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OnCue misses its cue

Innovation Strategy

Would you like to be able to watch absolutely anything available on TV at the touch of a single button? The world’s biggest technology companies have thought so too, but it’s not as easy as it seems. At the Guardian Changing Media Summit in London this week, Erik Huggers, who was Director of BBC Future Media & Technology (where he was responsible for building the iPlayer) before leaving for Intel in 2011, explained why its much-vaunted product innovation OnCue had unexpectedly been sold to Verizon earlier this year.

Although the collapse of the PC market in 2013 has caused Intel to refocus, (and this may have been one factor influencing the decision), the other reasons behind the failure of this high-profile venture offer a salutary lesson in the hazards of innovation in the frontiers of technology.

OnCue had been positioned as the ‘one stop’ solution for TV customers wanting on-demand access to the plethora of real-time and recorded material now available through a variety of suppliers. Current suppliers offer only partial solutions – a source of frustration for many viewers. As media journalist Christina Warren observed after tracking the progress of this project: “It’s frustrating to have to switch inputs to search for content on another service. As a premium-cable subscriber, I often find myself having to pre-check apps on my phone or iPad before deciding to watch TV on the cable box or via streaming services.”

Huggers had assembled a team of top players from the likes of Apple and Disney, so there was no shortage of talent. And this is not the first time technology companies of various hues have been attracted by this Holy Grail. As early as the 1990s BT experimented with their Digital Content Management System (DCMS) for several years before it was quietly abandoned. In the same period Pavan Nigam had lost $300m (and the time of more than 50 Silicon Valley developers) on a failed set-top box designed to do the same as OnCue would attempt later. This eventually became TiVo, but the current product is a much-diluted version of the original concept.

Why did OnCue fail with so much talent on board? In innovation, especially in complex markets, the core issue is the protracted lead-time between inception and delivery. When OnCue was conceived, the timing seemed propitious. These industry leaders spent much time on planning the best possible ‘TV everywhere’ product, when it might have been more prudent to opt, as some others would have done, for a ‘good enough’ solution which could be launched quickly, then be refined and upgraded later.

However, as it was, there was a long interval during which the product remained under development, and by the time it was ready for launch, with much fanfare, the world had moved on. Stakeholders feared the huge costs of content (in the $100s of millions, according to Reuters), Intel now had a new CEO, other fires to fight, and agile new competitors like Netflix had chipped away at the business model.

And just this week, with the launch of Google’s Chromecast – a £30 piece of kit which plugs into the HDMI port of your television and then allows you to stream video from any device – looks to have stolen a march.

There are many lessons to be learned when high profile innovations fail, but one which occurs repeatedly is the awkward gap between conception and delivery, during which the world can change dramatically. The moral? If you are an innovator, make sure you don’t miss your cue.


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