Why (Oh Why) Must Awesome Products Die?


Before I Get Into Rdio…

Last week Sony announced the last-ever Betamax cassette will roll off the production line in March 2016 (which means someone, somewhere, has actually been using them all these years).

Legend has it that Betamax was better than VHS. The reality is a bit more complicated. Original Betamax tapes were only an hour long, i.e. not long enough to record or distribute a standard movie, which in hindsight is obviously a major shortcoming. VHS tapes had twice the capacity, partly due to their makers’ willingness to make them larger and more unwieldy. Most consumers didn’t care about unwieldy. Sony eventually extended their tapes’ capacity, but so did VHS makers. With VHS you could tape two movies, then eventually three or four. In 1993 you could tape two Blue Jays World Series games on one tape (or if you’re my mom, a whole week of your favourite soap).

The history of technology is full of stories like this. My elementary school had an underutilized Apple in 1985 and that was pretty much the last time I touched one until the mid ’00s. I believed that Apple computers were better in some ways that appealed to me but the uncertainty and cost of switching was always just high enough to keep most of us stuck with Windows.

A product’s own technical capabilities and quality aren’t all that matter when history decides whether it will prevail. It also takes timing, business savvy, good branding and strategy, and understanding what most people want (or guessing, unwisely). Sometimes it requires the ability and will to sell at a loss or throw money at it until attrition catches up with competitors.

We Know, But It Still Sucks

It hurts to be on the losing side, even if you’re only a consumer. Great products inspire love. They become part of people’s daily lives, part of our thought patterns and identities. Sometimes this is especially true for underdog products. Maybe it’s a kind of “Florence Nightingale effect.” We become more personally invested when we sense even a tiny bit of ourselves shaping a product’s survival or success. And for products we really love, our life stories can literally intertwine; we lose a little piece of ourselves when the product does.

It might seem like hyperbole but I thought about and felt some of these things this week when Rdio announced they’re shutting down.

Rdio might be my favourite service of any kind, and has been since I signed up five years ago. I looked forward to checking the new releases every Tuesday. Most of my favourite albums of the past five years I discovered through Rdio (a lot of them serendipitously via friends’ activity). Before I went on trips I always made sure my Rdio playlists and downloads were set up for the right soundtrack. Robinson Meyer’s eulogy for Rdio made me realize how good the community was on there.

People left comments on albums, and, lo and behold, the writing was good and interesting. Strangers constructed playlists that pulled from artists and albums you’d never heard of, but without the performative high/low-ness that afflicts so much online music talk.

It might seem weird to say, but I have a lot of warm memories associated with Rdio, in the same way that I look back nostalgically at discovering music in record stores, at concerts, and in friends’ physical collections.

Sadly, Rdio wasn’t for everybody. Outside of a small group of like-minded people, nobody I knew stuck with it (despite my best efforts). Meanwhile the same people who didn’t stick with Rdio raved about services like Songza and Spotify that emphasized the kinds of passively consumed, curated experiences that feel overmediated and just unpleasant too me.

Spotify seems to have improved in the direction I want it to but I definitely feel like I’m not the target Spotify user. There’s a bit of clumsy industry cruft to navigate around before finding the experience I’m looking for. (Picking a category before I browse feels unnatural. And after telling Spotify I’m a 37-year-old male and listening to one metal album, its top radio station recommendations for me are Drake, Justin Bieber, and One Direction?) Same thing more or less goes for Apple Music.

According to a story on it at The Verge, Rdio’s downfall can be partly attributed to too much focus on product details that too few people would appreciate, and not enough effort to market to the mass fixation on “free.”

Rdio was elegant and pure compared to everything else. I’d go as far as to say it was damn near perfect for a brief moment (notwithstanding the limited selection, especially in the early days). This is why Rdio inspired love and influence that went well past its modest mass market penetration, as Casey Newton pointed out in that Verge piece:

Among its subscribers were a small legion of user interface and user experience designers — one reason you see little touches of Rdio everywhere you look.

The things that product designers care about aren’t the same things that most consumers care about. Just as people embraced unwieldy VHS cassettes and endless Windows popups over more elegant alternatives, people embraced familiar music industry cruft for the sake of getting a good enough, free-for-most service. By the time Rdio started to respond, the outcome was already well in motion.

So What’s To Be Done?

But I don’t think the takeaway should be to cynically steer every product toward the lowest common denominator of consumer preferences. After all, Apple eventually thrived, as did Pixar, another company Steve Jobs nurtured through a formative phase in which high product standards put the business at risk. (We could add NeXT to the list and argue that without it, present-day Apple and the Internet would both be very different. That must count for something.)

There’s a whole list of “failed” products in recent years that we could say were “successful at being awesome,” which inspired some of what came next. Google Wave and FriendFeed are among the others that got me excited but didn’t win the popularity contest (I worry about Twitter ending up on this list soon).

Sometimes it can start to feel unrealistic to want to create something we’re proud of that’s also economically viable, like at some point there’s going to be a fork in the road and we can only pick one way: creative pride vs. commercial profit. A middle way is there, it’s just tougher to find; it requires comfort moving in either direction and the ability to switch at the right time.

And I keep in mind that companies that pick the cynical, profit-maximizing route at the expense of quality and love often fail too. They still need to do everything else right or risk coming away without even so much as a decent story to tell. And creating great stories is what it’s all about, isn’t it?

If instead we err the other direction and create something we’re proud of and it touches people’s lives and changes the future even just a little, well that’s definitely not nothing.

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