Weekend Tech Blog: Oh, fickle public. Just ask Nintendo, Google, and Amazon

Highly promoted ventures, among them Nintendo's 3DS gaming system and Google TV, have had a tough time gaining market acceptance.  How will Amazon Fresh do?

Highly promoted ventures, among them Nintendo's 3DS gaming system and Google TV, have had a tough time gaining market acceptance.  How will Amazon Fresh do?

The fickleness of the American marketplace was on glorious display this past week, with two highly touted pieces of technology from Nintendo and Google tanking noisily in full public view. At the same time, Amazon was hoping that a new Internet-based service, being exclusively previewed in Seattle, would fare better in the public eye.

Nintendo has had a remarkable run with its Wii video game console and GameBoy/DS handheld units.  The Wall Street Journal reports that Nintendo has sold in excess of 87 million Wiis and 147 million devices: the best selling of all game devices.

In March, the company, which has its is U.S. headquarters in Redmond introduced its latest innovation in handheld gaming with great bombast: the Nintendo 3DS, which allows gamers to play Nintendo games in 3D without using 3D glasses, due to innovative screen technology.  (Any device that can produce a quality 3D effect without glasses is watched carefully by entertainment companies who have been scrambling to find a 3D product that the public would love.) 

Fast-forward to this past week. After six months on the market, Nintendo has slashed the price of the 3DS from $250 to $170. Its profit forecast is down 80 percent.  And the company is watching consumers playing casual games on Apple iPads and iPhones, or Facebook games, although they once favored Nintendo’s game slate featuring the “Mario” and “Zelda” franchises. 

Why the big fallout?  The consensus seems to be that single-purpose devices, whether they are watches, cameras, or gaming systems, are suffering because multi-function devices, such as smartphones and tablets, have become so popular.  If you can do it all on a single device, why spend the extra money on an additional device? Why carry around more than one device? A second issue for Nintendo is seen as a dearth of exciting new games.

And then there’s the price issue.  When high-quality games for smartphones and tablets can be had for 99 cents, or at the high end for $10, who but dedicated gamers will buy 3DS games in the $30-40 range?

This isn’t to say that dedicated consoles are on the way out.  Certainly that is not the reality for Microsoft’s Xbox and Sony’s Playstation.  And Nintendo has not given up entirely; its Wii U gaming console, still in development, allows games to be played both on a TV screen and a new handheld tablet-like controller. 

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Then there is Google TV.  It was to be the device that inextricably linked the services of a computer, the Internet, and your TV. I not only wrote about it, but also plunked down my $299 for the Logitech Revue, the set top box that embodied the Google TV concept. Here’s a link that shows Google's concept, and here's one that showed the anticipation of the Google TV introduction.

Unfortunately, what Google launched — along with technology partners Logitech (best known for its webcams, keyboards and mice) and Sony — was slammed almost from the moment it was introduced. First came the techno critics, who agreed almost unanimously that the concept was terrific but the execution was horrible. Operating the device required a full-sized keyboard — not exactly a keeper in a world of hand-size TV remotes — and the operation seemingly was designed for techno-geeks instead of consumers.

Then came another blow.  Google’s dream was for people to look for shows, available on live TV, cable systems, or as episodes available for free on network Internet sites.  But virtually every television network, broadcast and cable alike, blocked Google TV from performing that service. What would happen to their Internet ad sales, or their individual identities, if Google TV became the great aggregator, the one source for finding TV programs? Look what Google News had done to newspapers and magazines; the fear of Google’s potential effect all but doomed the box from the start.

What was amazing to me was that Google seemingly had not researched how well commercial TV would accept Google TV before it was launched.  If it hadn’t, it was a colossal error.  If it had, then the networks perhaps colluded to upend Google in a concerted effort. Last December, Google was widely reported to have asked Toshiba, LG, and Sharp to delay their introduction of Google TV hardware and software at CES, the giant annual consumer electronics show held in January in Las Vegas, so that Google could refine its hardware and software.

