Product Launch Failure

 

Let’s be honest: it’s only human to get a kick out of the spectacle of powerful, infinitely rich companies making a disastrous entry into a splashy new field, like Google’s recent epic fail with Gemini Al. These are rare, special cases of plunging right over the edge, involving an unusually choice degree of hubris and corporate humiliation.

Thirty years ago, it was Apple’s turn in the barrel when it introduced Newton, predecessor of today’s tablets and smartphones. At the time, Newton seemed almost miraculous. To be fair, new products often don’t succeed, even when they aren’t paradigm-shaking novelties. Most of the time there’s nothing unusual, let alone disgraceful in that normal winnowing process. It doesn’t usually involve becoming an instant, media-wide, national laughingstock that spoils the launch of a Whole New Thing.

Back then, business people often carried Dayrunners, a trendy brand of totable small looseleaf notebook with calendars, notes, and contact info. Newton let you carry all that, reduced to the size of a paperback book and easily kept in sync with your desk computer. You could scribble notes to yourself, and—here comes the hangup—it could even read your handwriting. It was that one feature that led to ridicule, because Apple released it too soon after insufficient testing. Product designer Jony Ive joined Apple to revise the early Newton. A year later, handwriting recognition worked much better, but by then the PR damage had been done. After Steve Jobs’ return, he would keep Ive for every major product launch thereafter.

Newton’s main problem was it wasn’t networked. WiFi didn’t exist yet. When your 2024 smartphone does handwriting and voice recognition, it’s acting solely as a thin client; the work is done in the cloud and instantly returned to your screen. Newton, by contrast, had to do everything all by itself.

In retrospect, Apple’s big mistake was overpromising, with a pretentious ad campaign that implied a lot more AI than the little MessagePad could deliver. Newton’s basic idea wasn’t dumb. The proof was the late Nineties success of the Palm Pilot, a smaller, lighter, and cheaper Personal Digital Assistant.

My Newton, ready for an overseas trip in 1995. 

Four years before the first Betamax arrived, more than a decade before Blockbuster stores would spread through our towns and cities, a U.S. company named Cartrivision released a domestically designed and built home video player. Unlike the handful of earlier attempts to sell home video recorders, this one had a specific marketing target and function: playing pre-recorded movies. Sold through Sears, Roebuck, & Company, the actual manufacturing was done by Packard Bell, a respected if second tier electronics company. Every Sears store that sold it also offered a fifty-film rental library of legal, licensed Hollywood feature films. No previous home video machine offered any.

This pioneering effort did things a little differently. Since most people didn’t live within daily driving range of a Sears, those rentals weren’t charged by the day, but by the number of viewings before a customer brought it back. (Each video cartridge had a simple mechanical counter, like an odometer. There were also a few cartridges for outright sale, mostly of the same kind of drearily cheap content that would later fill direct-to-VHS tapes.) The need to trade off rental tapes would bring customers back into the store frequently, which Sears liked.

It wasn’t a crazy scheme, but it didn’t quite work. Aimed at the top end of the market, for most of its existence Cartivision was available only as a built-in to “wideboy”-styled mahogany console TV sets for the living room. But the target buyers already had expensive color TVs, and didn’t need another console set. It also meant the huge, heavy sets wouldn’t be brought in for servicing, and few of the field technicians in the Sears service trucks had any training in fixing the moving parts of a videotape machine.

In contrast, when Sony came to America with Betamax, it too targeted a specific purpose: time shifting of broadcast programs. Just about any of the previous video recorders could have done that, but Sony was the first to make it the key to sales.

Often, the development period has been so long and expensive that the sunk cost fallacy takes over. That’s what happened to RCA’s incompatible, non-laser videodisc system; by the time it made it to market in 1981 they already knew it would flop, but after seven years of effort and $100 million, they couldn’t go back to their stockholders without making a valiant try. That four-year “try” wasted an additional $60 million.

In other cases, the product is stillborn, barely on the market at all. In 1951, it was CBS’s early form of color TV; a much later example is HD-DVD, the 2007 competitor of Blu-Ray. In 2012, Hewlett-Packard’s tablet computer lasted only 49 days before it was pulled. They all made it to the sales counter, but were almost immediately abandoned by companies that belatedly realized they weren’t going to win.

