As posted on Why These ‘Revolutionary’ Phones Failed So Hard
Every year, gadget companies like to flaunt out their latest flagship smartphones and show off all of the “revolutionary” features that will make this slab of glass and metal different from the nearly-identical looking slab of glass and metal already in our pockets.
Sometimes, those new features and those phones really are revolutionary, but more often than not, history has shown us that for every Samsung Galaxy or Apple iPhone, there are a dozen more products with amazing-sounding features that never took off. Here are some of the most significant phone flops of all time.
The Nokia N-Gage (2003)
Back in 2003, Nokia was still riding high as one of the most successful cell phone makers around. But the world was slowly starting to move to a more connected space. Devices such as Danger’s SideKick and the Palm Treo were starting to show off the possibility of internet-connected mobile phones (i.e. the smartphone). At the same time, portable gaming was becoming more powerful wit Nintendo’s GameBoy Advance, and thanks to the iPod, everyone wanted an MP3 player. So Nokia had an idea: What if there was a device that put all of those things together? And that’s how we got the Nokia N-Gage.
First launched in October 2003, this was supposed to be a smartphone, a media player, and a portable gaming machine. Unfortunately for Nokia, it failed at all three.
We’ve already covered why it sucked as a console, so let’s start with the shape. The N-Gage was shaped like a fucking taco (hence its nickname as “the taco phone”), which might work fine for playing games, but made actually using it as a phone difficult. To talk on the first version of the phone sans headset, users literally had to put the awkwardly-shaped device sideways against their head. Memes were born out of how ridiculous it looked. And the media player features were limited, with no ability to fast-forward or rewind tracks, the inability to put a song on a loop, and no support for playlists. An iPod killer this was not.
Try as we might, it was impossible to find a reviewer who liked this gadget. Virtually everyone agreed that this was just a bad idea. But Nokia, God bless them, kept trying with the N-Gage, first with updated hardware, and then with a gaming platform no one used. Finally, in 2009, Nokia finally euthanized the brand. Gizmodo’s then Editor-in-Chief Brian Lam was absolutely brutal in his eulogy for the device, writing, “hope we never have to see you again.”
The BlackBerry Storm (2008)
If I’m being honest, I could almost write an entire article about all of BlackBerry’s failures at “revolutionary” phones. From the Z10 with its gesture-driven OS that no one made apps for, to the bizarrely-designed Passport that was weird on every level, to the Android-based Priv that I wouldn’t give to my worst enemy, BlackBerry has had a lot of duds over the years. But its biggest disaster is still the BlackBerry Storm.
In 2008, BlackBerry was still one of the world’s leaders, thanks to its trademark keyboarded smartphones like the Curve, the Pearl, and the Bold, which were adored by millions. But the iPhone—then exclusively on AT&T’s network in the US—was rising fast. It had apps and games BlackBerry could only dream of, and its fancy glass touchscreen was a hit. So BlackBerry, largely at Verizon’s behest, decided to create its own touchscreen “iPhone killer.” The Storm was born. It was launched in the US in the fall of 2008 as a Verizon exclusive (it was available on other carriers in other parts of the world).
The brilliant minds in Waterloo, Canada weren’t content with just making a touch screen BlackBerry—they decided to help retain the keyboard millions of BlackBerry users loved by making the screen something you could press into to get a clicky feel.
None of it really worked right. The old BBOS operating system was never truly optimized for touch, and the mechanical mechanism on the bottom of the screen that accomplished that “clicky” feature was a total dud. Oh, and the phone was designed so quickly, the software was insanely buggy from the get-go.
But none of that deterred the BlackBerry faithful—at first. When respected gadget columnist David Pogue, then of The New York Times, gave the phone a blisteringly negative review, he got hate mail from BlackBerry fanbois. The backlash was so intense, it necessitated Pogue write a follow-up column, which included some of the more virulent remarks from BlackBerry defenders
“I have serious doubts about your ability to evaluate tech. And your friends, for that matter. Yes, the Storm has a different emphasis than past BlackBerries, but it will continue to sell like pancakes.”
