There have been several news articles recently that incorporate quotes from people lamenting lower than anticipated sales for new technological innovations. These articles on Smart/Connected TVs and the Nintendo 3DS are but two examples.
As everyone knows (or at least should know), technological superiority is not enough to guarantee success. Hence the Beta-Max not succeeding over VHS or the Atari Jaguar or Neo-Geo losing out to their 16-bit incumbent predecessors.
Nevertheless, too much attention is paid to the specific product when predicting future success. A combination of technological innovation, strong branding, suitable distribution and attractive price point may prove a compelling package. Yet this may not correspond to sufficient demand.
Even if an organisation pays sufficient attention to the market and adequately segments and targets a particular group of consumers, there is still no guarantee of success.
Randomness aside, a major – and what appears to be to be overlooked – factor is replacement cycles.
Once early adopters have been sated, a product will only move into mainstream penetration if the general public find a compelling reason to upgrade their existing kit. Since most, if not all, new devices are evolutionary rather than revolutionary, this can be a tough ask.
(NOTE: Looking at it from a purely technical perspective, one could argue that the different 3D technologies are revolutionary. However, from a consumer perspective it is fundamentally evolutionary. At heart, it is the same service but with a graphical innovation).
Smart TVs do face a particularly tough challenge, as they are entering the market just after the majority of the mainstream have recently gone through a replacement cycle. This cycle was unusually synchronised due to the twin forces of legislation – digital switchover – and technology/manufacture. Flat screen HD TVs may show the same channels, but larger and lighter screens offer twin benefits of better picture (when compared to analogue equivalent) and easier placement (e.g. wall hanging) and transportation (transporting a 50 inch CRT up a flight of stairs was possibly one of the most painful experiences of my life).
Smart TVs may have additional services that appeal to the mainstream, but since the core proposition – watching live TV – remains unaltered, I don’t perceive many mainstream viewers as being eager to adopt their recently acquired HD TVs.
On a similar note, now that the market is already saturated with set-top boxes, second screens and such like, it may prove difficult for both Youview and Google TV to offer a compelling upgrade proposition (Nigel Walley has written an interesting piece on Google TV here)
The 3DS was always going to be a tough sell – the DS was massively successful among casual gamers who were unlikely to upgrade because of a novelty gimmick. But it also points to the wider trend in gaming of extending the life cycles of consoles and platforms. Interestingly, this is supply side rather than demand side – the costs of investment are so great that developers want a longer life cycle to maximise their profitability.
Looking at other forms of technology, I’m particularly intrigued to see the effect of replacement cycles for tablet computers. I was quite sceptical about the chances of mainstream success for the iPad to begin with. While it has undoubtedly been successful (and profitable) among the early adopters, I’m still not convinced iPads/tablets (market share means they are effectively synonymous) will permeate the mainstream before all laptops become touchscreen.
As such, what will happen when everyone who is likely to want a tablet computer already has one? Will tablets need to work on the same principle as mobile phones, which are effectively rented for the duration of a contract and then swapped for a new one? Given the additional cost of manufacture and purchase, I’m not sure how feasible this is.
In fact, perhaps the mobile industry points to way to shortening upgrade cycles. With the trends toward digital consumption, we are slowly being accustomed to not tangibly owning things. Perhaps this could be extended to hardware. Do we still need to own our TVs and games consoles, or could we rent subsidized devices over a period of time, before swapping them for the latest models?
Rental shops have had a bit of a bad reputation for ripping off the old and poor, but perhaps a rejuvenated version could be due a comeback.
Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mgat/3282519651/