Most technological products become cheaper over time, but some have an intrinsic wall of high cost and limited demand that never fully goes away. Supersonic flight, Concorde style, never did enter a virtuous circle of becoming affordable. AT&T’s 1970 Picturephone, at a monthly rent of $100 ($775 in today’s money), couldn’t attract enough customers to make calling each other worthwhile. Color TVs, which started out three times as expensive as black and white, spent ten years as a niche for the rich that didn’t hit its 1955 sales goals until 1965, when they were only twice as expensive. But they doggedly hung around long enough to succeed, mostly because RCA, color’s chief developer, never gave up.

The failure of the Alto computer, invented a half century ago at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center and a decade ahead of its time, was more than a simple case of lazy or overcautious corporate timing. What made Alto so unique, so advanced was its windows-icons-and mouse interface and its (relatively) high-definition bitmapped screen. At the time, fifty years ago, that required so many expensive silicon storage chips that the product would have been impractically costly. Then, a key breakthrough in cyber engineering allowed the computer to save most of that money by continuously, imperceptibly swapping parts of that screen image in and out of a smaller memory.

With the Alto, Xerox had a five-year head start on a workplace-capable, networked, windowing computer with a laser printer. But this is critical: they knew, they had to know it would be a rapidly depreciating asset. It was literally a case of use it or lose it. They didn’t use it in time, so, in one of the great what-ifs of corporate history, they lost it.

Apple’s nearly forgotten 1983 Lisa computer series preceded the Macintosh by a year, with much of the same system architecture—windows, icons, a mouse. The problem was a familiar one for groundbreaking new technology: it was way more expensive than planned. A well-equipped Lisa workstation cost about half as much as a car. From that point forward, the brand that once called itself “The computer for the rest of us” was twice as expensive as the computer for the rest of “them”—i.e., MS-DOS, later in the form of Microsoft Windows (with a capital “W’).

Sometimes it’s a problem of timing. The project is rushed to the market before it’s ready, like first generation fission power stations, the space shuttle, Newton, or VR headsets in the Nineties. Or it’s too late to reach the market, like Polaroid’s Polavision, instant (silent) home movies that would have rocked the Super 8 market in 1966. But when they finally appeared ten years later, they were overshadowed by truly “instant home movies”—video, with sound, on reusable tape. Sony’s Walkman cassette players were world-beating hits, but their much-ballyhooed 1992 follow-up, the MiniDisc, had a unique Sony recording format that didn’t have time to catch on before direct online digital delivery and storage (MP3 and Apple iTunes) took over from physical media.

At the other end of a particular technology’s birth, widespread adoption, and economic lifetime, there are often a few ideas, once novel, some quirky, that have had unpredictable staying power beyond the grave of obsolescence. Super 8 movies, vinyl records, vacuum tube music amplifiers, instant film cameras; hobbyists gave them ghostly afterlives, decades after their abandonment by the mainstream market.

Some costly corporate misfortunes are outright blunders, combined with, in many cases, infighting and ego. In the case of Google Gemini, it was wokeness, combined with willful blindness. To be fair, plenty of other bad product launches were normal misjudgments, combined with unexpected technical snags and plain bad luck.

Apple’s very recent cancellation of its decade-long, multi-billion-dollar pursuit of a practical self-driving car, is a rare, apparently laudable case of a megacorporation that prudently pulled back from the brink before taking that last, bet-the-entire-company risk of manufacturing and selling a vastly expensive new product. Even the world’s most successful firms are wary of the tricky transition between a promising idea that works in a lab and a commercially viable product for sale to the public.

One suggestion, though: if you’ve got a risky new product, don’t give it a too-easily-mockable name, like Edsel, Ishtar, or Gigli.

You don’t always know what, at the outset, will fail; on the other hand, you don’t always know when an established institution that seems to have been humming along practically forever is about to enter a failure spiral.

I recently opened a used book (Man Without a Face, 1997). After a lifetime of disillusion, Markus Wolf, Communist east Germany’s coldly brilliant spy master, spells out fifty different ways that he helped the DDR state cynically betray the cause of socialism. Nonetheless he couldn’t resist ending his postwar tale with a defiant dedication to Marx:

A demain, Karl! Until tomorrow.

Now, if that’s not a chilly ending, I don’t know what is.

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  1. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    She (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    In 1980, Exxon Office Systems (part of Exxon’s post-Oil Age corporate plan) introduced the latest word in … word processing.

    Rather like perfecting the buggy whip as the first Model Ts roll off the assembly line in 1908.

    Exxon Office Systems let 20% of their staff go in 1981. They sold off the whole shooting match (to Harris, I think) in 1984.

