didn’t translate well to the small screen.
When the subject of those Microsoft failures comes up, pricing is often the elephant in the room. The Tablet PCs of the early 2000s cost hundreds more than their laptop counterparts with the same specs. Windows CE-based phones such as the HP iPAQ went for hundreds of dollars at a time when people weren’t used to paying that kind of money for a cell phone. The SPOT watch released in 2004 used a proprietary network service (MSN Direct) for which users had to pay an annual fee.
A few years later, of course, Apple reinvented mobile and had a smashing success first with the iPhone and then with the “magical and revolutionary” iPad. Google’s Android OS offered an alternative for those who didn’t like the restrictive nature of the iDevices and/or didn’t want to pay the “Apple tax,” and soon surpassed iOS in features and functionality. Microsoft was and still is scrambling to catch up.
The jury is still out as to whether the time for smart watches is here yet. Samsung, Sony, Motorola and others have come out with some nice devices but they’re still a little too clunky and not quite powerful enough to catch on. Microsoft’s Band – a sort of cross between a smart watch and a fitness band – is getting a lot of attention and sold out fast when it was released not quite two months ago, but it’s still too big and too “sporty” for a small female like me to wear on a daily basis.
Apple is getting into the watch game and some believe their new Apple Watch, expected to come out sometime in the first half of 2015, will transform the market in the same way as the iPhone and iPad. Others have expressed disappointment in the demo devices that have been tested by some tech industry insiders already, as the Apple Watch isn’t nearly as sleek and slim as some thought it would be and doesn’t appear to do anything that its rivals don’t, other than sporting the Apple logo.
Meanwhile, after its overwhelming success at being in the right place at the right time with the right search engine, Google seems to have been experiencing some of those “bad timing” moments with recent innovations. Considering the popularity of Chrome and Gmail and Maps and Android and the soaring stock value, one might think Google was a master of timing, but as with Microsoft, their good timing evidently can’t last forever.
Google Glass is a great idea – wearable technology that can be operated mostly hands-free – but it has engendered controversy and even hostility on the part of the public, which apparently isn’t ready to accept this Next Big Thing even though people have been doing the same things (such as taking photos of everyone/everything around them) with their phones for years. I have no doubt that smart glasses will eventually become the norm, but in 2014 it seems that Google is a little too far ahead of the game. The $1,500 price tag didn’t help, either.
G+ is an example of another Google project that is widely, at this point, deemed a failure – but this one was a case of getting in the game too late. Although Google’s social network has a number of technical and usability benefits over Facebook, it failed to attract the masses to its site. Most already had too much time invested in their Facebook profiles and friends collections, and keeping up with multiple social networks is a lot of work.
As usual, though, timing wasn’t the only problem. G+ also suffered from the fact that the majority of people who were active there were techies from the east and west coasts. The climate was less than welcoming to “regular folks” from the so-called flyover states, people who didn’t know how to format a hard drive or compile a Linux kernel, and anyone whose political beliefs didn’t lean left. Those who posted photos of their dogs or their dinners were ridiculed; only deep technical discussions led by “experts” and advocacy of important (to the G+ elite) world issues were deemed worthy. Those who just wanted to keep in touch with family and friends and share tidbits from their own lives fled the hallowed halls of G+ in droves.
The takeaway from all this is that timing is a crucial factor when introducing new technology to the world. There are many other aspects that contribute to whether a company’s offering with be a big success or a dismal flop, including how the idea is implemented, how much it costs, and how effectively it’s presented and marketed, but whether or not the time is right seems to be the most important of all.