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Why Products Fail

Connector Geek

Developing a new product is an expensive venture.  It hardly matters for which market the product is destined. The cost of creating a new product is so high that the hopes and dreams of many companies rest on their future success. And yet, success is never guaranteed. For every Apple iPod, there is a Microsoft Zune

Products fail for many reasons. Some of the most entertaining failures probably seemed like a good idea at the time but, with the benefit of hindsight, we can only wonder. Was cheese-snack-flavoured lip balm ever a good idea?

Ideas Before Their Time

The Sinclair C5

Other products failed because their time had not come. Sir Clive Sinclair was (and still is) a very clever man, and yet when he launched the Sinclair C5 it was met with ridicule. The public, it seemed, was not ready for a small battery-powered vehicle that was an alternative to the car. Fast-forward 30 years and the talk of electric vehicles is on everyone’s lips. The main difference between then and now is that battery technology has advanced so far that we can now build full-sized electric cars. Perhaps the C5 was a product whose time had not yet come, and when the time did come, technology made it unnecessary.

Occasionally, failed products were actually a good idea and sometimes technically better than their competition. However, market conditions or decisions made by the manufacturer caused their own downfall. The battle of the videotape format during the 1970s gives us a ready example.

Videotape wars!

In the 1970s, the video cassette recorder was starting to revolutionize how the public watched television and movies. Modern consumers think nothing of watching a TV show on-demand or streaming a movie to their smartphone. In 1970, the idea of watching the latest movies at home was electrifying. It was to change the economic rules of moviemaking forever.

Many manufacturers sought to secure this lucrative market, and several video formats battled for dominance. Two formats, VHS (Video Home System) and Betamax became the main competitors. Betamax was developed by Sony. It was smaller and in some ways more capable than its competitor, the VHS format created by JVC. 

Regardless of any technical considerations, the ultimate victory was secured by the VHS format. Whilst Sony held on to its design, JVC worked to partner with other manufacturers and film studios. As a result, VHS started to dominate the market, and Betamax was left behind.

Do Connectors Fail?

Do we see the failure of new connectors in the same way as the failure of the C5 or Betamax? The answer is that failure in the connector industry simply does not occur on the same apocalyptic scale. The first thing to understand is that it is unusual for a brand new and revolutionary connector to be released. The complexity of the connector industry usually prevents one product from becoming dominant in the way that a videocassette format could.  Within the connector industry, the sheer variety of applications and environments means that no one connector can work for all users.

Designers can be wary of selecting new and unproven products. Unlike semiconductors and printed circuit boards that can be protected inside housings and cases, connectors are frequently exposed to the elements and rough handling. Users come to trust connectors that perform well in these conditions and will often choose them over newer alternatives because of this.

There is also the problem of connecting new devices to old equipment. Take a look at the 3.5mm headphone connector that is still used on most smartphones.  This design can trace its roots back over 140 years to the oldest connector in the world, and yet it continues to be installed in the latest consumer technology. The headphone connector is still used because most users are familiar with its use and already have a pair of headphones that they want to use.

This is true of almost all types of equipment and is not limited to the consumer world.  Factories around the world are packed with existing machines and systems. Companies simply cannot afford to replace their equipment just to accommodate a new connector type.

All of these factors contribute to the connector industry moving in a slow evolution rather than great revolutionary advances. When a new connector is released, it is often a development of an existing product, making adoption a simpler and safer process.

Is the USB Dominant?

Therefore, if a brand-new connector comes to dominate the market, there are compelling reasons why. When the first USB (Universal Serial Bus) connector was launched in the 1990s, it was quite different to the connectors is was designed to replace. The USB was developed to simplify how computers and peripherals were connected. By creating both a standard communications protocol and a common connector design, users could do away with the huge range of connectors that could be found behind every computer in the 1990s. 

Connectors like the Mini-DIN circular, the D-subminiature connector in its various sizes, and a range of other large cumbersome designs could be replaced by the small, letterbox-shaped USB connector that we have come to know and love. While the change did not take place overnight, the advance of the USB connector was relentless, and it has found a home in almost every industry sector and market.

While the USB connector did have competition, its success was not entirely due to its small size and easy use. Its success was driven by a consortium of companies that worked together to ensure its adoption. The USB governing body was founded by names like Intel, IBM, and Microsoft, and now includes companies like Apple and HP. With this kind of heavyweight support, it is easy to understand how the USB has become so… er … universal.

It is debatable whether the USB would have been such a success if just one manufacturer had launched it alone. The costs associated with developing new products are now so large that even these giants of industry might think twice before trusting to luck. By joining a consortium to pool their expertise, resources, and market influence, companies take some of the risks out of launching a new product.

Something new is coming called Single Pair Ethernet, aimed at the smart factory. But if it succeeds, we might start to see it outside the smart factory if it takes off in the home networking market. This new standard is being developed by a group of companies who are working together to provide a solution for a real need.

Single Pair Ethernet

Will be the Next Big Thing? Well, if it follows the example set by USB, the odds are definitely in its favour...

Connector Geek is Dave in real life. After three decades in the industry, Dave still likes talking about connectors almost as much as being a Dad to his two kids. He still loves Lego too. And guitars.

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June 29, 2020 14:51

Interesting article.
Love the Sinclair C5 - does make me nostalgic. I've only ever seen them in museums now!

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