Viewtron

Sometimes a project can be executed perfectly but eventually fails because it is the right project introduced at the wrong time.  While we could attribute its failure to shortcomings in product strategy or even shortsighted top-management decisions, project managers are not off-the-hook. Indeed, there is a growing interest today in encouraging project managers to take a wider view of projects, a view that expect them to consider the role of the project n the firm’s strategic and operational plans. It is a view that is referred to as Enterprise Project Management.

Viewtron was conceived as computer-based home information and shopping network that offered its subscribers a chance to download newspapers, place orders, and do personal banking.  Launched in 1983, they were one of the first movers in the electronic information and commerce age, an age that would revolutionize the way consumers received information and purchased goods and services.

In its original configuration, users were required to purchase a decoder that was then attached to their TV sets on which they would view the content in full color. Using the system, subscribers could access newspapers hours before they appeared on newsstands or were delivered to their door.   But the service was pricey.  The cost of the decoder was $600, a price too high for most users.  In addition, subscribers were charged a monthly subscription fee of $12 and were required to use a phone line for which an additional fee of $1 per connect hour was charged plus any long distance charges.  

The system was first introduced in Miami and later it was rolled out to a national market.  But it never caught on.  Disappointed in the results, Viewtron refused to pull the plug but instead initiated new projects, one of which was to develop low cost terminals, while another was to develop software to allow PCs to access the database content.

But these projects failed to help, and by 1985 the personal computer and free access to other sites made the Viewtron out-of-date and too costly to use.  In April 1986 Viewtron left the business. Knight-Ridder had spent between $50 to 60 million, had invested six years of research, but was only to reach a subscription base of 20,000 users.

Others failed too. Times mirror and other videotext services managed to last a few more years but by the end of the decade they were all gone.

 For some, this failure was evidence that electronic services and home shopping had no future. In a an article published in “Retail Industry” on April 14, 1986, Beth A. Sexer wrote that the failure of Viewtron  “has cast doubt on the viability of home computer shopping on a mass market scale.”

What happened? Here was an innovative idea, a disruptive technology, at the very beginning of an information revolution that never succeeded. Like many others in the world of high-tech such as Sperry Rand or Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), pioneers in the computer industry, they would not survive long enough to experience the enormous gains that latecomers such as Dell and Hewlett Packard would enjoy.

One lesson we can learn from this case is that good ideas, and the projects that bring these ideas from the drawing board to the customer, are never protected from the onslaught of the competitive environment.  While the project is moving through its life cycle, new technologies are introduced, competitors enter and leave the competitive space, and consumer needs change.

 While Viewtron was a disruptive technology when it was conceived in the early 1980s it was not only too early for the consumer market but also failed to change along with the changes in technology and consumer needs. No doubt those involved in the project wanted to continue to improve Viewtron technology, but they were struggling to be the best buggy whip maker and “the best buggy whip maker often lasts long enough to be the last buggy whip maker.”

 In a 1960 Harvard Business review Article, Theodore Leavitt wrote about “Marketing Myopia.”  He suggested that companies often become too focused on their narrow niche and fail take a wider view of markets. Railroads, for example, saw themselves in the railroad business and with this limited perspective missed the revolution in air travel.  Leavitt contends that railroads would have experienced a very different future had they been capable of viewing themselves as competing in the transportation business.  Viewtron saw itself as providing newspaper access and shopping access using their own proprietary technology. What they failed to see was that they were actually in electronic commerce, a field that was beginning to gain traction when they pulled-the-plug.  With a more open mind they might have become an eBay or Amazon.com.  It can be argued that they suffered from Marketing Myopia.

 But do project managers really need to take this wider view?

 In today’s competitive market, the answer is yes!  The focus is turning from a traditional view of project management to enterprise project management where all of those involved understand and are responsible for a project’s broader business objectives.