Remember the Sony eMarker?

Of course you don't. What we can learn from design and product failures...

In 2000, the potential of digital music was uncertain. There were a handful of limited MP3 music players. And Napster was the main way that people shared digital music (illegally). iTunes and the iPod hadn’t been launched yet. Everyone knew that the Internet could revolutionize the music industry. No one really knew how…

Sony released a product in 2000 that tried to bridge the gap between the old music world and the new digital one. The Sony eMarker solved a legitimate problem. It would let you mark songs that you heard on the radio so you could buy them later. This $20 keychain had a button and a small LCD display. When you heard a song on the radio you wanted to remember, you pushed the button. You could save up to 10 “eMarks.”

When you got home, you plugged your eMarker into your computer and fired up a Flash app that cross referenced your time stamp with the radio stations that you said you liked in your area and told you what was playing at that time. It then offered you a link to purchase a CD from Amazon or CDNow. 

The eMarker worked surprisingly well. I know because I was one of a small number of people that actually owned one. It’s mostly a forgotten experiment, though. The service was discontinued in 2001. It’s even hard to find a good picture of the eMarker online.*

Here’s the thing about the eMarker. It was a relatively well-designed and reasonably effective solution to a real problem — music discovery. But the product was a failure because it wasn’t where the market was headed. The eMarker was based on the assumption that radio would still be the main way people discovered new music. And then users would pay to buy CDs from Amazon. iTunes and the iPod destroyed that world. (The problem of figuring out how to purchase music that you heard around you was eventually solved by Shazam, the iPhone and iTunes.)

Often, we see projects fail because they are based on a flawed strategy or approach. Look at Apple’s recent admission that the design of the new Mac Pro was a misstep. Apple “backed themselves in a thermal corner” because they bet that the future of professional machines was multiple, lower-powered GPUs. They designed and built their concept of a professional machine, but the rest of the industry charged ahead with large, power-hungry GPUs. Apple’s design couldn’t accommodate where the market needed them to be. No one doubts the skills or abilities of Apple's designers, but the new Mac Pro wasn't able to serve the pro audience because it was based on a flawed concept.

Even the best designs are only as good as the assumptions they are built on.

* It occurs to me that it's impossible to find a high quality images of the eMarker because there weren't any high quality digital cameras in 2000.

Bob Wertz writes about design, technology and pop culture at Sketchbook B. Bob is a Columbia, South Carolina-based designer, creative director, college instructor, husband and dad. He’s particularly obsessed with typography, the creative process and the tools we use to create. In his spare time, he is trying to figure out how to use all the ink he has purchased. Follow Bob on TwitterInstagram and Micro.Blog.