Ask any experienced manufacturer to name the key component to a winning product, and they’ll undoubtedly reel off a string of theories, personal maxims and anecdotes. Then, if they’re even remotely honest, they’ll confess that they have no idea what they’re talking about. Some ugly and even poorly made objects go on to wild success (cough, Bluetooth headsets, cough), while beautifully designed ones that any objective analysis would deem winners mysteriously suffer an early demise and are exiled to the island of misfit tech. Switched took a long, lingering look back at the best designed tech, and found what we consider to be the most beautiful objects to have been cruelly, senselessly shunned by consumers. Hit up the comments section for ones you’d nominate.
The so-called Tucker ’48 was a potent mix of technical innovation and dazzling style — a great example of squandered potential that could have altered the course of auto history. Named for entrepreneur-designer Preston Tucker, it was among the first breed of U.S. autos since 1941, when WWII halted most production. Unlike the competition, however, it featured a bevy of safety features that would take decades to become standard, like seat belts, safety pop-out windshields, a structural roll bar and a crash box. It also premiered the now-iconic “Cyclops Eye” headlight that lit up and swiveled to spotlight dark corners when the driver turned a corner. The Tucker was gorgeously sleek — thus its working title, “The Torpedo” — with an incredible .27 drag coefficient, or better than most production cars in history to date. Alas, Tucker became embroiled in an SEC investigation, and was walloped by the press. As a result, with just a few dozen cars built, Tucker’s operations ceased before the year was over. For the full, depressing look at his life, check out the 1988 film, ‘Tucker: The Man and His Dream,’ and weep for what might have been. And note that Tuckers now sell for a million or more at auction.
Philco’s classic designs for radio and TV have become universal visual shorthand: To illustrate the old-school pre-TV days, go for the wooden-framed Philco 90 Baby Grand radio; for radical, late-’50s, space-age futurism, you’ll want the Philco Predicta Continental. Both products redefined design’s role in transforming and elevating mainstream consumer electronics. That design savvy apparently didn’t translate to engineering competence however, as It turns out that he Predicta line of TVs, with their tantalizing swiveling heads and modernist polish, also happened to be really junky. And while Philco radios had been the best-selling brand in the U.S. for the preceding three decades, Philco’s Predicta TVs sold so poorly that they essentially bankrupted the company. Still, the Predicta’s looks were streamlined and forward-thinking, and later influenced the modern Memphis movement as well as the original G3 iMac.
To date, the Concorde stands alone as the only commercial airplane in history to fly at supersonic speeds, and man, did they, scorching the lower stratosphere at a blistering Mach 2. The Concorde was the rarest of historical ventures: a British-French partnership. The two perennial enemies came together in the late ’50s with the goal of reestablishing European primacy in the air over those pesky Americans. And in a way they did. By any measure, the Concorde embodied smart, gorgeous design and a degree of aeronautical innovation that had not been seen since the early days of the U.S. Space Program. Of course, the reason we aren’t all now jetting across the world at 1,300 mph is because Concordes consumed jet fuel like geeks guzzle Mountain Dew, and because they were banned from flying at supersonic speeds over populated areas due to those bomb-like sonic booms they produced. So, for 27 years, the only real action this marvel of engineering and design ever got consisted of three-hour, $8,000 hops back and forth across the Atlantic between New York and London or Paris. And the future of transcontinental flight ended up being… long-haul 8-hour schleps in overcrowded decades-old Boeing 767’s.
Since the debut of Edison’s Cylinder phonograph in the late 1800s, the consistent Achilles heel of all consumer audio media has been that it’s far too easy to destroy: vinyl records wear away and scratch, tape demagnetizes and compact discs not only scratch easily but even oxidize. For many, the debut of the Mini-Disc in 1992 seemed like a holy grail moment. Here was a re-recordable digital medium that was tiny, had relatively large capacity, offered great quality and was protected in a slick, rugged case. Huzzah! Despite Sony’s valiant attempt to license its tech to anyone who was interested, record companies never really got behind it and released too few albums to make the transition worth it for consumers. Unfortunate factors converged, like the pain-in-ass process for transferring music, the high price of consoles and the release of recordable CDs. As a result, Mini-Discs just never took off, and have coasted along ever since, riding the razor’s edge to oblivion. Even more depressing, the Mini-Disc’s clever form factor hasn’t been adopted by DVDs, video game discs or Blu-ray discs, stupidly leaving them exposed to the same scratches and scuffs that have plagued us all for more than a century.
