Startups Promise the Future But It Doesn't Always Arrive

(Bloomberg) -- Here in Silicon Valley, the tech capital of the world, effectively nobody gets their lunch by robot or by drone. Nobody I know rides to work in a self-driving car. Only gadget review columnists seem to have seen a Facebook Portal in person.

There is a class of what you might call technically real but functionally nonexistent technology products that generate a lot of ink but never seem to make it in the real world. For every iPhone that’s enshrined in the tech hardware canon, there are countless other products that don't take off because no one wants them, or they can’t deliver on their promise.

Self-driving cars, of course, are the quintessential example of the latter category. The New York Times headlined an article "Google Cars Drive Themselves, in Traffic" in 2008. Yet a decade later, those always-almost-ready vehicles still aren't driving any of us to home from work.

Postmates is the latest software company to announce a fantastical hardware device that it proclaims could transform its business: A Wall-E-style delivery robot that ferries takeout from restaurants to your home. The company wrote in its blog post Thursday, "A revolution just arrived at your doorstep."

I have to ask, though, when will it really be at your doorstep?

The company is launching in Los Angeles first. "The full roll-out of Serve will take place over the next 12 months in key cities across the United States," Postmates spokeswoman April Conyers wrote me in an email. I'd asked her what percentage of the company's LA business the food delivery startup expected its little robot to do next year. She declined to say, writing, "I can only tell you what we've released publicly. "While Postmates says the robot will be powered by its "Socially-Aware-Navigation system," Wired noted in its write-up of the announcement, "the rovers are remotely supervised by a Postmates employee, who can intervene with a game controller when necessary." Ah yes.

Maybe Serve will be a wild, cost-saving success. But absent a proven public release, the fanfare surrounding this and other moonshot hardware experiments feels excessive.

To its credit, at least Postmates says it is going to roll its robot out soon. Here's a headline from October, "Uber Ambitiously Eyes 2021 for Food-Delivery Drones Launch." That's a bit far off to salivate over.

What’s the harm in hyping, and maybe over-hyping, a new gadget? Look at Snap’s Spectacles, the camera-equipped sunglasses it released in 2016. (The company even renamed itself at the time to focus on all things camera.) Like a disappearing text message, Spectacles burst onto the tech media scene and almost instantly faded. Snap released the second version eight months ago to far less fanfare. The messaging company's stock price has been tumbling as it begins to lose users.

Wacky technology projects are fun if you're Google or Facebook and generate billions in profit. If you're a young company trying to justify your existence, take on quixotic hardware projects at your own risk.

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