Amazon Fire phone (2014)
Before the Fire Phone, Amazon had a lot of success in hardware. Its Kindle e-readers are in a class by themselves, the Fire line of small tablets have always been a good, cheap iPad alternative, and the Fire TV ecosystem is truly excellent. Given that track record, people were really excited about the advent of an Amazon phone.
In 2014, after months of hype and a reported five years of effort, Amazon finally unveiled its take on a mobile device, the Fire Phone. On paper, the phone came loaded with fancy specs, including five cameras, a 3D display, and a hardware/software feature called Firefly that could identify objects so that you could easily add them to your shopping cart.
Although reviews were generally mixed, plenty of tech publications were willing to buy into the hype. Check out what my old colleagues at Mashable had to say about the phone after its release:
With that philosophy behind it, the Fire pushes Amazon further on the path of becoming the next Apple. … For the Amazon faithful, Fire completes the platform with the most powerful and intimate of devices — the one that’s carried at all times. For the uninitiated, it’s the most powerful gateway drug the company could have built.
Except it ended up not really being a gateway drug, because no one wanted the phone. For all the hype from tech blogs, consumers just didn’t care about the gimmicky features. Even worse, because of politics between Google and Amazon, the FireOS didn’t have access to the Google Play Store, which meant the phone couldn’t easily get Google Maps, Gmail, or Google Docs.
Amazon and AT&T cut the on-contract price of the phone from $200 to $0.99 after just six weeks on the market. Amazon’s mobile phone strategy ended up being a gross miscalculation, which cost the company more than $170 million. In the fall of 2015, just over a year after the phone was released, Amazon finally extinguished the Fire Phone for good. Amazon has said it has no plans to re-enter the mobile phone space. That’s probably a good thing.
HTC First aka the Facebook Phone (2013)
Starting in 2010 and then for the better part of three years, there were rumors and speculation that Facebook was planning its own mobile phone. With every new rumor and speculation, journalists and pundits (including me) were paraded on CNN and CNBC and the like to talk about all the reasons why it made sense for Facebook to have its own mobile phone. Even before it bought Instagram and WhatsApp, Facebook was the most powerful—and most popular—app on iOS and Android. What better way to assume world domination than to make your own “iPhone killer”?
And so in the spring of 2013, Facebook finally did it. It released its own phone in partnership with HTC, the HTC First. Except, bizarrely, it wasn’t really a “Facebook phone” as much as it was a special Android launcher built by Facebook, which was dubbed Facebook Home.
The idea was that you could get all of your Facebook messages directly on your home screen, quickly chat with friends using something called Chat Heads, and get near-instant notifications about what was going on around you. Sounds fun and useful right?
From Wired’s review:
It’s nice to see that after so many failed attempts, Facebook has finally cracked the mobile software riddle. Here’s to hoping it doesn’t screw it up.
Well, you know how this ends. It turns out, no one wanted a Facebook launcher on their smartphone. Especially when the smartphone itself was fairly boring.
Barely a month after its release, AT&T dropped the price of the HTC First to $0.99 (down from $99). Within a year, Facebook Home was also dead (in truth, Facebook stopped caring about it the moment the HTC First flopped), and Facebook moved on from trying to dominate the home screen into all the ways it could copy Snapchat.
Microsoft Kin (2010)
Despite being one of the first players in the smartphone space with Windows Mobile, Microsoft has never managed to make the inroads on mobile that it did on the desktop. But of all of Microsoft’s mobile missteps, the worst might just be the short-lived Microsoft Kin.
Born out of Microsoft’s acquisition of Danger, the company behind the popular SideKick, the Kin was supposed to sit somewhere between a smartphone and a dumbphone. Unlike a true smartphone, the Kin didn’t have apps, but it did have access to social networks such as Twitter, Facebook, and MySpace, as well as Microsoft’s own internal network for storing photos and videos.
With a marketing campaign placed squarely at hipsters, the Kin was supposed to be a modern social media phone. But it had one glaring problem: price.
Early on, a lot of people thought that if Microsoft could release the Kin at a low price without the need for an expensive smartphone data plan (remember the days before data plans?), it could capture the same market segmentation that had made the SideKick so popular in the early aughts. Microsoft and Verizon were alarmingly (in retrospect) coy about the cost of the data plans, but since it was a dumb phone, many of us had hopes that the price would be right.
