NEW YORK – Sometimes the innovation elves just miss the mark.
Without a doubt, 2004 saw the debut of some great new products, like the cellphone that keeps track of blood sugar levels and digital music player that indicates how fast you run.
Other products, like Sony's challenger to Apple's iPod, could have used more fine-tuning. Still others probably should have been abandoned on the drawing board along with the wireless washing machine.
"There are a lot of good ideas that fail," said Danielle Levites, vice president of consumer devices research at IDC (search), a technology research company. "Either they're not really marketed or it's too much for consumers to get their brain around."
"And then, some are just dumb," she added.
The venerable Sony Corp. (SNE), the company that made public transportation snafus bearable by introducing the Walkman in the 1980s, challenged Steve Jobs' Apple Computer Inc. (AAPL)with an iPod digital music player of its own.
Encased in an eye-catching metallic shell and with a size advantage over the iPod, the more-compact $349.95 Sony NW-HD1 Hard Drive Digital Music Player held promise. It had just one critical shortcoming: No native support for one of the most common music formats among digital music listeners, MP3.
Sony "came to the party late and when they finally came to the party, they weren't dressed appropriately," Levites said.
Consumers with stacks of CDs encoded in the popular MP3 format discovered Sony's accompanying PC software would translate existing files into its own proprietary ATRAC compression format, leaving users with two copies of every song on their PC hard drive.
"I think we fell asleep for awhile," Sony Electronics' Stan Glasgow told the Wall Street Journal in October, by way of explanation.
Moving quickly to address concerns, Sony's next generation players will begin supporting MP3 files natively on the device next year and it has already launched three new flash-memory devices that store fewer songs than its hard-drive player, but already support MP3 music.
In searching for a replacement for the floppy disc, industrious tech geeks in Japan raced to satisfy two cravings at once. They came up with the Sushi disc.
"Never again will you have to choose between having sushi or having a USB memory drive," according to a Webster advertisement on Dynamism.com, the online mecca for hot Japanese tech imports.
They're like fake fruit but attachable to a PC's Universal Serial Bus and can be used to store and upload information.
These discs, which come in variations of shrimp, tuna, salmon and cucumber probably wouldn't have made the list if the site didn't charge Nobu-like prices for the inedible $99 "replicas," or about $81 more than the $18 we found similar non-sushi versions of the drives on Amazon.com.
Such flash drives, these days, are nothing more than "giveaway status," said Richard Doherty of technology market research firm Envisioneering. "They have lost their value."
At least Doherty added, "We haven't seen the USB coffee coaster yet." He must have missed the new Hot Cubby USB Cup Warmer, which plugs into a PC's USB port to keep drinks warm.
IPod enthusiasts, who have spawned a cottage industry in peripherals for the music player, volunteered one particularly specious entry: the Griffin Technology iBeam -- a genuine Class IIIa laser pointer.
It's hard to imagine what laser-pointing and music-appreciation have in common. Perhaps it can be used for leading impromptu PowerPoint presentations, while ignoring your audience, or driving housepets mad. "Need we say how much fun this could be?" Griffin's Webster proclaims.
Procter & Gamble (PG) had a less direct approach to the common music player with the $34.95 Scentstories.
"Push play, and let the holidays begin," its Webster ad reads.
Using a CD player-like contraption, users can load "discs" that emit scents that evoke "wandering barefoot on the shore," or "relaxing in the hammock," or "exploring a mountain trail." Or all three at once.
"I love lavender as much as the next person," Levites said. But "It's just silly. What happened to cute jars?" They look like CDs now.
Toshiba Corp. (search) had its own take on smelling fresh with the Bluetooth wireless washing machine that communicates with a computer within a 30 foot radius to download clothing care instructions and will also tell a PC when it breaks down.
"Some things we think are bad gadgets today are kitsch or desirable tomorrow," Doherty said.
In other words, today's clunkers could be next year's eBay (EBAY) stars.