5 beloved tech products that were sentenced to deathMarch 15, 2013: 8:01 AM ET
Absent a change of heart by Google, Reader will join a short list of beloved technologies sent to the grave.
By Verne Kopytoff
FORTUNE -- Technology companies shutter products all the time. New tablets sometimes flop. Apps fall out of favor. Hardly anyone notices, and even fewer people complain.
But there are exceptions like the uproar aimed at Google (GOOG) this week after it disclosed plans to kill Reader, a service that lets users create a feed of blog posts and news articles from around the Web. Reader had gained a large following after premiering in 2005, but its popularity later waned as Twitter and Facebook (FB) rose. A large number of users remain, however. Many of them quickly went online to criticize Google's decision and ask that it be reversed.
Absent a change of heart by Google, Reader will join a short list of beloved technologies sent to the grave. Keeping an obsolete or poor-selling product alive can be costly to a company or distract from its core business. Some cases are hard to explain like when Cisco (CSCO), in 2011, retired the Flip digital video camera despite strong sales. It was all the more perplexing because Cisco had acquired Flip's parent company two years earlier for $590 million to expand its nascent consumer technology business.
Companies could, in some rare cases, give products a reprieve by selling them to another business. Consumers get what they want -- the product's survival -- while the owner gets some cash and public appreciation. Usually, however, executives balk at the legal complications or prefer to take a loss for tax reasons. Here's a recap of five beloved technology products given the death sentence.
Cisco bet big on consumer technology in 2009 when it acquired the parent of the Flip, the pocket-sized camcorder known for its ease of use. Consumers had already bought two million of them, making the Flip one of the consumer electronic industry's hottest selling products. Under Cisco, sales remained strong. Then Cisco, as part of a broader reorganization, abruptly announced that it would end production. Eventually, it became clear why: Cisco wanted out of consumer technology so it could focus on its slumping and far larger telecommunications equipment business. Undoubtedly, the rise of smartphones factored into the decision to kill the Flip. Why buy a camcorder if your phone already comes equipped with a camera? Fans of the Flip took the news of its mortality as an affront and called on Cisco to sell its camera division. Cisco, for unclear reasons, refused, and Flip became a case study in corporate mismanagement.
People loved the old Napster, from its inception in 1999 right up until the end two years later. They could use the peer-to-peer file-sharing network to get virtually any song they wanted for free. The music industry, of course, hated the idea and, ultimately, succeeded in shutting down Napster after suing the start-up in federal court. Napster's assets were liquidated and its name repurposed into a paid music service.
Apple's (AAPL) first platform for personal digital assistants, the Newton, is more popular dead than it ever was alive. Its groundbreaking technology in the early to late 1990s served as a forerunner for all the tablets and smartphones of today. But the devices that used the system were also bulky, costly, and it frequently didn't work. The software often failed to recognize what people entered on the screen using the obligatory stylus. Some call Newton a brilliant failure and rank it among the most important technologies of the past century.
Future adolescents will likely never know the pleasure of strumming a fake guitar to the strains of classic rock -- all the while scoring points in a Guitar Hero video game. The game's publisher, Activision (ATVI), closed its Guitar Hero division in 2011 and stopped development of a planned sequel. Guitar Hero, initially released in 2005, quickly emerged as a blockbuster as did several of its follow-up titles. But the franchise eventually faded because of an excess of music-based games in the market and an inability to license hit songs from the music industry.
Google introduced Reader in another era, when getting blog posts and news articles in one place was a challenge. Reader, like its competitors, solved the problem by letting users create an automatic feed of what they wanted by using RSS technology, or Really Simple Syndication. People -- particularly Silicon Valley insiders -- loved it, at least until social media came along. In announcing its plan to kill Reader, Google explained that its use had declined over the years and that it wanted to focus on fewer products. Loyal users were outraged. In online postings, they called on Google to reconsider the decision or to donate the code to the open source community, which could then operate the service instead. Whether the outcry will be enough to get Google to stay the execution, scheduled for July 1, remains to be seen.