I have recently spent time back on eBay after a few years' break due to an unfortunate incident which damaged my confidence in the eBay payment protection policy. It was a few years ago now and I'm very much impressed by the improvements made by eBay and Paypal. Though I've only been on it a few weeks, they have already successfully blocked someone attempting to defraud me, and though I had my suspicions, it was for low value goods, therefore a good opportunity to help test my confidence in the new systems.

One of my recent purchases has been the Amstrad Emailer Plus. It's an interesting little device originally sold in 2002 by Amstrad for circa £200, dropping to £15 only two years later in Tesco, and finally discontinued on July 14th 2011.  As you can see, it is quite a chunky but pretty device - as well as providing convenient access to email - so why did it fail?

Though the market for email on a household phone is probaby quite a small one - the Emailer Plus definitely has the 'geek' factor as well as being a little bit 'retro.'  I bought one, not because it can give me access to emails, (I can do this well enough from my Samsung Galaxy S2 already,) but because it has got personalty.  The big blue display not only displays a nice clock in standby mode, but it also has the ability to play ZX Spectrum games, and other little tidbits that when integrated properly could make the big display quite useful.  The standard issue BT phone I have on my desk at work costs more than this, but offers much less in terms of functionality.

The failure in the Amstrad Emailer Plus is down to a naivety in understanding the direction that the internet and email was taking.  In the early days of modems and dial-up internet, it could cost 5p per minute to get online - webmail wasn't taking off because staying online to write emails was costly - so it was better to have an offline client to do the writing.  The Amstrad Emailer required a 'phone home' call at least once a day - with a cost of 14p per call.  It's a bit of a premium price to pay for receiving a bulk email delivery - plus, unless you were sensible enough to group your outgoing emails up into a single batch - the outgoing cost was also 14p per connection.

It's a real shame, as I think had Amstrad had the foresight to see that the screen was valuable real-estate, the Emailer could have been a market-changing device.  It has the ability to host 'widgets' or 'apps' as they are now commonly known.  Amstrad have learnt it all now, with their 'Amscreen' - a backwards piece of technology consisting of essentially a flatscreen with a red LED ticket attached to the top in a bulky, ugly black case - being used to broadcast advertising.  The technology itself isn't expensive or interesting - the real value is in where the screens are.  I recall a seminar at Warwick Business School a few years ago, with the General Manager of McDonalds in the UK.  When asked 'What is McDonalds' core business?' most people responded with 'selling burgers' - when he replied that it wasn't, the majority looked fairly confused.  His answer was 'acquiring prime real-estate, to prevent our competitors selling burgers.'

In the same way, strategy needs to look at pushing alternatives to the core market of a project.  Sure, there may be a specific target market to aim the product at - but individual markets are a finite resource.  Look at alternative uses for your product - can it be abstracted and re-marketed at a different sector?  Do you have to sell it for it to benefit you?  The end result for the Amstrad Emailer was for Amstrad to use it as a loss-leader for selling their Emailer service.  It's a shame that the device couldn't be rescued from obscurity by diversifying.  Hopefully I'll be able to make some use of it and deny this technological marvel it's resting place on some gadgetry wasteland for a few more years to come.