Earlier this week, the Tapwave Zodiac experienced the pointy end of American capitalism first-hand. The slick, Palm-based PDA/multimedia device/gaming system--the pride of late 2003 and early 2004, when it won numerous design awards, including a rave review on WGR--was finally discontinued, after a year of twisting in the wind. The prospects of its creator aren't looking so great, either. Although there's no official news as of yet, Tapwave has retained Ueker and Associates to settle "any outstanding claim[s] with the company," according to the company's web site. Them's fightin' words, pardner.
I, for one, really liked the Zodiac. I had only been in the office for a few months when a pair of Zodiacs arrived, prompting me to abandon my chief reviewing tool at the time--an LG VX6000--for the sexy, touch-sensitive newcomer. The device, shaped like a sheer, black hourglass, had shoulder buttons, Bluetooth, a gorgeous screen, and video acceleration, and it could run a decent polygonal version of Spy Hunter. It looked like a glorious alien artifact, and it played like hell on wheels, compared to the pokey mobile games I was used to. I wondered if it made any sense to cover the Zodiac next to downloadable mobile games...but then again, we were playing N-Gage games too, so why not? It was Wireless and it played Games, so we were going to Review it.
On the other hand, there seemed to be a question for every bold statement the Zodiac made. Yes, the device won accolades for its tight design and broad feature set, but did that justify its sky-high price? The Zodiac 2, which came with a usable amount of internal memory, started retailing at about $400--well outside the budget of most gamers looking for a portable system. That fed into a larger question: where, exactly, could the Zodiac position itself? Tapwave secured a wide-ranging retail deal with a number of electronics chains, including CompUSA, but it never gained any traction in the video games sections of America's retail powerhouses, like Wal-Mart and Target--let alone game specialists such as Electronics Boutique. I bet that the vast majority of Zodiacs were sold right off of Tapwave's web site. The Zodiac's high price-point and lack of distribution insured that nobody bought one on a whim--only committed gadgeteers could be bothered to seek it out.
Another major question concerned the very same feature set that the critics were raving about. It its core, the Zodiac was just an extra-fancy Palm OS PDA. After all, it was best navigated with a stylus, and it had no indigenous telephonic or WiFi capability. Even in 2004, the Golden Age of the PDA was a memory, given the increasing ubiquity of smart phones and microlaptops. It's midway through 2005, and many people are still saying that voice and TXT are mobile's killer apps--features that the Zodiac never supported. Once you threw in a shaky game catalog and a clunky online authentication scheme, a lot of the Zodiac's shine came off on your hands.
Due to its poor positioning, the Zodiac had the misfortune of occupying the limbo between technological and portable games cycles. It included just enough expensive next-generation features, like Bluetooth and video acceleration, to make it a luxury good, but not a single revolutionary feature. The gaming aspect could have been that feature, but there simply weren't any games to get excited about. The Zodiac's biggest release, arguably, was a decent port of Doom II. Ring a ding ding. Meanwhile, the launch of the Nintendo DS was only a few quarters away, and Sony was busy engineering Zodiac-style screens into its alpha PSPs.
It wasn't supposed to end like this. But then again, it never is.