When successful companies fail to innovate

In last few years we’ve seen quite a few companies who at one time were at the top of their game but then they got left behind because they failed to innovate and renew as fast and/or as effectively as their competitors.

I’m sure there’s many more examples, but it’s interesting to think that being at the top of your game is no guarantee that you’ll maintain that position. You need to keep renewing with new strategies, new products, new directions, new services to keep in the game.

Palm – at one point Palm was the king of PDAs, the PDA was a Palm Pilot. There were others on the market at the time, but THE personal organizer was the Palm. They went though many model revisions from the original US Robotics Palm Pilot, iii, v, vii (one of the first wireless data devices?). There was even HandSpring, another company who made Palm compatible devices competing with Palm, licensing the Palm OS. Then came the Treos, combo phones plus built-in Palm PDA. The Treo phones were original made by HandSpring and later bought out by Palm. The Treo was the smartphone of their time.
Their killer? The Blackberry. The first iPhone. To continue with the same Palm stylus based ui at that point was a lost cause, since Blackberry had captured the market with their incredibly easy interface and ability to easily keep in sync with your office email, and with the iPhone’s touch based interface and UI optimized for touch input shifted the goal posts in terms of usability. Thinking back now, the odd shorthand on the Palm for entering characters with single strokes was kind of odd, but also effective given the technology constraints at the time.

Palm’s biggest chance to stay relevant in the market was webOS – a neat idea but probably came too late. Palm got bought out by HP. The webOS TouchPad was initialially too expensive to get any consumer interest, but flew off the shelves when the price was dropped to $199 to clear stock. HP’s strategy for webOS just wasn’t right to make it work.

There’s been talk of webOS being opensourced, but at this point Palm is pretty much dead.

Prior to the success of Palm, the most popular PDA in Europe was the Psion devices, running the Symbian OS. Psion eventually died but Symbian lived on as a popular OS for many (feature) phones, particularly Nokia based phones.

There’s plenty of other examples in the IT industry, I guess because things change so fast you’ve got to keep the continual innovation to keep in the game. Some I can think of: Sinclair – in the 80s in Europe, Sinclair was ahead of the curve in terms of cost-effective home computers but they didn’t stay ahead long enough to get lost by changes in technology, particularly 16 bit home computers from Commodore and Atari, themselves who both also failed the same way (although Commodore stayed around producing PC clones for a while before disappearing, and then recently reappeared again as a brandname for PC-clones in a C64 style keyboard case).

Industry (particularly technology) and consumer trends are short lived. As something new comes along, you’ve either got to be already on that train, you’ve got to be the one driving the train, or building the next ‘train’, whatever that might be. If you’re still standing on the station and you watch the train go by, then it’s already too late.

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