Fire Phone, Galaxy S5, iPad Mini 3, and more: 15 major mobile flops of 2014

It's been a banner year for smartphones, tablets, and smartwatches of the turkey variety; here are the 15 biggest flappers

Man with thumbs down
Credit: Thinkstock

It may be cliché to highlight turkeys at Thanksgiving, but it's a good time of year to look back at what to give thanks for — and what to learn from as a new year approaches.

With that in mind, it's been an extraordinary year for failed mobile products, smartphones, tablets, and more. I can't recall a larger gaggle of mobile turkeys. Let me carve them up for you!

Amazon Fire Phone

Image credit: PCWorld/Jared Newman

Amazon Fire Phone

The biggest flameout was Amazon.com's Fire Phone, the poster child of how not to develop a product. The Fire Phone was all about serving Amazon's greed, not at all about its customers. When a company forgets that customers keep it in business, you get products like the Fire Phone — and executives who can't believe customers aren't as sheeplike as they would prefer.

The Fire Phone isn't so much a smartphone but a portable product scanner and ordering device tied to a single vendor that also happens to make phone calls. Who on earth would want that? I'm all for mobile shopping, but I want to do it at more than one store. Any iPhone, Android, or Windows Phone can do that, thanks to store apps and QR code readers.

Real technology chops were required to create the Fire Phone's ability to take a picture of a product and find it on the Amazon store, but the advancements were ultimately wasted. It's like sequencing the human DNA to be able to create only blond children. Surely, there are more useful benefits than photographing objects in the world to order them from Amazon.

The Fire Phone also has all the shortcomings of Amazon's other Fire devices, its Kindle Fire tablet series, which are designed to conquer only Amazon content and provide a stripped-down, poor Android fork to ensure you can't do anything else on them. Worse, the Fire Phone requires you to buy a monthly data plan to essentially only shop with it. Even cutting its price to 99 cents with contract couldn't fool enough people to move the needle.

Samsung Galaxy S5

Samsung Galaxy S5 tips primary

Samsung Galaxy S5

The Galaxy line has been Samsung's star attraction and the powerhouse behind its Android dominance in the West. But cracks began to appear in 2013's Galaxy S 4 and its uneven software. This year's Galaxy S5 had software that was as unbaked as the S 4's and a cheaper-feeling casing.

Soon after its launch came rumors that sales were dismal, and multiple market analysts said Apple's "failed" iPhone 5c was outselling it, as was the then-six-month-old iPhone 5s and, for a time, even Samsung's own S 4. (True numbers are impossible to come by, as Samsung does not report them, and its statements of what sells well don't always match what actually happens in the market.)

This fall, Samsung revealed its smartphone profits had dropped precipitously, before the iPhone 6 debuted to huge sales. Samsung managed to sink its flagship by neglecting it and assuming buyers wouldn't notice. They did, and they bought devices from Apple, HTC, and LG instead.

iPad Mini 3 and iPad Air 2

iPad Air 2 in gold Susie Ochs

Apple iPad Air 2

I'll say it bluntly: This year's new iPads are the equivalents of last year's iPhone 5s: the last iteration of an old design. Adding the Touch ID sensor is welcome but an obvious change given that it debuted a year ago in the iPhone 5s. In a year when Apple reinvented the iPhone, remade mobile payments with Apple Pay, and invented the Apple Watch, maybe it is too much to expect it to reinvent the iPad.

But it's time to take the iPad to a higher level, and Apple's hype-heavy iPad debut event — it spent more time on them than it had on the iPhone 6's debut — couldn't hide that fact. Apple shouldn't have pretended the new iPads were a big deal.

Android and Tizen smartwatches

Motorola Mobility Moto 360 Andrew Hayward

Motorola Mobility Moto 360

The failure to move the iPad to the next level while pretending to is a minor transgression, though, compared to the series of disasters that has been the smartwatch market this year, powered by Android and Tizen OSes.

Responding to rumors in the last couple years that Apple might have a smartwatch in the works, Samsung has delivered three failed incarnations of its Gear, an ugly, bulky watch that does very little useful. (Samsung should stop worrying about what Apple might do and figure out instead what it can be good at itself.)

LG and Motorola Mobility came up with their own. LG's G Watch R was clunky but more watchlike, and Motorola's Moto 360 was cool to look at but not very functional — its circular face is quite attractive, but the square display rendered by the underlying Android Wear OS exceeds the screen's boundaries, so only the middle line of alerts and so on are complete. Clearly, no one tested this before shipping it.

The reviews of the Moto 360 have been the kindest — but hardly kind. I'm reminded of those horrible early Android tablets such as the original Galaxy Tab 7. Let's hope it doesn't take the Android watch community as long to come up with decent devices once the Apple Watch ships this coming spring as it did for the Android tablet community after the iPad's debut.

If you want a smartwatch today, get the one that is actually good: the Pebble. It may come from an upstart company and use an OS you never heard of, but unlike the Android and Tizen competitors, it works well.

There's a poult (look it up) in this category too: The new Microsoft Band fitness monitor that smartly runs with Android, iOS, and Windows Phone devices but is uncomfortable to wear — which it needs you to do all day, every day.

Samsung Galaxy Note Pro 12.2

Samsung Galaxy Note Pro 12.2

Samsung Galaxy Note Pro 12.2

Chasing another rumor about Apple's potential moves, Samsung unveiled its 12-inch Galaxy Note Pro 12.2 this winter, showing clearly that bigger is not always better. The Note Pro 12.2 is awkward to hold and awkward to use, with insufficient accommodation in its interface for its outsize scale. Again, you have to wonder if anyone used this thing before manufacturing it. No wonder Samsung is in trouble.