    The Vydec actually came out a few years before the company was bought by Exxon Office Systems Corp, when the it was buying up office technology left and right including memory typewriters and fax machines. “Information will be the oil for the twenty-first century!” was the mantra. But the pieces never really coalesced, and Exxon was playing catchup behind industry leaders like Wang (speaking of unfortunate names) and NBI.

    As a first-generation word processor, the Vydec was page-oriented, meaning that the typist composed a page at a time on the screen, and then saved it to an 8″ floppy disk. Revisions were simple if the page endings didn’t change as a result. When edits increased the length of a previously saved page, the overflow went into a buffer which, after the revised page has been saved, had to be retrieved along with the following page, and then pasted in at the top. Likely, this pushed text from current page down into the buffer again, and the process had to be repeated for each page, until the end. When revisions shortened a page too much, the typist had to capture the text from the top of the following page, and stick it back at the bottom of the short one.

    This, however, was a great improvement over retyping the whole document each time.

    I worked for EOSC, in customer support and sales, from in 1983-1984, shortly before it folded. By then, it had come out with the “500,” an improved but still not terribly good product which had “borrowed” many features from its competitors. It used a Z-80 chip (Zilog was a subsidiary of EOSC). The infighting between Zilog and its parent company also contributed to the chaos and collapse.

    The next generation of word processors, which came out in the late 70s were “document oriented,” meaning that the text of individual documents flowed automatically to the next page, and repagination after edits became much simpler, either being done automatically (NBI) or with a “repagination pass” (most others until they figured out how to do it automatically).

    Prior to working for EOSC, I worked for NBI for several years. I suppose, in real terms, all those companies “failed,” for various reasons. But it was an exciting time to be in the business, and the products, and what we were doing, certainly changed the face of office work forever.

    I believe that since the days of Lady Ada Lovelace and Admiral Grace Hopper, we have rarely seen a woman write about computers so compellingly as She. 

    • #61
  2. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Stad (View Comment):

    Post of the Week . . .

    From your mouth to God’s ear, Stad, thanks!

    BTW…wouldn’t “God’s Ear” be a good nickname for an NSA intercept sation?

    • #62
  3. WillowSpring Member
    WillowSpring
    @WillowSpring

    I started my Engineer/programmer career in the mid 60’s and lived through two (at least) “That will never happen!” moments.

    The first was that even when PC based word processors were pretty useful, the general opinion was that executives would never type their own documents.  A secretary was too much of a power symbol.

    The second was when our company was asked to develop a machine to count and record the paperback book returns by retailers to the wholesalers.  Since it was too hard to get the paperback itself back into circulation, the front covers were removed and the job was to read and account for these.  The covers were to be identified by image recognition  a pretty complicated task at that point.

    Our Engineers in the meeting (marketing hated us in meetings) said – “the solution is easier than that, just add a barcode to the cover”

    We were told in no uncertain terms that the American public would never accept a barcode on a product!

    • #63
  4. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    WillowSpring (View Comment):

    The first was that even when PC based word processors were pretty useful, the general opinion was that executives would never type their own documents.  A secretary was too much of a power symbol.

     

    A seldom mentioned part of the reason for this was that as women became eligible for better jobs, the quality of the secretarial applicant pool dropped precipitously.  The women who were executive secretaries when you started are now executives, and with what was left, along with word processors meaning you could screw up and then fix it along the way, it became easier to do it yourself.

    • #64
  5. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    WillowSpring (View Comment):

    We were told in no uncertain terms that the American public would never accept a barcode on a product!

    I don’t think they would have, until it was law and it was every single product.  Remember, people hated that when it started.   Especially for books and magazines.

    • #65
  6. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    WillowSpring (View Comment):

    I started my Engineer/programmer career in the mid 60’s and lived through two (at least) “That will never happen!” moments.

    The first was that even when PC based word processors were pretty useful, the general opinion was that executives would never type their own documents. A secretary was too much of a power symbol.

    The second was when our company was asked to develop a machine to count and record the paperback book returns by retailers to the wholesalers. Since it was too hard to get the paperback itself back into circulation, the front covers were removed and the job was to read and account for these. The covers were to be identified by image recognition a pretty complicated task at that point.

    Our Engineers in the meeting (marketing hated us in meetings) said – “the solution is easier than that, just add a barcode to the cover”

    We were told in no uncertain terms that the American public would never accept a barcode on a product!

    I was party to a discussion where several of the participants predicted that pilots would reject fly-by-wire in favor of control cables running the length of the airplane, the way it had always been done. Telling the pilots that having their inputs transmitted to the actuators just wouldn’t be accepted.

