Do you remember when people used to carry suitcases because they didn’t have rollers? It wasn’t until the early 1990s that the trend of having suitcases with rollers caught fire. Before then, people carried their suitcases. According to Nobel Prize* winner Robert Shiller in his book Narrative Economics, the first patent for a wheeled suitcase was granted in 1887. Shiller also quotes this article from 1951 where the author expresses his frustration in trying to bring a wheeled suitcase to market in the 1930s:
And they laughed. I was very serious about it. But they laughed, the whole lot of them. When I spoke to any group about the further application of the theory of wheels they would express themselves as vastly entertained in a kind of soporific way. (Why not make full use of the wheel? Why haven’t we fitted people with wheels?) … I calculate I have outlined the wheeled suitcase idea to 125 groups of people and possibly 1,500 individuals. My wife tired of hearing about it back in 1937. The only man who ever took me seriously was an inventor who lived for a time a couple of houses away. The trouble was, nobody took him seriously.
Why did it take so long for wheeled suitcases to catch on? It was a great invention and super useful.
Some products, like the iPod catch on and spread like wildfire, while others languish and/or die. Having a great idea doesn’t mean that it will be adopted. Below are some pretty cool products that never caught on. Like the wheeled suitcase, maybe their time is coming, or maybe not.
1. The Segway.
The first time I ever saw I Segway I thought it was one of the coolest things I had ever seen. Like others, I had visions of people eschewing their cars and using Segways to drive around urban areas. Launched in 2001, the Segway still lives on, but you mainly see them used by mall cops and by tourists on city tours. Segways have not gained popularity because while they are marvelous from a technological perspective and fun to ride, they are expensive – costing a few thousand dollars apiece. A little known Segway fact: the second owner of Segway Inc., Jimi Heselden, died in 2010 from injuries sustained when he accidentally drove his Segway off a cliff. He had owned the company for less than a year.
Interestingly, the related concept of powered scooters, led by Bird and Lime, is a trend that has caught on. Powered scooters are common in urban areas and college campuses.
2. Google Glass.
Google unveiled its computer glasses in 2012 to great fanfare. TIME Magazine named it one of the best inventions of the year. Three years later Google pulled Glass from the market. What happened? While many people who tried Google Glass seem to have liked the product, it suffered from a high price ($1500) and looked dorky. Of course, Apple Air Buds looked strange at first, but now are widely used, demonstrating that it’s hard to predict what will catch on and what won’t. Another issue was unease about privacy issues – the wearer could record what they were seeing and potentially could use the device to find out information about people they were conversing with.
3. The Concorde.
Flown by British Airways and Air France, the Concorde was in active service from 1976 to 2003. The main characteristic of the plane was its speed as it could fly at over 2x the speed of sound or about 1,350mph – quite a bit faster than the 500 mph or so most commercial jets fly at – resulting in a New York to London flight time of just 3 hours and 15 minutes.
Only 20 Concordes were made and only 14 flew in passenger service for British Airways and Air France. The Concorde never gained widespread use by airlines mainly due to its high expense to operate.
4. The Laserdisc.
Released in 1978, the Laserdisc provided video and sound of much higher quality than that found on VHS. Laserdiscs allowed the user to skip around the movie without having to fast forward or rewind and to access special features such as interviews and commentary as well as the ability to choose which language to use. None of this was possible VHS. Laserdisc never gained widespread use due to the high cost of the Laserdisc player, high cost of the discs and the limited number of movie titles in the format. About 20 years later many of the features of the Laserdisc were found on DVDs.
5. Virtual Boy.
In 1995 Nintendo released the Virtual Boy Video Console which provided a 3D gaming experience via a headset. It wasn’t quite virtual reality, but a big step in that direction. 77,000 units were sold, but Virtual Boy was discontinued about a year after its release. Why didn’t it take off? It wasn’t really VR, had a hard to see red-and-black interface and only so-so games. Good idea – way ahead of its time.
Having a great idea and/or leading technology doesn’t necessarily lead to widespread adoption. This is instructive from an investment perspective: great ideas often don’t work out. Another lesson is that many times the first to market isn’t the ultimate winner. Powered scooters, DVD players, and VR goggles have filled the niches that Segway, Laserdisc and Virtual Boy were targeting. Will smart glasses and supersonic air travel be things of the future with successful products? Probably so.
I wrote an article about investing in trends that is on my firm’s website that is pretty interesting: The Trend is not Necessarily your Friend.
*Robert Shiller won the Nobel Prize in Economics which kind of isn’t a Nobel Prize.