Maximal Unviable Products
Today I stumbled upon an old, nice Stereo8 tape player at the Geneva’s 2nd hand market in Plainpalais.
The Stereo8 technology was a very advanced technology for its time (introduced in the market in 1963) by a consortium of firms including RCA, Motorola and others, but it failed in conquering the global market which was then superseeded by the less advanced, but cheaper and robust Compact Cassette (invented also in 1963) by Philips.
The Stereo8 were bulky cartridges that had very nice, but not compelling, features such as:
- Endless tape: no need to rewind or turn the tape on the B side. It would allow endless playback, very useful for parties or romantic meetings… Italians might remember the (in)famous Fausto Papetti compliations.
- 8 parallel tracks: this means that one could switch to 8 different programs (i.e. sequences of songs that today we would call “playlists”) just by pressing a button on the player.
However, this type of tape had several disadvantages, but especially one was tremendous: jamming! Due to the complex mechanism, the tape tended to jam very often. Once jammed, the tape became useless.
Compact cassette, downgraded the Stereo8 features by:
- reducing the tape speed on one half, thus reducing the sound quality
- removing the endless tape and allowing only two stereo tracks (one for side A and one for side B).
- moving the complexity to the player, rather than leaving in the tape.
On the other side, Compact Cassette had two compelling features:
1. it was much smaller and cheaper
2. it was more robust (it jammed considerably less times than Stereo8).
These two simple features, which was learned from the customers during 20 years of “experiments” with Stereo8 were the most desirable features of this kind of product.
Needless to say, Compact Cassette were a fantastic success and they last for over 50 years. RCA tried to catchup with a product that combined the “compactness” of Compact Cassette and retained the features of the Stereo8 cartridge:
Needless to say, it was a flop.
What we can learn from this story? Well, I believe that customers of tapes wanted to solve a simple problem:
- A simplified and robust system for loading tapes (compared to reel tapes).
These were the primary needs. Reel tapes alreday provided the main features of tapes, namely: recording and duration. Stereo8 focused on secondary features such as: endless tape, multiple “playlist”, better sound quality. All this at the expense of the above 2 primary features.
Could have RCA and the others in the the consortium avoided to build Stereo8 and developed a product comparable to Compact Cassette 10 year earlier?
Maybe yes, by knowing more their customers. By trying to discover their real pain with reel tape usage. Or even better, ask people who did not use tapes at all. After all, the Compact Cassette addressed a different market segment, namely young people who could not afford buying vynil records and who duplicated a shared copy of the record on the cassette. Reel tape users were instead professionals (e.g. reporters) who had completely different requirements.
Stereo8 was conceived as a car audio system and probably limited to that application the product was a success. However, ‘60 cars where noisy and having a higher or lower sound quality could hardly be appreciated by the users. This simple reflection that would have led to reduce the speed of the tape and therefore reduce the probability of jamming (which was even increased by the vibrations in the car).
Stereo8 was designed in a laboratory without taking into due account the real life usage context. Hence its failure.
I don’t know how Philips designed Compact Cassette, but if they were not purposedly user-centered, at least they had better luck.
- Remember 8-tracks. Seriously.
- Just keep walking
- Cassette to iPod Converter will digitize your tapes
- What’s New IN ELECTRONICS - Sony Walkman (Apr, 1980)