Our competitor was a dud - and we still lost

Nine years later and I'm still bitter - and that's an unhealthy emotion. So I'm blogging as a form of catharsis.

Back in 2012, I was taking the fledgling "QRpedia" project to Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. We had a cool little invention - stick a QR code on a museum exhibit and when a visitor scans it, they're automatically taken to the Wikipedia page in their native language. Nifty, huh?

The project was still in beta, but was gaining traction with museums and galleries around the world. We were also getting good press!

More importantly, our project worked. Not only had we demonstrated that the technology was viable, but we had proof of it succeeding.

So I entered QRpedia into a UKTI backed competition to find the best UK mobile technology. We went through a couple of rounds of judging and ended up as one of four finalists!

BBC Headline talking about the competition.

Look how excited (and young!) I was!

We were up against a nanotech firm, an augmented reality app, and a company bringing low-cost Android tablets to the developing world. All impressive competitors!

We all did our presentations, then had TV cameras pointed at us while we waited for the announcement. QRpedia didn't win.

I think I managed to hide my disappointment on screen. The winner - DataWind - had done a great presentation about how they were going to bring "Aakash" a $50 Android tablet to India. But I thought there was something "off" about it.

What happened to DataWind?

Back in 2011 - well before the competition - DataWind made headlines by offering a $35 tablet to India. At the time, lots of sensible people questioned whether a laptop with suitable functionality could be made that cheaply. Spoiler alert - it couldn't!

Contemporary reports branded the Aakash device "a dud".

Despite wining a $4 million contract from the Indian Government, DataWind couldn't deliver what it promised. Reportedly, a third of the laptops wouldn't boot at all.

There was, I thought, ample evidence that the company wasn't able to deliver on its promises. But, wow, they did give a great presentation.

Over the next few years, it all came crashing down.

DataWind and the Aakash tablet were also the subject of an academic look into the failures of the project - "The Aakash tablet and technological imaginaries of mass education in contemporary India".

Their success wasn't a part in my failure

I know a few things about my personality. I love starting new projects, but I'm hopeless at pushing them out to market. Like the mathematician putting out a fire, I'm content to go "Aha! A solution exists."

A few years after the competition, the QRpedia project was given over to Wikimedia UK. Without a dedicated "sales" team to promote it, the project languished. Partly it was QR codes not being quite mainstream enough, and partly it was my failure to recognise that museums and galleries wanted to point to their own content - not Wikipedia.

Would winning the award have changed anything?

I can't remember what the prize money was - not a life changing amount, I suspect - but the legitimacy that it conferred on the project may have been useful in helping us get more uptake.

I'm happy to say our other competitors from that day are doing well. P2i are still selling waterproof nanocoating. And Blippar had a bit of a tumultuous time, but are still doing great AR work.

QRpedia codes still work - and I occasionally get sent photos of them in the wild.

Perhaps the resurgence of QR codes means that QRpedia will finally take the world by storm.

The lessons that I took from all of this? Winning prizes doesn't matter. The prize wasn't enough to stop DataWind from failing.

Judges aren't omniscient. At the time, I saw the loss as a direct rejection of our vision, and I couldn't understand how the judges had picked such an "obviously" flawed winner.

The power of story telling. Looking back, it's easy to see how DataWind had a much more compelling story and roadmap for real world impact.

Finally, holding on to bitterness isn't helpful. We lost, so fucking what? I should have used that emotion to spur me on rather than knock me back.

2 thoughts on “Our competitor was a dud - and we still lost

  1. says:

    Great post! I love how QR is so well integrated into phone cameras now. I still think most casual phone users not in tech, don’t understand it or know it’s there.

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