Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Ahead of Their Time

Marques Brownlee posted an exploration of products that, in his words, were ahead of their time. The main focus are three gadgets, but there are actually five early-to-market products explored in this video:

  • electric cars, generally,

  • Vine,

  • Google Glass,

  • the Samsung Galaxy Camera, and

  • the Motorola Atrix.

These are all product curiosities, but it is this idea of them being “ahead of their time” that I find sort of bizarre on its face. Perhaps the best way to explain what I mean is to explore why all of these products failed, and to look at whether modern-day versions are more successful.

As Brownlee explains, electric cars arrived in the 1800s and were around in various capacities before Tesla launched the Roadster in 2008. GM’s EV-1 was released in the late 1990s with mediocre range on a full charge, and under a lease-only agreement. Less than two thousand were delivered to customers — interestingly, not that much less than the number of Tesla Roadsters sold during its production run — until GM killed the project and scrapped nearly every example. I have a hard time believing the EV-1 would have ever been seen as truly desirable, but its failure was famously complex.

Vine, meanwhile, is far simpler: it died because Twitter, its owner, was spectacularly bad at product strategy. Musical.ly, TikTok’s predecessor, launched in August 2014, TikTok began expanding out of China in September 2016, and Vine was shuttered in October 2016. Vine’s problem was its owner and a lack of vision; it bled users to Instagram, which launched a competing short-form video option, and Twitter made the shutdown worse with a confusing Vine Camera app.

A product being “ahead of its time” implies there is eventually an era where it could have made sense or where its ideas solidify. At the beginning, Brownlee says these products “failed, but just because the world wasn’t ready for them yet” and, at the end of the video, says “Vine walked so TikTok could run”. That seems to be the definition we are working with, and it is what makes the other products Brownlee cited as being “ahead of their time” much more interesting. Here is what he highlights from each:

  • Google Glass was the first augmented reality headset designed to be worn outside of a lab or a gaming context.

  • Samsung Galaxy Camera was a full camera with a smartphone back, so you have all the power of an Android phone with the quality of a compact camera.

  • Motorola Atrix was a dockable phone that effectively transformed into a laptop.

Maybe you have spotted the problem already, but none of these product categories has found present-day success. Google Glass, as Brownlee says, is used in limited industrial and enterprise contexts, and he shows examples of more recent products that follow the form set by the Galaxy Camera and the Atrix. But there is no mainstream successful version of any of these.

There are fundamental reasons Brownlee cites for each, too, that have yet to be resolved. The smartphone-as-laptop concept sounds interesting, but nobody is buying one because the ecosystem is not there yet. Brownlee says Apple would rather sell you many devices rather than one, which is true, but it is also better to have each device format be true to itself. There is no evidence that people find a single device concept compelling in practice. People like their separate phone; they can fiddle with it while using their laptop for meetings.

A powerful camera with a smartphone operating system has also proved to be a weird concept because, in so many words, these are enthusiast problems that have enthusiast solutions. If you really care about camera image quality, you have a dedicated camera. If you want to be able to rapidly share images, it creates an ad hoc Wi-Fi network. Meanwhile, smartphone image quality continues gets better all the time.

Google Glass, meanwhile, was just a really dorky object. Followup products — like Snap’s Spectacles, and the Facebook and Ray-Bans collaboration — are barely more than prototypes. People are not convinced.

This ended up being sort of a retort to Brownlee’s video. That is not necessarily how I intended it; his video did inspire me to think about this a little more. I think we should be cautious in assuming any of the three product formats on his list could eventually succeed with mainstream adoption. Maybe they will, but it is not necessarily because the world was not ready for them yet. But maybe they will not because they are fundamentally flawed ideas — and that is okay. Experimentation is fun. We should not conflate that with early versions of eventually successful products, however, especially when those product categories have not proved successful.