    Fly-by-wire is pretty much standard now.

    • #66
  7. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    This is an absolutely wonderful post. I love the history of technological innovation, and why/when it works and does not. It is very close to home for my day job/obsession. 

    • #67
  8. WillowSpring Member
    WillowSpring
    @WillowSpring

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    WillowSpring (View Comment):

    The first was that even when PC based word processors were pretty useful, the general opinion was that executives would never type their own documents. A secretary was too much of a power symbol.

     

    A seldom mentioned part of the reason for this was that as women became eligible for better jobs, the quality of the secretarial applicant pool dropped precipitously. The women who were executive secretaries when you started are now executives, and with what was left, along with word processors meaning you could screw up and then fix it along the way, it became easier to do it yourself.

    Interestingly, when I started, engineers “engineered” and the actual programmers were women.  I was an “Engineering Aide ” (the person who the technicians bossed around) at the start and my career was given a huge boost when one of the female programmers helped me work on a program that my boss said would never be used (until I finished it, anyway)

    • #68
  9. OccupantCDN Coolidge
    OccupantCDN
    @OccupantCDN

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Meanwhile, LP records are making a comeback.

    Emo Philips (a comedian from the mid 80s – 90s) had a joke, were he claimed the CD ruined his love life… He’d put on a 45 record, and he could go for as long as the record… taking breathers to change the record each time the song ended… The CD however would just go on and on …

    • #69
  10. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Beta suffered from other issues, including cost and weird running times. ~5 hours on a tape was enough to record 2 2-hour movies, but not enough for 3. etc.

    Also, VHS HQ took care of many of the quality differences.

    I think you mean S-VHS, but you’re right, so why quibble over details? Thanks for bringing it up; the final decade or so of plain ol’ NTSC, America’s analog TV standards, saw a great deal of improvement in that traditional 3 by 4 picture. S-VHS, like Sony’s somewhat similar Hi-8, had the same number of up and down scan lines as the regular stuff, but did everything within the rules to improve the side to side picture detail. Both of these improved formats did the same thing, making a greater separation between the luminance (detail) and chrominance (color) signals. 

    There was both.  VHS HQ was a “cleaner” standard VHS player, used the same RCA connectors.

    S-VHS (IIRC) used a three plug cable with a special connector on the player side.  (It’s been 20-plus years since I had mine, hard to remember exactly).

    • #70
  11. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Randy Weivoda (View Comment):

    Gary McVey: In contrast, when Sony came to America with Betamax, it too targeted a specific purpose: time shifting of broadcast programs.

    Betamax was superior to VHS, but it seems like there have been a lot of times when Sony would develop some new standard that really wasn’t better than the competition, just different (and obviously incompatible).

    Beta suffered from other issues, including cost and weird running times. ~5 hours on a tape was enough to record 2 2-hour movies, but not enough for 3. etc.

    Also, VHS HQ took care of many of the quality differences.

    I think you mean S-VHS, but you’re right, so why quibble over details? Thanks for bringing it up; the final decade or so of plain ol’ NTSC, America’s analog TV standards, saw a great deal of improvement in that traditional 3 by 4 picture. S-VHS, like Sony’s somewhat similar Hi-8, had the same number of up and down scan lines as the regular stuff, but did everything within the rules to improve the side to side picture detail. Both of these improved formats did the same thing, making a greater separation between the luminance (detail) and chrominance (color) signals.

    No, I’m careful about that. Regular VHS and VHS-HQ tapes could be played on either machine, but S-VHS was not backward compatible. I bought an S-VHS machine when “Star Trek: The Next Generation” first began, but adding in the cost of the special tapes it was too expensive to keep up with.

    I had an S-VHS player for a couple years, I don’t recall special tapes, or a compatibility problem.

     

    Edit:  in this and the previous comment  I believe I  confused “S-VHS” and “S-video on a  standard VHS player”.

    • #71
  12. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    I had the original Palm Pilot for a few years, got it at a Gartner Conference in October 1996.  They handed them out at check-in with the program schedule for the week pre-loaded, then at the end of the week you could turn it back in, or buy it for a reduced price.  My boss let me buy it and expense it to the company.

    A couple years later I replaced it with a palm 3, which was a nice upgrade.

     

    • #72
  13. Rodin Member
    Rodin
    @Rodin

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):

    I had the original Palm Pilot for a few years, got it at a Gartner Conference in October 1996. They handed them out at check-in with the program schedule for the week pre-loaded, then at the end of the week you could turn it back in, or buy it for a reduced price. My boss let me buy it and expense it to the company.

