Memeburn’s top tech fails of 2011

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I sometimes wonder if there is any industry with more pantomime, histrionics, and at the same time, sheer brilliance than the technology industry. It’s the stuff of Hollywood movies, front page fodder, back page gossip, and in some form or another affects and permeates the lives of just about every living being on earth.

At the end of a year, we often reflect with the good intention to do better next time, so without further ado, let’s take a look at some the spills, fender benders and full on train wrecks of 2011.

Governments

Amid protests earlier this year, Egypt showed the world how authoritarian governments with centralised information control could attempt to censor the voice and freedoms of its citizens, by flipping an internet kill switch. It was a recurring theme throughout the Arab Spring as governments such as Libya, Bahrain and Tunisia attempted similar feats, but gravely underestimated the resilience of their people.

Companies

The iconic Hewlett-Packard had one of the toughest years in its esteemed history. Under then-CEO Léo Apotheker, the future of HP’s consumer PC division fell into limbo, WebOS failed to make an impact when the TouchPad didn’t sell — pre fire sale that is –, and the company called an end to its WebOS smartphones. Hurricane Apotheker’s attempt to overhaul HP’s businesses to have an enterprise software focus — when HP acquired Autonomy for US$10 billion — was thankfully thwarted when newly appointed CEO Meg Whitman decided to open source WebOS, keep its consumer PC business and remain open to WebOS tablets.

Yahoo finally worked up the courage to fire Carol Bartz, ending a rocky three-year tenure of failed initiatives and unmet expectations. The headstrong Bartz, was supposed to streamline operations at Yahoo, but investors became increasingly unhappy with Bartz’s performance and her vision for Yahoo’s future as the company struggled to create new revenue streams, stabilize its finances and retain its top engineering talent.

Research In Motion suffered its biggest BlackBerry outage in history. It lasted three days and cost the company an estimated US$50 million in restitution, not to mention immeasurable reputation damage in its strong EMEA markets. By failing to meet earnings estimates, continuing to concede market share in primary markets, failing to gain traction with the PlayBook, and QNX based handset delays, RIM’s share price eventually fell below book value. At the end of 2011, its share price dipped to a record low after announcing that it only expects to deliver its comeback-kid BlackBerry OS 10 devices by late 2012.

The Netflix’s honeymoon came to an end as content providers re-negotiated higher margin content deals, which caused a customer revolt as the company unbundled streaming and DVD rental services in a haphazard attempt to mitigate price hikes. Netflix then went on to further aggravate its customers by attempting to spin off its DVD rental service, awkwardly dubbing it “Qwikster”. The company then went back on the decision, confusing the hell out of its customers. Bundled with poor PR, Netflix saw unprecedented customer attrition, and the once darling of US cable cutters became a punching bag.

Lobbying as it may, AT&T attempted to buy T-Mobile for US$39-billion but failed, costing it a breakup fee of US$3-billion in cash in addition to mobile spectrum in cities such as Los Angeles, Dallas and Boston.

Sony’s PlayStation Network suffered a massive breach and went offline on April 20 after personal information of more than 77-million users was compromised. Sony went on to haphazardly mitigate frustrations as the service remained offline for 23 days costing the company an estimated US$171 million dollars in restitution.

On 12 November 2011, Trevor Eckhart published a report indicating that Carrier IQ software — clandestinely installed on the lion’s share of phones from leading manufacturers such as HTC, Samsung, RIM and Apple — was capable of recording user keystrokes.

Media attention reached fever pitch when Eckhart released a video on 28 November illustrating how the software was evidently logging personal information, prompting investigations by the FBI and US Senator Al Franken.

In a PR disaster of epic proportions Airbnb — the online service that matches short term accommodation seekers with rooms to rent — issued an “unconditional” apology for failing to treat users properly after a house was ransacked.

Amazon’s EC2 service suffered some of its biggest outages this year, affecting large sites such as Foursquare, Reddit, as Netflix and causing some reflection on the technology industry’s rapid embrace of cloud infrastructure.

Google axed a bevy of products this year, leaving users of those services out in the cold. Trashed products for 2011 include Android App Inventor, Buzz, Code Search, Wave, Timeline Search, Knol, Friend Connect and more. In the name of unification and the big push of Google+, many existing services received redesigns, not all of them pleasant, as was evident with the user outrage related to the beloved Google Reader. Finally, Google lost out in the Nortel patent bid, potentially undermining Android, but got it’s swagger back when it decided to purchase Motorola Mobility and its venerable patent portfolio.

The floundering AOL continued to try and reinvent itself as a content provider by buying Huffington Post for US$315 million, but the move sparked attrition as top tech talent from Engadget and TechCrunch walked out to form competing companies.

The incredibly popular cloud backup service, Dropbox, suffered a major security fail in June this year when anyone could sign into any account with any password for almost four hours.

Software

15 years in the making, Duke Nukem Forever finally emerged only to get slammed by critics for its anachronistic graphics, repetitive and unimaginative gameplay, unfunny humour and rampant misogyny. The game was so bad that Ars Technica noted that its only redeeming quality was that the gameplay doesn’t last very long.

In one of the most convincing confirmations that we’re again living in a tech bubble circa 1995-2000, Color managed to raise a staggering US$41-million seemingly on the face of having hit the buzzword sweet-spot alone. Social, mobile, real-time photo sharing. The app failed to gain traction and it has has now done a pivot to reinvent itself as a live-broadcasting tool for Facebook.

Gadgets

Non Apple tablets continued to struggle, but the BlackBerry PlayBook and HP TouchPad were by far the biggest losers. The PlayBook forced RIM to take to a US$485-million write-down, and HP was forced to do a $99 TouchPad liquidation sale.

3D is still failing to hit critical mass in TVs, smartphones (LG Optimus 3D/HTC Evo 3D), or game consoles such as the Nintendo 3DS, which contributed to Nintendo’s first annual loss in three decades.

Sony’s plan to dominate the mobile phone gaming market through its PlayStation Certified initiative failed to make a disruptive impact because of limited and delayed handsets and a poor game selection.

Despite the buzz the Motorola Atrix created at CES 2011, it failed to gain traction as it left tech pundits and the public scratching their heads as to why they’d buy a LapDock instead of a full powered laptop. Google’s Chromebooks, essentially a netbook running a web browser priced at US$350 also failed to make a splash.

Image: USA Today

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