The product languished for five months with virtually no updates. In May, however, as part of Google’s annual I/O developer’s conference in Silicon Valley, there were demonstrations of a major Google TV update, which would include basing the system’s software on Honeycomb 3.1 — Google’s Android software used on Android tablets — and access to the Android Market, which would allow users access to roughly 150,000 apps. As of this writing, two months later, Google has been silent on any plans to implement any Google TV updates, although the company has indicated an update will be available. The question, of course, is when.

Now for the crusher. This week, Logitech dropped its price for the Revue Google TV set-top box to $99: down $200 since its introduction nine months ago.  Logitech reported more people returned their Google TV units than purchased them. And if that wasn’t enough, Logitech CEO Gerald Quinlen resigned, reportedly due to poor company earnings tied mostly to the failure of the Logitech Revue.

Is there a bright side? Google TV does some terrific things, including easily integrating a computer browser with your TV. It features Netflix, and Amazon Video on Demand. The EPIX service, generally a pay-movie service, is there for free. If you can live with its clumsy interface and its keyboard, it’s a steal at $99.

And while this may not be a deal-maker, there are Google TV and Logitech Revue apps available for Apple and Android to control your device from your iPad, Android smartphone, etc.

: In an email to Crosscut, a PR agency spokesman for Logitech denied that more people were returning Google TV units than purchasing them. In a subsequent phone call, Nancy Morrison, Logitech VP of corporate communications, clarified that the returns came from distributors and distribution partners, not directly from consumers, and occurred in the company’s fiscal third quarter ending on June 30. She added that the company’s two prior fiscal quarters showed no significant returns from either partners nor the public. The product was introduced for sale in October 2010.

Other news outlets reported the returns issue in a similar manner as was done here, including WiredThe Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.

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While the marketplace is busy punishing Nintendo and Google, Amazon is hoping that its new grocery delivery service, Amazon Fresh, now being introduced exclusively in Seattle, will fare better in public acceptance.  And while this is not consumer electronics, the marketplace will be the key to whether Amazon’s approach to grocery shopping will succeed where others have crashed and burned in the past.

The first thing to note, especially if you’re excited about the concept, is to see if your zip code corresponds to Amazon’s grocery delivery service. Just because the system takes your usual Amazon account information, don’t expect that you’ll be able to use the service unless you're within the designated delivery zones.

What’s available?  Everything under the (food) sun. Fresh and frozen food, deli products, and canned goods. You can shop for locally grown products or generic stuff. At first blush, it seems to be quite complete.  (I’m not a sophisticated shopper, so I invite readers to look at the service for any specialized needs and report back).

Key to this or any other food system is its delivery capabilities.  Here’s a list of their delivery options:

  • Daytime attended delivery: A one-hour window for delivering your order, with even a service to carry groceries into your kitchen.
  • Pre-Dawn delivery: Delivery will be at 6 a.m.  You need not be present and your groceries will be left in temperature-controlled reusable weather-proof totes.
  • Doorstep Delivery: Goods in temperature-controlled totes left on your doorstep.

The cost? According to an Amazon spokesman, there’s a $5.99 flat delivery fee.  If you meet a minimum order threshold, delivery is free. Amazon is starting a “Big Radish” value-added customer program with benefits for customers who do most of their grocery shopping with Amazon Fresh. Tipping is optional. The service has no announced plans for customers to do comparative shopping. Some grocery apps do that, but currently Amazon isn’t making that service available.

There’s no advance announcement of bargains yet, but if you order multiples of single products (i.e., a "case" of three ice cream tubs), there will be savings.  This isn’t a discount service per se, but it is Amazon so you can figure it will be price-compatible and then some with brick-and-mortar grocery stores.

Amazon is not alone in this quest. WalMart has a grocery delivery experiment similar to Amazon in San Jose (with a slightly cheaper $5 delivery fee). Safeway also has an online shopping service.

Grocery delivery services are like catnip to well-heeled Internet entrepreneurs, but the history of their success is checkered:  Webvan, a billion-dollar dot-com flop being the most notable. 

How well will Amazon do with Amazon Fresh? Will you use the service if it’s in your area? I’d love to know. (So would Amazon, I suspect.)


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