They were sort of April's Fool

Innovation fails for many reasons... Here a DiscoVision, 1978, far more advanced than a video cassette, yet the market did not liked it (too expensive, no thanks). Credit: MCA

It is April 1st, fools day, so I decided that whatever new advances I can talk about (and there are quite a few) it would run the risk of being considered an April's fool.

Better then to stick with the past and with things that actually were sort of April's fool.  I found it very interesting to look at innovations that seemed so promising when they appear and then never really materialised. I am not talking about vapourware, ideas or promises that never turned into a product, I am talking about real product that when they appeared had the Wow factors written all over and nevertheless did not win the market.

Let me take a few that long time ago impressed me.

The DiscoVision.  It was in the end of the 70ies, my first child, Alberto, was born, and the DiscoVision jumped ahead of the videocassette with an amazing new technology, the laser, that brought much better images to the television. It won over the tape hands down and yet in just a few years it disappeared. Why? 
it was expensive, and that is no good news, but I think that what sunk it was that you cannot record on it. You had to buy the content, whilst in the case of the videocassette you could copy content (yes it might not have been 100% legal but people love pirates....).

Betamax was clearly a superior product than VHS, so superior in fact that Sony did not want to license it to third party. JVC, on the contrary, had no restraints in licensing its VHS format. For the first year (early adopters leading) Beta seemed to have the upper hand. Then the volumes generated by VHS, as result of its production by different companies, brought the price down. Add to this that the first versions of Beta only provided up to 30' recording time vs the 3h of the VHS and you can understand the outcome. Volumes and prices (that are somewhat related) can kill competition and they usually do.

Quadrophonic sound. I remember in the early 70 I invested a major part of my salary in buying a tape recorder (it had tape reels!) that could offer quadrophonic sound. It was the best sound experience you could dream, the sound was all around you and you had special content that made you listen to a marble rolling from one side of your living room to the other and then from the back to the front... I remember spending more time with friends listening to these amazing quadrophonic sounds than listening to music.  Smarter people than I, on the other hand were more interested in listening to music and stereo was good enough. Besides there were so many ways to code the sound in a quadrophonic shape that different providers chose different solutions, and in the end most of them did not run on my, expensive, equipment. Then it came a standard, the Dolby, not as emotional as quadrophonic sound but good enough. Bye bye...

As last let me mention the DAT, Digital Audio Tape. That was at the time my second child was born, Giorgio, and yes, I bought it. It was a no brainer. Digital encoding ensured better quality, and even more important a stable quality. You could copy the songs as many times as you wanted and the quality will remain the same, crystal clear music. I loved it. The music companies did not! That was a gold mine for pirating music and of course the music companies put their might against this technology. They won the battle, and the lost the war. The DAT was expensive and only few crazy customers, yes like me, would have bought it. However the digital genius was out of the lamp and eventually it won the war.

I find interesting to look back and consider the factors that brought down potentially good technologies, technologies that were actually better than the ones available at that time. Market forces, in general decided their fate. It is the same story, over and over, today as well. Probably even more so, since today technology is much more abundant and the market has a greater freedom in making its own choices.

Author - Roberto Saracco

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