    A couple years later I replaced it with a palm 3, which was a nice upgrade.

     

    Hi. My name is Rodin, and I had a Palm Pilot. (I think you can start seeing a pattern, here.)

    • #73
  14. Matt Bartle Member
    Matt Bartle
    @MattBartle

    The Palm Treo was a smartphone before smartphones were cool.

    • #74
  15. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Matt Bartle (View Comment):

    The Palm Treo was a smartphone before smartphones were cool.

    In the Nineties, Pen Computing was (IMHO) the best of the ones that covered the field. It had to divide its attention between Newton, Palm, Pocket PC, Symbian, Casio, you name it. 

    Newton was licensed from the start; Sharp had their own, and Motorola made one with limited cell phone abilities for the industrial market. 

    IIRC, Magic Cap and General Magic were a sideways offshoot of Apple’s Newton, which originally was going to be a thick tablet at a premium price. A subsequent project director reoriented it towards something like a transistor radio form factor. 

    • #75
  16. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Randy Weivoda (View Comment):

    Gary McVey: In contrast, when Sony came to America with Betamax, it too targeted a specific purpose: time shifting of broadcast programs.

    Betamax was superior to VHS, but it seems like there have been a lot of times when Sony would develop some new standard that really wasn’t better than the competition, just different (and obviously incompatible).

    Beta suffered from other issues, including cost and weird running times. ~5 hours on a tape was enough to record 2 2-hour movies, but not enough for 3. etc.

    Also, VHS HQ took care of many of the quality differences.

    I think you mean S-VHS, but you’re right, so why quibble over details? Thanks for bringing it up; the final decade or so of plain ol’ NTSC, America’s analog TV standards, saw a great deal of improvement in that traditional 3 by 4 picture. S-VHS, like Sony’s somewhat similar Hi-8, had the same number of up and down scan lines as the regular stuff, but did everything within the rules to improve the side to side picture detail. Both of these improved formats did the same thing, making a greater separation between the luminance (detail) and chrominance (color) signals.

    No, I’m careful about that. Regular VHS and VHS-HQ tapes could be played on either machine, but S-VHS was not backward compatible. I bought an S-VHS machine when “Star Trek: The Next Generation” first began, but adding in the cost of the special tapes it was too expensive to keep up with.

    I had an S-VHS player for a couple years, I don’t recall special tapes, or a compatibility problem.

    Edit: in this and the previous comment I believe I confused “S-VHS” and “S-video on a standard VHS player”.

    For the true S-VHS experience, you used the S-Video connection, which had the chroma and luma signals separated.  The connectors were similar to PS/2 mouse/keyboard.  Then you had the audio connections, RCA type, which would be stereo by that point.  Color-coded red and white.

    If you still used the single composite video connection – an RCA type, usually color-coded yellow – on an S-VHS machine, you lost at least some of the advantages of S-VHS which also recorded them in a different format on the tape.  Which is why regular VHS tapes and S-VHS tapes were not interchangeable.  At least not completely.  You could use regular VHS tapes in an S-VHS machine, but you didn’t get the true S-VHS quality.  (The electronics etc of an S-VHS machine might still work better than a standard VHS, but that’s not why you wanted S-VHS.)

    The tapes were physically identical looking, which you’d expect since you could use VHS tapes in an S-VHS machine.  They just weren’t recorded or played at S-VHS quality.  I don’t remember if the S-VHS tapes had a special notch or anything so that a regular VHS machine wouldn’t accept them, but for sure if you got an S-VHS-recorded tape into a regular VHS machine, it wouldn’t play right.

    Later in the VHS game there was some kind of near- or psuedo- S-VHS that used regular tapes, I don’t recall exactly what it was called.  But I never fell for it.

    I worked with an engineering guy years ago who designed and built video systems, among other things.  So I picked up quite a bit from him too.  One of the reasons S-VHS and using the S-Video connections was superior, was that a lot of the video processing circuitry – especially ICs – for composite video wound up separating the chroma and luma signals internally, processing them, then putting them back together again for the output.  And then they went to the next stage, which separated them again…  Adding loss/distortion each time.

    S-Video connections were an early favorite with large-screen and projection TVs, where the loss/distortion was more obvious.  People who wanted the best possible result from their Laserdisc player also used S-Video.