Samsung Knox

Samsung Knox

Samsung Knox on Android

The trouble continues at Samsung. In spring 2012, Samsung debuted its Knox security technology that creates a separate workspace for personal and business usage, in the same vein as BlackBerry's Balance technology. It even won Defense Dept. approval.

But reports soon surfaced that the Knox technology didn't work as promised on the few Galaxy smartphones that supported it, and the product release date kept slipping. Although several mobile management vendors promised support for Knox, that backing didn't go much beyond press releases. Worse, potential customers balked at paying another $3 per user per month for Knox on top of the MDM fees for Galaxy users.

By the time Knox 2 — the real Knox — became available in spring 2014, Google decided to buy a competitor called Divide and incorporate it in Android 5.0 Lollipop. Samsung and Google made noises about some aspects of Knox being incorporated into Lollipop, but to this day they won't say what, if any, of Knox is in Lollipop.

Tellingly, when Google bought Divide, Samsung began discussions with BlackBerry to have BlackBerry's BES12 support Knox, which Samsung continues to make available for some of its Android devices. When I asked them, both Samsung and BlackBerry execs were vague about what specific capabilities the Knox tie-in with BES12 would bring, promising merely a strong partnership on future efforts. I can only wonder how much Samsung paid BlackBerry for this fig-leaf deal.

Tizen, Firefox OS, and Ubuntu Touch

Samsung Tizen Z

Tizen-powered Samsung Z

For us tech pundits, a world that has essentially consolidated to Android and iOS is a bit boring, and we all root for BlackBerry and Windows Phone to matter somewhere, somehow. We sometimes get excited by puppy mobile OSes like Tizen, Firefox OS, and Ubuntu Touch, which despite their open source pedigree are creatures of Samsung and Intel, Mozilla, and Canonical, respectively.

None is new, but 2014 was supposed to be the year each got real, coming to market in multiple products. It didn't happen, and it likely won't ever at this point. (Remember the Tizen-powered Samsung Z that was supposed to ship first in Russia? It didn't.) Although they have intriguing aspects, the fact is they're all hugely inferior to Android and iOS, even to BlackBerry and Windows Phone. Why bother?

Tizen has no real mission other than to be a paper tiger Samsung can wave at Google when they fight over Android's direction. Firefox OS and Ubuntu Touch come from open source dreamers who believe that all a smartphone needs to be is a glorified Web browser. Google's been trying that for five years with Chrome OS, to marginal uptake at best (it might finally have cracked the 1 percent new-sales threshold this year).

Android's AOSP version and Microsoft's free phone licenses have taken away most of the cost factor advantage of a free open source mobile OS. You can still build cheaper Firefox OS and Ubuntu Touch phones than AOSP or Windows Phone devices, but not much cheaper — and you get phones that can do very little. People in poor countries may not have much money, but if they spend it on a smartphone, it has to handle sufficiently useful tasks to justify any price.

Google Docs for iOS and Android

Google Docs for mobile flixel

Google Docs for mobile

For years, Apple's iWork suite was the undisputed king of the mobile office suites, though the now-defunct Quickoffice had long been a strong second choice, and for many a superior one for Word and Excel file usage. This winter, Microsoft debuted Office for iPad and a couple weeks ago made it available for the iPhone. The first Office for iPad was good, not great. But with several revisions since that debut, Office for iOS is now very good, a strong rival to iWork.

The same can't be said for the sad suite that is Google Docs, a marginally capable office-productivity trio that will quickly convince you to save your work for when you get back to your desk and have a real word processor — or switch to Office or iWork on an iOS device. The Android version of Google Docs is slightly more capable than the iOS version, but not enough to prevent you from jumping to Office for Android when that finally ships, probably in early 2015.

Google keeps pushing its Docs suite on mobile devices and Apps suite (aka Google for Work) for the desktop Web as alternatives to Microsoft Office, but it keeps failing miserably on the mobile side of the equation — where all the computing growth is. It makes no sense.

Apple CarPlay

Apple CarPlay with iPhone

Apple CarPlay

Enough of the promises, already! Apple's been talking about CarPlay for more than two years, and it's still MIA. Those 2014 models from 29 marques that were supposed to have it on "select models"? Crickets. Apart from a $300,000 Ferrari vehicle, Pioneer is the only company that seems to have CarPlay gear, in the form of aftermarket stereos.

Sure, part of that is the slow pace of the automakers, most of whom still can't believe that people hate their horrible attempts at infotainment systems. (Ford, I'm talking to you!) Part of that is waiting for one of the kings of waitware, Google, to debut its CarPlay clone called Android Auto, so they're not beholden to only Apple.

But CarPlay's long hello is starting to feel like "Waiting for Godot" — without the intention to be so.

Turkeys that lived to see another year

You don't see BlackBerry or Windows Phone on my list of 2014's mobile turkeys — because they were 2013 turkeys that lived another year. Both are still struggling to hold onto their dismal market shares, but both are in the middle of plausible turnaround efforts that won't bear fruit for a good year.

BlackBerry has its back-to-the-past BlackBerry Classic (basically, a BlackBerry Q10 in a BlackBerry Bold case) debuting in a couple weeks, but its real hopes are on its expanded set of management capabilities and apps powered by its new BES12 management server.

The perpetually pretty but dumb Windows Phone got a serious update this year — Windows Phone 8.1 — plus the Siri clone called Cortana, but the real make-or-break point for Windows Phone is at least a year away, after the debut of the unified Windows 10. If that fifth version of the Windows Phone fails to turn on customers, Windows Phone will head to the carving table.

But that's a meal to contemplate for next year, not now.

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