As the great poet and musician Aubrey Drake Graham once sang, “It’s not about who did it first, it’s about who did it right.”
That’s true: Like comedy, selling a product is all in the timing. Sometimes even the best ideas don’t work out the first time, whether because the technology isn’t ready or because the market isn’t.
But those failures are a great opportunity for the next person, who gets to look at the mistakes of those who have gone before and figure out how how to make it work.
Disclosure: Jeff Bezos is an investor in Business Insider through his personal investment company Bezos Expeditions.
Then: IBM Simon launched in 1994 at the considerable price of $US1,100 ($US900 if you got it on contract with BellSouth).
It was chunky and not exactly user-friendly, but it had a touch screen, could get email, and be used as a fax modem. It was discontinued in February of 1995 after only six months and 50,000 units sold -- the Simon could only get an hour of battery charge, which was as unimpressive then as it is now.
Now: Plenty of other manufacturers tried their own hands at making a smartphone, but the market didn't show its real potential until Apple introduced the first iPhone in 2007, which sold 6.1 million units in its first five quarters on the market. The first Android smartphone was introduced in October of 2008, and nowadays it's hard to remember a time before smartphones and the apps we run on them.
Then: WebVan, an online grocery delivery website that started in 1998, is one of the first dot-com bubble's greatest horror stories, burning through $US800 million in venture capital money before going totally bust in 2001.
Now: Amazon Fresh and startup Instacart both take advantage of the rise of smartphones and a public that's more willing to shop online for their own successful grocery delivery services. In fact, Amazon Fresh bought a lot of WebVan's intellectual property and team.
Then: In 2004, Sony released the Librié 1000-EP, the world's first e-ink 'electronic book,' as The Register put it at the time.
Before that, all book readers were based on traditional screens -- the kinds that hurt your eyes after too much reading. The
Librié was powered by four AAA batteries, and books were available on a $US2 'all you can read' subscription.
Now: The first version of the Amazon Kindle e-reader launched in 2007 and promptly sold out within five and a half hours. Amazon had cracked the code: The Kindle was smaller than the competition, made it a lot easier to buy books through the Amazon online bookstore, and perhaps most importantly, a totally free, totally unlimited cellular data plan that let users buy books (and consult Wikipedia) from anywhere in the world.
Then: Hang w/ (as in 'Hang With,' get it?) launched in 2013 as an app to let celebrities connect with fans via live-streamed video to their phones.
Celebs like Justin Timberlake, 50 Cent, Nathan Fillion, and Jared Leto have all used the app to connect with fans. Since then, it's broadened out into a full-fledged live-streaming app that's grabbed nearly 2 million users. It even shares advertising revenues with its top streamers, YouTube-style.
Now: Meerkat started building buzz in early March for its super-simple approach to live-streaming, gaining 'tens of thousands' of users in very short order. That buzz only intensified with the announcement that Twitter had purchased Periscope. More importantly, Meerkat and Periscope brought the concept of live-streaming to the masses in the way that its predecessors never had.
Then: By the early 1910s, enough homes in the United State had electricity that electric cars became a viable market, offered from power companies and auto manufacturers alike.
These early electric cars were especially popular in cities, where a short range wasn't a big deal. But the combination of better interstate roads and the availability of more petroleum in the 1920s paved the way for the gas-guzzlers we know today.
Now: In light of what we now know about global climate change, emmissionless electric cars are suddenly a big deal. Tesla Motors, helmed by CEO Elon Musk, released its first all-electric, practical car in the form of the Tesla Roadster in 2008 -- which has kicked off a new round of interest and development in better battery technology and even more electric vehicles.
Then: Microsoft helped Timex with the software for the Datalink, a line of watches starting in 1994 that could sync stuff like contacts and calendars from a computer by using a camera to read light from a computer screen.
It was trippy, but it was more of a novelty than a really useful thing.
Now: Google Android Wear, Samsung Galaxy Gear, and most notably the forthcoming Apple Watch all let users access information from all over the Internet, no light show required.
Then: The Diamond Rio PMP300 was the second commercially-available portable MP3 music player when it launched in 1998, but the first that was even sort of good.
It still had major design flaws (the battery cover was notorious for falling off, and the cheap paint job made it fall off) and was even the subject of a lawsuit from the Recording Industry Association of America, claiming that it was expressly made for music piracy.
Now: When Apple released the original iPod in 2001, the world was way more receptive to the sleek design and high-capacity hard drive that made Apple a household name again. These days, Apple makes 70% of all MP3 players worldwide, with 350 million sold as of September 2012 -- totally squeezing out competitors like Rio, which made its last MP3 player in 2005.
Then: Flip Video made lightweight, relatively cheap video cameras starting in 2006 -- just before the ubiquity of smartphones made them a little bit redundant.
Cisco bought Flip in 2009 and shut it down entirely in 2011.
Now: By focusing on athletes and other intense situations, GoPro brought the technology to scenarios where you wouldn't want to take video with your phone.
Then: In 1973, Xerox's famed PARC lab in Silicon Valley had come up with a new way to control a computer.
It used to be that you had to go in and enter long commands via text to do anything. But now you could use something called a 'mouse' to click between 'windows,' each one of which had a different program running inside of it. In 1981, Xerox released for sale a computer that had this software running on it called the Xerox Star, but it flopped.
Now: After the flop of the Star, a company called Apple Computer hired a bunch of Xerox PARC programmers to release the Apple Lisa in 1983, featuring those same kinds of windows.
Microsoft followed suit soon after with the release of Windows 1.0, and the rest is history.
Then: While modem accessories had existed for video game systems like the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis, the Dreamcast was the first video game system in America to have a 56k dial-up modem built right into the hardware.
Now: Where Sega went with dial-up, Microsoft was banking that high-speed broadband was the future. The original Xbox shipped in 2001 with a broadband modem built in, and when the Xbox Live online gaming service was activated in 2002 it was a massive success. Today, Xbox Live has 48 million members.
Then: The idea of a slate-shaped computer that you could hold like a book is almost as old as the computer itself.
In 2001, Microsoft decided it would try to win the tablet game before it had even really begun with a set of standards for pen-based touchscreen computers that would run a customised version of Windows XP.
Now: The Apple iPad released in 2010 and would go on to completely dominate the tablet market, which is still small compared to smartphones. Steve Jobs hated the idea of a pen for a computer, and so the iPad was designed to be simple and work with just a finger. Meanwhile, Microsoft has been playing catch-up with its Microsoft Surface line, the latest of which is critically acclaimed.
Then: In 2002, Friendster was one of the very first social networks, and was valued at $US53 million in a time when that still meant something.
But by 2009, the rise of Facebook led to the decline of Friendster, and the company was sold for $US26.4 million to Asian media company MOL Global. In 2011, it decided to rebrand itself
Now: Facebook continues to grow and grow, squeezing out the competition. You might even be reading this from a Facebook link.