Flush from the return of Steve in 1996 after his ten-year exile, Apple rebounded from near death, and was on a roll in the new millennium; the redesigned iMac, iBook and G3 PowerMacs were racking up design awards and praise from the media, and, more importantly, were selling like iHotcakes. Then, in a moment of hubristic whimsy, Apple put out the G4 Cube: an artfully minimal, clear acrylic box with the guts of a higher-end Power Mac. Certainly, Apple’s intentions were honest and laudable, as the Cube was a solid attempt to legitimize the personal computer’s place in consumers’ living rooms. The problem was that, despite costing $200 more than a base-level G4, the Cube wasn’t upgradeable, so consumers were stuck with a high-priced machine that would be obsolete in short order. After lackluster sales, Apple quietly pulled it from shelves a year later. Jobs may at least find satisfaction in the fact that the Cube is featured in the permanent collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Few product launches have been spiked with such monumentally hyperbolic hype as Dean Kamen’s 2001 revelation — his supposedly earth-shattering “human-transporter.” More than a year before the Segway came out, Kamen and his cohorts began leaking teasers about a product code-named “Ginger” and “IT.” The device, we were told, was to be more revolutionary than the automobile, personal computers and the Internet, and was going to completely alter the way cities would be designed in the future. Now, there’s no denying the Segway for its incredible technical wizardry and truly graceful and understated design. But the world’s collective “huh?” at the 2001 unveiling of the Jesus-scooter was followed quickly by disappointment, and then anger at its ludicrous $5,000 price tag. Smirks came when Kamen predicted he’d sell 50,000 units the first year, and then gut-busting belly laughs when former president Bush famously bit it on a Segway while on vacation. In 2003, two years after launch, all Segways were recalled — just 6,000 in total at that point — after users began tumbling off of them when batteries got low. And the ignominy just continued: the company eventually burned through all its cash, and was sold off to a British billionaire, who met his death just last month after accidentally riding a Segway off a cliff. (You can’t make this stuff up.) Following the revolution that never was, Segway sightings are relatively common for sure, although they are usually spotted in the service of airport cops and moneyed hippie a-holes, or as the awesome butt of a joke — a la Gob Bluth or Paul Blart. To be clear, we adore Mr. Kamen and his work and look forward to his next inventions, but we hope he’s now learned that old chestnut of a business principle: always under-promise and over-deliver.
Every few years, some young buck steps into the ring to take on the reigning champs of the portable gaming world, Sony and Nintendo. And it inevitably and predictably ends with the little guy getting a nasty concussion and a quick trip into early retirement (read: Nokia N-Gage). In 2005, though, things seemed like they just might turn out differently. The Gizmondo was — on paper anyway — a powerful, beautifully designed little kit poised to revolutionize the way games were played. It would be offered in two versions at two prices, with the cheaper being subsidized by ads fed to its home screen via a free cell connection, and the more expensive edition being ad-free. Games would also be discounted in exchange for some ad-supported eyeball time, and, using a built-in wireless connection and GPS, it would also be location-aware and feature multiplayer functionality. Well, a flubbed launch, a lot of wishful thinking and the unfortunate announcement of an impending Gizmondo 2 right after it was released in the U.S. effectively killed it. Gizmondo’s final curtain came when, after a string of investigations and the spectacular crash of a $2 million Ferrari Enzo by the CEO, it was revealed that the heads of Gizmondo were actually career mafiosos who had taken investors for a wicked ride. (Read here for a general summary of the unbelievable story.) Not surprisingly, plans for the Gizmondo 2 seem permanently on-hold.
For all the knocks that Sony seems to get (and frequently deserves), no other company save Apple produces such consistently stylish and design-forward consumer tech. When we first laid eyes on the Sony VAIO UX in 2006, we weren’t alone in thinking, “Damn — we have seen the future of computing!” Sony’s triumph boasted the guts of an impressively full-featured PC in an ergonomically clever package. As far as we were concerned, once the price inevitably dropped, it was a no-brainer that someday we’d all be rocking UMPCs. But a few months later, the iPhone was announced, and customers promptly forgot all about pocket computing Sony-style. Then, netbooks happened, and Sony’s once-brilliant UX line was simply left behind like a mammoth fighting the ice age. But, the funny thing is that, excepting the price (which Sony should definitely sort out), the UX still outspecs most every netbook, tablet and smartphone out there. The machine was complete with a touchscreen and QWERTY keyboard, fingerprint scanner, front and rear cameras, a full array of wireless, a docking station, 300GB of storage and a slot for cards. In short, it turns out the UX wasn’t a lowly mammoth; it was a T-Rex from the future with frickin’ lasers and a jetpack.
Delta’s Arantix bikes offer a thrilling look into an alternative design that could potentially redefine a long-held paradigm. Made from interwoven carbon fiber and kevlar, the pyramidal shapes form a truss that is purported to be far stronger, stabler and more resilient than traditional metal tubing. And, they look really cool, too. The only issue we see is that, with 300 man-hours and a $11,000 price tag for the Arantix Ascend (and just $8,500 for the Mountain), these are priced well into the territory of the ridiculous — as evidenced by the indignant scorn regularly heaped upon them in all of the mountain biking forums we’ve read. Hey, we get it: nice things cost money. But somehow we feel like this technology would see better service in the space program and instead comes off as a technology searching for an application — like someone using diamonds to make a drinking glass.
When it comes to breaking exciting new software and hardware, Microsoft is seemingly stuck playing the “also-ran” to Apple’s show pony. But, for a brief spell in 2007, the Softies stole the show with the introduction of the Surface. Bill Gates’s first demo at D5 was one of those mind-blowing moments when geeks like us get legitimately blown away. Simply put, the Surface was an endless stream of touchscreen glory, and a pulse-quickening glimpse into the future of what computing could be. Granted, Microsoft stated from the outset that Surface was going to be catered to the hospitality business until prices could come down… in three to five years. Well, those three years are up, and, other than CNN’s election coverage (and the odd casino or AT&T store), we’re all still waiting to see this incredible tech in action. We had hopes that we’d see at least a smidgen of its potential in Windows or Windows Phone 7, but to no avail. Microsoft, for once learn from your nemesis. You’ve created wonder and wow, so get it out there before they beat you to it.