Verizon and Microsoft completely botched the pricing—requiring an expensive $60+ a month smartphone plan for a phone that wasn’t really a full smartphone.
Still, I wrote positively about the phone’s potential in an analysis piece in April 2010:
[The Kin] is really targeted at teenagers — especially younger teenagers. And that’s why Kin might just be brilliant.
Of course, I ended up being completely wrong; the teens weren’t interested.
In the wake of the Kin disaster, much was leaked about the infighting and poor strategy that led to the phone’s early demise. Years later, internal videos would show that even before its release, the Kin was just a disaster waiting to happen.
Motorola Rokr (2005)
In 2005, two of the most powerful consumer electronics brands were Apple and Motorola. Motorola was the leader in dumb phones, thanks to the success of the Motorola Razr. And Apple was well on its way to becoming the world’s most valuable company, thanks to the success of the iPod. So obviously, a fusion between the two companies could only be successful.
The resulting phone was called the Motorla Rokr, and it was the first phone with iTunes built in. Motorola’s then chairman and CEO, Ed Zander wanted the world to really love the phone, check out this hype:
The Motorola ROKR represents the ultimate convergence of mobile communications and music. Fusing iTunes with your always-with-you mobile phone, we’re revolutionizing the way the world experiences mobile self-expression and entertainment.
Too bad the phone failed to deliver on those promises. In fact, signs were ominous from the get go. At an iTunes launch event, where Steve Jobs introduced the device to the world, he had problems getting the Rokr to work correctly (you can watch the entire segment in the video above). You can practically see the steam coming out of his ears when the music won’t resume after a phone call.
In addition to buggy software, users were limited to storing just 100 songs on the device, regardless of how much space was free on the phone. And the process of getting songs onto the phone was a total pain in the ass. Motorola tried to make things better with future iterations of the Rokr line, but the damage was done. The phone was a bomb for Motorola and an embarrassment for Apple.
Ultimately, the failure of the Rokr was a good thing. Had it been successful, Apple might not have pushed forward as aggressively with its other phone project, internally known as M68, which became the iPhone.
AT&T Picturephone (1964)
Before Skype and before FaceTime, AT&T was trying to make video calling a reality. In fact, for more than 30 years, AT&T really tried to make video telephony a thing. It ended up being a great tech demo, but also one of the most expensive tech flops of all time.
The first AT&T Picturephone made its debut at the World’s Fair in Flushing Meadow Park in 1964. The demo—which my own mother saw as a teenager—left attendees excited about the future. Stanley Kubrick used ideas from the Picturephone in his epic, 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Product brochures from the era promised “the bold beginning of tomorrow’s telephoning.” Unfortunately for AT&T, which spent half a billion on R&D for the PicturePhone between 1966 and 1973), “tomorrow” was really about 45 years away.
At its peak in the 1970s, AT&T never managed to amass more than 500 subscribers to its video telephony service. The costs were just too high, the products too big, and the value was too unclear. AT&T’s subsequent efforts at video telephony into the 1990s failed too.
In 2005, Skype finally brought video calling to the masses—and for free. In 2010, Apple launched FaceTime, which finally, for real, made two-way video calling from your actual phone (or in this case, smartphone) a thing.
ESPN Phone (2005)
Back in the mid-aughts, there was a bizarre trend where non-phone companies decided to try their luck at being mobile carriers. Known as mobile virtual network operators (MVNO), the idea was that brands could lease spectrum from established wireless carriers to sell their own phones and services. Virgin Mobile, TracPhone, and Cricket Wireless all started out as MVNOs.
For whatever reason, ESPN thought it would be a good idea to get into the branded phone and carrier space, and it launched Mobile ESPN in early 2006 with a big, glitzy Super Bowl ad (above). ESPN really believed that people would pay $400 for its clamshell dumbphone, a Sanyo MVP (a Sanyo!), along with plans that started at $35 a month for just 100 minutes of service, with no free nights or weekends.
Why would anyone do this? Well, ESPN was convinced that sportsmen love sporting so much that they would be willing to pay a premium for a shitty phone running on the Sprint network (Sprint!) that would get the sports alerts and updates. The phone also offered subscribers access to mobile video of SportsCenter, score updates, and highlights.
