TOKYO – Life is full of coulda’s and woulda’s. Many engineers have stories to tell about their brilliant technologies (and products), but somehow the project got cancelled. Later on, their invention is often wistfully described as it was “before its time.”
While working out of Japan this week, I came across an article the Japanese magazine “Economist” did with Satoru Maeda, a former Sony design engineer, whose team in 2000 developed Sony’s AirBoard.
Good old AirBoard. Remember?
OK, in case you forgot, this was a flat panel device that predated the iPad by a decade yet boasted video, touch screen typing and Internet access. Sony’s AirBoard even morphed into “Location Free TV” – a device through which you can watch local TV channels anywhere.
The Sony AirBoard integrated 802.11a/b/g WiFi with a maximum data transfer rate of 15Mbps, at that time. As its original product brochure says, “The 800×600 TFT LCD color display can be used as a television display panel and can perform other tasks such as video, Internet browsing/streaming video, e-mail, and digital photos, all without a PC. The AirBoard can be controlled & navigated via touch panel.” The AirBoard Wi-Fi system used Hi-Bit Wireless designed by Sony to achieve high data transfer rates.
Sony AirBoard that predated Apple iPad
Despite a lot of development work and a typical Sony-style publicity blitz, Sony gave up on AirBoard entirely in 2008.
Maeda still believes AirBoard would have been precisely the type of pioneering product that could have set Sony apart from others in the post-millenium decades, just like Walkman in the late 70’s and 80’s.
The factors that kill any project are many. Hefty price tags, quality and usability, for example. But more often than not, the murderer turns out to be internal politics, especially if a company is experiencing zero-sum budget battles, divisional turf wars or a series of disruptive reorganizations. As any project director knows, getting the boss’s attention and focus to ensure the resources the team needs is an eternal battle.
Vindictive managers have buried more good ideas than finicky consumers.
In case of Sony’s Airboard, a sticker-shock price of 128,000 yen (close to $1,300 at the time) was the big culprit.
In his interview with the Japanese publication Maeda said, “A Samsung LCD display we procured for AirBoard alone was about $250. My boss in
2006 told me that if [AirBoard] were $500, it would sell.”
Had Sony kept the project alive, could the ailing Japanese consumer electronics giant have turned AirBoard into an iPad-like runaway success?
Asked about other ways Maeda and his team might have gone about persuading Sony to keep the AirBoard project, Maeda singled out Sony’s management for blame. “Sony used to be a company that turns ideas into products. But by then we had managers with no hands-on experience of ‘creating’ new products. They didn’t get it.”
So, with that, share with us. Tell us about your most brilliant — but stillborn — invention. Tell us what it was, and what (or who) caused its untimely death.