    3-part Component Video came next, which had 3 video connections plus stereo sound.  (Technically, S-Video was 2-part Component Video but I never saw it referred to that way in practice.)  That was pretty common on early DVD players and even allowed the first levels of HD. (I haven’t checked recently, but I think Component Video supported up to 1080i.) And that was all still analog.  It was also pretty common in higher-end computer graphics to use display technology where the Red, Green, and Blue signals for RGB were on 3 separate cable connections.  Although that was different from 3-part Component Video for TV etc.

    Some combo Laserdisc/DVD players also had Component Video outputs, but from what I’ve picked up, those only worked when playing DVD, not LD.  I’ve never had a combo player myself, only straight DVD or straight LD.

    Then came DVI, and HDMI…

    Back in the day when I recorded a lot of movies and stuff from satellite TV, I always got receivers that included an S-Video output.  And the recording computers I built had S-Video inputs.  Both because it allowed for higher-quality recording, and because the S-Video connector didn’t carry any kind of copy-protection signal that might block or mess up a recording.

    • #76
  17. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    WillowSpring (View Comment):

    The first was that even when PC based word processors were pretty useful, the general opinion was that executives would never type their own documents. A secretary was too much of a power symbol.

     

    A seldom mentioned part of the reason for this was that as women became eligible for better jobs, the quality of the secretarial applicant pool dropped precipitously. The women who were executive secretaries when you started are now executives, and with what was left, along with word processors meaning you could screw up and then fix it along the way, it became easier to do it yourself.

    It’s one of those awkward situations that doesn’t lend itself to rah-rah Sisterhood movies on the Lifetime Network. 

    • #77
  18. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    WillowSpring (View Comment):

    I started my Engineer/programmer career in the mid 60’s and lived through two (at least) “That will never happen!” moments.

    The first was that even when PC based word processors were pretty useful, the general opinion was that executives would never type their own documents. A secretary was too much of a power symbol.

    The second was when our company was asked to develop a machine to count and record the paperback book returns by retailers to the wholesalers. Since it was too hard to get the paperback itself back into circulation, the front covers were removed and the job was to read and account for these. The covers were to be identified by image recognition a pretty complicated task at that point.

    Our Engineers in the meeting (marketing hated us in meetings) said – “the solution is easier than that, just add a barcode to the cover”

    We were told in no uncertain terms that the American public would never accept a barcode on a product!

    I was just reading Another Life, Michael Korda’s memoirs of 40 years in the book biz. He said that the willingness to take and credit returns began as a Depression-era desperation ploy to keep the booksellers afloat, but hung on after the war to be an albatross around the publishers’ necks. 

    • #78
  19. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Beta suffered from other issues, including cost and weird running times. ~5 hours on a tape was enough to record 2 2-hour movies, but not enough for 3. etc.

    Also, VHS HQ took care of many of the quality differences.

    I think you mean S-VHS, but you’re right, so why quibble over details? Thanks for bringing it up; the final decade or so of plain ol’ NTSC, America’s analog TV standards, saw a great deal of improvement in that traditional 3 by 4 picture. S-VHS, like Sony’s somewhat similar Hi-8, had the same number of up and down scan lines as the regular stuff, but did everything within the rules to improve the side to side picture detail. Both of these improved formats did the same thing, making a greater separation between the luminance (detail) and chrominance (color) signals.

    There was both. VHS HQ was a “cleaner” standard VHS player, used the same RCA connectors.

    S-VHS (IIRC) used a three plug cable with a special connector on the player side. (It’s been 20-plus years since I had mine, hard to remember exactly).

    Regular ol’ video was “composite”. When it was delivered over Red, Green and Blue separate lines it was “component” video. S-video was a compromise: the colors were carried combined, but they were carried separately from the black and white. 

    • #79
  20. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    I got a Newton when the price dropped preceding the rollout of a newer version. I could draw and label pictures (such as for system architecture diagrams) on the fly and get them onto my computer. It replaced the notebooks that I was always carrying around.

     

    • #80
  21. Steve C. Member
    Steve C.
    @user_531302

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    We mentioned the Sony Betamax. But that was really a Mark II-type deal, because originally the home video machine of the dawn of the Seventies was supposed to be Sony’s ¾ inch U-Matic, whose tapes were about the size of hardcover books. It was a fine product—profitable versions of it remained in professional use right through the end of the century—but when it finally got to the US market, it was too large, heavy, and above all, expensive to be popular in the home. Saving face, Sony immediately made it a success in schools, industry, and soon, broadcast TV.

