Sometimes the failures are iterations of the same idea, honing in on the breakthrough version. Serial inventor Thomas Edison, said of his own unsuccessful attempts to develop a viable light bulb:
“I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
Four light bulbs on display in Paris, 1882. With designs from Edison, Maxim, Swan & Werdermann. Edison’s design was patented in 1880, he didn’t create a viable working prototype until 6 months after he filed his patent application.
The failure in the development of one idea can often leads to the discovery of something different. For example, the story goes that stainless steel was invented by Harry Brearly when he was experimenting with alloys to produce a gun barrel that would not erode by friction from the bullet. Amidst a growing pile of scrap alloy metal that he had discarded he happened to notice that over time one castaway had not corroded. Stainless steel was unexpectedly born.
Some inventions make it to market only to become commercial failures – sometimes funny, sometimes tragic and almost always expensive.
Today’s greatest innovators enshrine failure in their management philosophy. Mark Zuckerberg for instance is famed for encouraging staff to “move fast and break things” while Google has its ‘moonshots’ division that exclusively looks at outlandish ideas.
Yes, research and development, failure and innovation are inextricably linked and with that in mind we celebrate some of the failures that are the inevitable side effect of innovation.
In a dramatic move in 1985, Coca Cola altered the formula of their iconic drink. All hell broke loose. Their phone lines were off the hook, people stockpiled the last of the ‘old’ Coke in their basements and just a few months later ‘old’ coke was re-introduced as Classic Coke. On their website Coca Cola claim that the whole episode revitalised the soft drinks market and in the longer term and had a positive effect on market share but it can’t have felt like that at the time.
Was this a case of if ain’t broke, don’t fix it?
Amstrad E-M@iler Plus & E3 Superphone
This ‘innovation’ missed the direction in which technology and society were heading. While Apple was developing the iPhone and Skype was making video calls an everyday reality, Amstrad stuck a keyboard and monitor on a landline phone and called it the future. The result was an ugly lump of plastic that was old-fashioned before it even launched. The reliance on premium rate numbers meant that soon even moderate users were vocally complaining that the £79.99 device was adding as much as an additional £150 per month to their phone bills.
Still, it would have been more useful than this robotic answerphone. We are not sure how far this got in development but although this human(ish) shaped robot could pick up the phone it could not speak or record a message. Fail!
Both missed the point of what people wanted from their devices.
Sony – A win and a loss in the format wars
Sony’s Blu-ray may have seen off Toshiba’s HD DVD in the battle for High Definition discs in the mid-2000s but rewind 25 years and Sony were on the losing side in the fight for the dominant video tape format. Sony’s Betamax was actually considered by many to be the superior technology but a number of marketing and strategic mistakes allowed JVC’s VHS format to win out. Tech lore has it that the adult entertainment industry played a big role in Betamax’s demise, Sony reportedly scorned the sector, and refused to carry adult content on Betamax. Toshiba on the other hand looked to build relationships with publishers wherever they could. By 1988 Sony had effectively conceded defeat, and began to sell their own range of VHS players, they continued to produce Betamax recorders in limited numbers until 2002.
Apple: Newton, Pippin and Hi Fi
Younger generations may be forgiven for thinking that Apple has it all their own way. But it hasn’t always had the Midas touch.
In the late 80s and early 90s, in what we could now say was a pre-cursor to the iPad they launched the Newton, a palm-held device. It was touch screen but back then of course was not connected to the internet. It did not have the aesthetics of modern day apple products and there were embarrassing issues with its hand writing recognition software. It was discontinued in 1998.
Then there was Apple’s attempt at a games console: the PIPPIN. Having built the underlying platform Apple then licensed it to other companies to develop. There were only two takers and by the time they released their PIPPINS, the Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation were dominating the market.
Obscured by the stunning success of the iPod itself the iPod Hi Fi was a speaker dock released in 2006. It was expensive, had limited functionality, there were integration issues, and it wasn’t fully compatible with all iPods. In a competitive marketplace it was discontinued in less than two years.
What defines failure? To this day no passenger airline has come close to being able to transport people as fast as the 1969 Concorde. It is without doubt a stunning piece of engineering. And yet only 20 were ever built and 14 entered airline service. With 100 passengers and nine crew it had a range of 4,500 miles and could fly at over twice the speed of sound – that’s over 1,350 mph! Yet, the numbers just did not add up. It was too expensive to run. The final and tragic nails in its coffin were the catastrophic Parisian crash in July 2000 and the impact of 9/11 terror attacks in 2001 on the airline industry. In 2003 Concorde was mothballed.
To finish on a lighter note, back in 2001 the Segway was dubbed “the future of transportation”. There were claims it would be used by police departments, delivery companies … not to mention the general public.
All manner of very credible figures were saying things such as the Segway’s impact would be similar to that of the personal computer, and that the makers would sell 500,000 a year. These claims turned out to be as ridiculous as the image of someone riding one. In fact after seven years only 30,000 had been sold.
Apparently the development was so secret that little or no testing on the public was carried out – so the Segway’s image problem was a surprise when it was released! And issues such as its compliance with traffic laws were not addressed which also hindered any chance it had of success.
What lessons can be learnt?
The number one lesson is that failure is certainly not always a bad thing. Indeed it is a necessary step in the process of innovation, failed projects are one of the key indicators that HMRC like to see when processing R&D tax credit claims. If you succeed in everything that you attempt it’s very difficult to argue that you’re pushing the boundaries of innovation. We don’t claim to know all the answers but perhaps some conclusions can be drawn from these examples:
From Coca Cola – Tread carefully if you are going to mess with something that people love.
From Apple – Persevere and you can turn the Newton into the iPad.
From Sony – To get something accepted by the masses you need to make it accessible to the masses.
From Amstrad – Look forwards not backwards (or even sideways) in product design.
From Concorde – Well, you can develop the most wonderful thing but even a technological marvel will not necessarily lead to commercial success.
And from Segway – Think beyond the product itself. How will it be received in the wider world?
Failure and R&D Tax claims
Failure, or at least the possibility of it, is a key component of making an R&D claim. It’s a common misconception that failed projects do not qualify for R&D tax relief. To the contrary, just because you didn’t set out to achieve what you set out to, provided you can demonstrate that the project sought to achieve a technological advance it can still qualify for relief. It doesn’t matter which industry you are in, if you are developing new products or processes where there is a risk of failure you should talk to an R&D tax expert to find out if you can claim.