The Internet harbors innovation at a speed unlike any other industry. The ephemeral nature of an internet startup means there is plenty of room for ideas, whether completely crazy, game-changing, or both, to show up and disrupt the world in a relatively quick timeframe. While the rapid pace of change means that big ideas can grow in an instant, it also means that big ideas that are a little too ahead of their time can find themselves with nobody interested
As an internet entrepreneur since 1997, I’ve been a part of this incredibly exciting industry since well before the entire globe was logged in. For all the household names developed in that time, there have been exponentially more companies with world-changing ideas that were just too early to the show. These failures are an interesting lesson for innovators: there’s definitely a such thing as being too early to the party.
For today’s time-pressed city dwellers, grocery delivery services like FreshDirect, PeaPod, Instacart and more, but few of those users are probably aware that they could have made use of a similar service two decades ago. Webvan was perhaps the most well-known of the early online grocery services, and began deliveries in 1999 across 10 major US markets.
More than $396 million in venture capital and a $4.8 billion valuation wasn’t enough to make Webvan a hit, however, and a combination of overexpansion and high infrastructure costs took it out of service for good in 2001. Future startups learned the lessons that sunk the company, making better use of existing grocery and fulfillment infrastructure to serve a more web-savvy customer base.
Connecting with others has been a mainstay of the Internet since the glory days of Usenet, but it wasn’t until the late 2000s when social media truly flourished. There were many false starts and should-have-beens in the years throughout, but none exemplify too-early-for-their time like Dodgeball.
Founded a year before Facebook, Dodgeball took social networking mobile, something MySpace and Friendster never dared. However, this was in the pre-smartphone days, and conducting the business of making friends and sharing events via text message was a bit unwieldy. Dodgeball wasn’t a complete loss, though, as its founders eventually found success with a new app for the age of smartphones: Foursquare. By the time that company came into existence, smartphone and GPS were common enough for investors and customers alike to buy in.
At-home internet assistants are a mainstay of the modern home thanks to Alexa, Google Assistant and more, but in 2000 only the most ambitious tech firms were in the business of internet-linked home devices. For a moment, however, some ambitious minds were ready to bring the web off of computers and into purpose-built home devices.
The brainchild of now-defunct 3Com, Audrey’s intended destiny was to bring the Internet to kitchens as part of a whole family of devices specially designed for each room of the house. This early iteration of the smart home never came to be, as the pricy units didn’t move well and 3Com was bought out and dissolved. Interestingly, the devices became a favorite of the hacker community, with hobbyists developing new and unauthorized applications for the forgotten tech.
Also known as WebTV, this service was an attempt to bridge the gap between television and the internet, putting basic web applications and email to home television sets with a unit about the size of a cable box. What should have been an early form of smart TV instead served a moderately-sized section of the public who were slightly internet-savvy, but not interested enough to take the plunge into computer ownership. It was bought out by Microsoft and rechristened MSN TV in 2001.
Unlike the rest of this list, MSN TV was actually somewhat successful, attracting 800,000 subscribers at its peak in 1999. However, eventually the idea of surfing a scaled-down version of the internet on a non-HD monitor soon became dreadfully out of style, and smartphones more than ably handled our desire for passive web browsing and email (along with near-infinite other uses) without the need to shell out for a desktop computer. Today, WebTV stands as an idea that was somewhat useful for a time, but rapidly became obsolete once technology improved.
Whether you’re a fan or not, there’s no disputing that online video gaming is big business. The most popular streamers and competitive gamers earn well into the millions, with cadres of loyal fans tuning in on Twitch, Youtube, and even live competitions in sold-out arenas and stadiums. The first mainstream entry into this market, however, came and went with little notice. Sega’s Dreamcast, released in 1998 in Japan and the following year in the U.S., was the first home console to include a modem for online play. Internet connectivity right out of the box was a huge leap forward, but the system fell behind Nintendo and Sony when it came to capturing players’ imaginations.
Online play was a curiosity rather than a compulsion, and what could have been the beginning of a revolution instead came and went quickly, with the Dreamcast off of the market by 2001. A year later, Microsoft’s Xbox Live heralded a new era for gamers, and integration of online play has been an integral part of the $113 billion video game industry ever since. Sega, for their efforts, shut down their console division and survive in a much smaller form today.
Every consumer market has its challenges, and entering when the time is just right is often an inexact science. The Internet, with its infinite possibilities, is an especially fertile ground for great ideas to grow, but success in the market is never guaranteed, even when your idea is a world changer. When it came to these 5 revolutionary ideas, the world simply wasn’t ready.