    Sony immediately got cracking on a similar but yet smaller machine, whose ½ tape cassettes would be the size of paperback books. From the first videotapes in 1956, engineers left “guard bands”, physical space between the recorded “stripes” so their signals didn’t blend together. Sony’s new half-inch tape was so closely packed that the guard bands were almost gone, yet superior engineering delivered a clear signal.

    In Japanese calligraphy, coating the entire surface with one brushstroke is called “Beta”. Sony decided to represent it with the Greek letter.

    My freshman year in college the communication department bought a backpack Sony VTR and camera setup which I remember as costing almost $30,000.

    • #81
  22. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Steve C. (View Comment):

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    We mentioned the Sony Betamax. But that was really a Mark II-type deal, because originally the home video machine of the dawn of the Seventies was supposed to be Sony’s ¾ inch U-Matic, whose tapes were about the size of hardcover books. It was a fine product—profitable versions of it remained in professional use right through the end of the century—but when it finally got to the US market, it was too large, heavy, and above all, expensive to be popular in the home. Saving face, Sony immediately made it a success in schools, industry, and soon, broadcast TV.

    Sony immediately got cracking on a similar but yet smaller machine, whose ½ tape cassettes would be the size of paperback books. From the first videotapes in 1956, engineers left “guard bands”, physical space between the recorded “stripes” so their signals didn’t blend together. Sony’s new half-inch tape was so closely packed that the guard bands were almost gone, yet superior engineering delivered a clear signal.

    In Japanese calligraphy, coating the entire surface with one brushstroke is called “Beta”. Sony decided to represent it with the Greek letter.

    My freshman year in college the communication department bought a backpack Sony VTR and camera setup which I remember as costing almost $30,000.

    VTR meaning it was the open-reel type?

    • #82
  23. OccupantCDN Coolidge
    OccupantCDN
    @OccupantCDN

    Steve C. (View Comment):

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    We mentioned the Sony Betamax. But that was really a Mark II-type deal, because originally the home video machine of the dawn of the Seventies was supposed to be Sony’s ¾ inch U-Matic, whose tapes were about the size of hardcover books. It was a fine product—profitable versions of it remained in professional use right through the end of the century—but when it finally got to the US market, it was too large, heavy, and above all, expensive to be popular in the home. Saving face, Sony immediately made it a success in schools, industry, and soon, broadcast TV.

    Sony immediately got cracking on a similar but yet smaller machine, whose ½ tape cassettes would be the size of paperback books. From the first videotapes in 1956, engineers left “guard bands”, physical space between the recorded “stripes” so their signals didn’t blend together. Sony’s new half-inch tape was so closely packed that the guard bands were almost gone, yet superior engineering delivered a clear signal.

    In Japanese calligraphy, coating the entire surface with one brushstroke is called “Beta”. Sony decided to represent it with the Greek letter.

    My freshman year in college the communication department bought a backpack Sony VTR and camera setup which I remember as costing almost $30,000.

    That would have been a very good setup. Probably very similar to what TV news stations would have been using at the time.

     

    • #83
  24. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Steve C. (View Comment):

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    We mentioned the Sony Betamax. But that was really a Mark II-type deal, because originally the home video machine of the dawn of the Seventies was supposed to be Sony’s ¾ inch U-Matic, whose tapes were about the size of hardcover books. It was a fine product—profitable versions of it remained in professional use right through the end of the century—but when it finally got to the US market, it was too large, heavy, and above all, expensive to be popular in the home. Saving face, Sony immediately made it a success in schools, industry, and soon, broadcast TV.

    Sony immediately got cracking on a similar but yet smaller machine, whose ½ tape cassettes would be the size of paperback books. From the first videotapes in 1956, engineers left “guard bands”, physical space between the recorded “stripes” so their signals didn’t blend together. Sony’s new half-inch tape was so closely packed that the guard bands were almost gone, yet superior engineering delivered a clear signal.

    In Japanese calligraphy, coating the entire surface with one brushstroke is called “Beta”. Sony decided to represent it with the Greek letter.

    My freshman year in college the communication department bought a backpack Sony VTR and camera setup which I remember as costing almost $30,000.

    If it’s the Portapack I know (Sony AV series black and white), I think you’re talking more like $3,000. Then again, I don’t know what era you were in college. 

    • #84
  25. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    OccupantCDN (View Comment):

    Steve C. (View Comment):

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    We mentioned the Sony Betamax. But that was really a Mark II-type deal, because originally the home video machine of the dawn of the Seventies was supposed to be Sony’s ¾ inch U-Matic, whose tapes were about the size of hardcover books. It was a fine product—profitable versions of it remained in professional use right through the end of the century—but when it finally got to the US market, it was too large, heavy, and above all, expensive to be popular in the home. Saving face, Sony immediately made it a success in schools, industry, and soon, broadcast TV.

