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Meet the Great Tech Busts of CES

Ian Sherr | January 7th, 2013

The high-definition DVD, the Palm Pre and Lady Gaga's Polaroid Glasses have one thing in common: They launched at the Consumer Electronics Show to much fanfare, only to disappear from sight or languish as failures on store shelves.

The annual trade show, which runs through this week, is the place where many awe-inspiring technologies have launched. The conference has been held for more than three decades and attracts more than 150,000 attendees to its nearly 2 million net square feet of convention facilities each January.

Some products have gone on to change the world. Others have fallen flat.

What has changed, convention goers say, is that the spectacle has gotten bigger, pushing technologies that might be works-in-progress to seem more ready for store shelves than they are, while others never should have been.

"The products being shown should be coming out in the next 12 months," said Jon Abt, the 44-year-old co-president of closely held Abt Electronics in Chicago. "That's what they initially intended, but things have changed a bit."

In the past three decades he has been attending, since he was a pre-teenager walking alongside his father, he has watched as numerous concept technologies have fallen flat, from Motorola's OJO video phone, a precursor to Apple Inc.'s iPhone with FaceTime video chatting, to 150-inch televisions, which have yet to hit the consumer market.

"Everyone wants to have bragging rights—I was the first, I have the biggest," he added. "These products take years to perfect and refine, and to manufacture profitably."

One trick Mr. Abt said he uses to discern if a technology is ready for prime time is to listen to releases dates. If the company says its new device will be released in the first half of the year, the company's serious. If they say it will come out in the third or fourth quarter, the jury's still out.

One sure sign of uncertainty is a lack of release date at all. That is what Polaroid Corp. said when it unveiled the GL20 camera glasses, featured as part of pop-star Lady Gaga's position as creative director for a specialty line of devices.

Camera Glasses, first shown off in 2011, could shoot photos and take video, as well as play it all back through tiny screens built into lenses. They would be available later in the year, Polaroid said. Two years later, customers are still waiting, and Polaroid didn't respond to repeated requests for comment.

Roger Kay, an analyst at Endpoint Technologies Associates, said Polaroid's danger with the glasses to begin with was tying it to a celebrity.

"Like pet rocks, they might last a season, but it isn't going to be a sustainable enterprise," he said. "Things that are narrowly focused, if they don't hit, they sink below the surface."

Perhaps the most dramatic recent flameout was HD-DVD, a technology created by Toshiba Corp. that competed against Sony Corp.'s Blu-ray disc technology to carry the next generation of high-definition movies and television shows to customers.

The format war between Toshiba and Sony effectively ended in 2008, when Time Warner Inc.'s Warner Bros. decided to side with Blu-ray. Time Warner was a longtime Toshiba partner, but saw Blu-ray sales were significantly outpacing their HD-DVD counterparts. U.S. retailers also turned their backs on HD-DVD, leaving one of the biggest partners, Microsoft Corp. and its Xbox 360 videogame console, without any disks to play in the device.

Mr. Kay noted that even Blu-ray, which won the battle, hasn't entirely won the war: Streaming video and downloadable copies of movies and television are become a large and growing segment of the market.

Another spectacular flameout was Palm Inc.'s Pre smartphone, which was seen as one of the best competitors to Apple's iPhone when it was unveiled in 2009. Competition intensified when Jon Rubinstein, a former Apple executive who was instrumental in the iPod music player's development, was brought on to serve as Palm's chief executive.

But confusing advertisements, poor product placement within wireless carrier stores and perceived shortcomings ultimately doomed the device, and Palm as a company along with it. The company was sold to Hewlett-Packard Co. in 2010, only to produce a tablet and two smartphones before H-P gave up on it, too.

The story of Palm could possibly best be summed up by the one word: Hype.

Bob O'Donnell, an analyst at IDC, said media companies are constantly looking for the next "it" device at the show, and those crowned the winner sometimes are done so because of a splashy appearance and large promise, neither of which end up actually appealing to large swaths of customers.

"You have too many people who buy into the hype and don't look into the reality of what people want," he said.

©2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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