As silly as this all sounds now, some tech reviewers actually bought the concept. From PCMag’s review, which gave the phone four stars:
The Mobile ESPN MVP is a very good voice phone loaded up with massive quantities of sports information. You’ll pay top dollar for top data, but have you seen the price of a Giants ticket recently?
The general public didn’t agree with that whole “pay top dollar for top data” argument and the phone ended up being a fairly famous business disaster.
Just nine months after its splashy launch, ESPN killed Mobile ESPN. At the time, BusinessWeek reported in 2006 that ESPN had managed to gain just 30,000 subscribers, well below the 500,000 figure needed to make the investment break even.
In hindsight, ESPN’s then president George Bodenheimer probably should have listened to Steve Jobs, who according to the book Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN, told him “your phone is the dumbest fucking idea I have ever heard of.”
Stick to sporting, sportsmen.
Samsung Galaxy Beam (2012)
Samsung has made a lot of good phones over the years, exploding Note 7s notwithstanding. But Samsung has also made some supposedly innovative but really, really dumb phones. Take for example, the Samsung Galaxy Beam, which the company announced at Mobile World Congress in 2012. It was basically a Galaxy S Advance with a pico projector built-in.
Samsung actually tried to do the whole phone projector thing in Korea a few years before bringing a version to North America. For whatever reason, the company really thought that people would want to use their smartphone as a way to project content at low resolution on a big screen. The company even made ads showing off the most unrealistic proposal of all time (above).
Samsung was positively breathless in its marketing copy for the phone, with its then mobile chief, JK Shin, saying:
Galaxy Beam provides mobile freedom, enabling a unique shared experience around digital content for everyone-anywhere and instantly-from a smartphone as slim and portable as any on the market.
Sadly, that “unique shared experience” came by way of an overpriced, bulky, phone with specs straight out of 2010, running an old version of Android.
Even after lackluster response to the original Beam, Samsung still wasn’t willing to give up the ghost. In 2014, the company released a successor—that still had shitty, outdated specs (again, the whole thing was very 2010), aimed at the Chinese market.
Come on Samsung, know when to let a product die. No one wants a projector on their smartphone and no one will ever propose using said projector.
Google’s Project Ara (2013 – 2016)
But let’s back up. Back in 2013, Motorola (then part of Google), announced that it was working on a modular phone platform, known as “Project Ara.” Project Ara was a basic phone with removable modules that could be switched out or upgraded, kind of like LEGO blocks.
The idea was that instead of having to constantly upgrade an entire phone, specific components—the camera system, the storage, the CPU, and the battery—could all be expanded or upgraded with a new module. Additional modules could be available for extra stuff such as a a night vision camera or even a tardigrade aquarium.
The tech press (including Gizmodo), was all too happy to spread the hype about this concept. Check out what we wrote about the concept, which had already been delayed several times at this point, back in 2015:
This is the powerful idea behind Project Ara—the exact smartphone you want, exactly when you need it. Going on a long trip and need battery life? Swipe out for a low-res screen and extra battery modules. Need to take great photos at your kids soccer game? Get that camera module packed with megapixels. It’s an ambitious dream to be sure, and one that won’t jibe with everyone, but it’s an idea worth exploring just to see where it goes.
Too bad that “powerful idea” never turned into a real product. Not only did the project’s specifics change direction with alarming regularity (originally it was hyped by Google as a $50-$100 device; by 2016 the company admitted the first phones would cost the same as premium handsets), the people in charge of running the project changed too. According to Venture Beat’s excellent history of Project Ara, the development team never really recovered after Regina Dugan, who ran ATAP at Google (the division Project Ara was under), abruptly left for Facebook.
And look, it’s possible that with the right leadership and support, Project Ara could have met the finish line, but that doesn’t change a very large, very fundamental problem with Project Ara (and modular smartphones in general): No one wants a modular smartphone. Project Ara is the most ambitious modular phone failure, but even modular phones from LG and Motorola have totally flopped and failed to take on with audiences.
Ultimately, Project Ara was a great demo, but it never had a chance at being a real product. And even if it had reached the finish line, something tells me that it would have wound up on this list anyway.