    Sony immediately got cracking on a similar but yet smaller machine, whose ½ tape cassettes would be the size of paperback books. From the first videotapes in 1956, engineers left “guard bands”, physical space between the recorded “stripes” so their signals didn’t blend together. Sony’s new half-inch tape was so closely packed that the guard bands were almost gone, yet superior engineering delivered a clear signal.

    In Japanese calligraphy, coating the entire surface with one brushstroke is called “Beta”. Sony decided to represent it with the Greek letter.

    My freshman year in college the communication department bought a backpack Sony VTR and camera setup which I remember as costing almost $30,000.

    That would have been a very good setup. Probably very similar to what TV news stations would have been using at the time.

     

    An Ikegami ENG camera (electronic news gathering) and a portable 3/4 inch recorder, maybe. 

    • #85
  26. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Percival (View Comment):

    I got a Newton when the price dropped preceding the rollout of a newer version. I could draw and label pictures (such as for system architecture diagrams) on the fly and get them onto my computer. It replaced the notebooks that I was always carrying around.

     

    I carried a Newton when I visited Hong Kong in ’95 and then Taipei in 1996. Every time i used it on the subway I attracted a small crowd. I was new in Asia, and was amused and surprised that people who are notably shy and polite were utterly un-inhibited about getting in your face (literally). When I told people in Taiwan that the chips were made there, they were a mixture of pride and disbelief. “Really? Us??”

    • #86
  27. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    A sidenote or two about competition with Polaroid, a name that was synonymous with instant photos. There was a weak competitor in the Sixties, Chrislin. It was a different chemical process that didn’t infringe Polaroid’s patents, so it was ignored. The Long Island-based Camera Company of America kept it going from 1965-’69. 

    Then in the mid-to-late Seventies, Eastman Kodak released its own version of instant photography. It was slick, well designed, and nationally distributed, a much greater competitor. And it was one of the all-time bad decisions in the history of American business. They infringed Polaroid’s patents. Kodak not only had to settle a ruinously expensive lawsuit, plus damages, but effectively refund every single person who ever purchased their camera. It all but destroyed Kodak financially. 

    • #87
  28. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    For those who love really obscure media technology (and let’s face it, this readership has self-selected itself to an extraordinary degree), there was something in radio pre-WWII called Apex, wideband AM on a shortwave frequency. It had some of the quality advantages of FM. Like radio facsimile, it faded quickly after the war. But at one time, circa 1940, Apex was going to be the future of radio. 

    • #88
  29. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    For those who love really obscure media technology (and let’s face it, this readership has self-selected itself to an extraordinary degree), there was something in radio pre-WWII called Apex, wideband AM on a shortwave frequency. It had some of the quality advantages of FM. Like radio facsimile, it faded quickly after the war. But at one time, circa 1940, Apex was going to be the future of radio.

    Did they think it would be better than FM?  Interesting.

    • #89
  30. OccupantCDN Coolidge
    OccupantCDN
    @OccupantCDN

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Steve C. (View Comment):

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    We mentioned the Sony Betamax. But that was really a Mark II-type deal, because originally the home video machine of the dawn of the Seventies was supposed to be Sony’s ¾ inch U-Matic, whose tapes were about the size of hardcover books. It was a fine product—profitable versions of it remained in professional use right through the end of the century—but when it finally got to the US market, it was too large, heavy, and above all, expensive to be popular in the home. Saving face, Sony immediately made it a success in schools, industry, and soon, broadcast TV.

    Sony immediately got cracking on a similar but yet smaller machine, whose ½ tape cassettes would be the size of paperback books. From the first videotapes in 1956, engineers left “guard bands”, physical space between the recorded “stripes” so their signals didn’t blend together. Sony’s new half-inch tape was so closely packed that the guard bands were almost gone, yet superior engineering delivered a clear signal.

    In Japanese calligraphy, coating the entire surface with one brushstroke is called “Beta”. Sony decided to represent it with the Greek letter.

    My freshman year in college the communication department bought a backpack Sony VTR and camera setup which I remember as costing almost $30,000.

    VTR meaning it was the open-reel type?

    No, VTR means Video Tape Recorder … Its a commercial machine much larger than a consumer grade VCR…. But it had much better recording capabilities. The one I was looking at belonged to a Credit Union, and they used it to produce their TV ads in house… Something like this:

     

    • #90
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