The Top 21 Tech Screwups of 2006

It was a year where the world's biggest software company had to admit its flagship operating system was going to be delayed--yet again. And the number one PC manufacturer was caught spying on reporters and board members.

In 2006, turning on your laptop was an adventure in flammability. Of course, lots of government and corporate officials didn't have to worry about their notebook bursting into flames--they'd already lost theirs--along with the personal records of millions of Americans.

Surfing the Net you stood a good chance of being hoaxed by an actress pretending to be a lonely teenager or a blogger in the employ of the planet's largest retailer. If you subscribed to AOL, your searches might have been shared with the rest of the Web. And if you did anything stupid, somebody with a video camera and a YouTube account was probably there to broadcast it to the world.

Here, then, on the following pages we humbly offer our nominations for the biggest tech mistakes of the year. (And if you notice any errors in this article, please--keep them to yourself.)

Biggest Mistakes #1-#3

1. Assault With Batteries

When 62-year old Thomas Forqueran and a buddy were packing up from a Nevada fishing trip last July, he left his Dell Inspiron 1300 notebook in the cab of his 1966 Ford pickup. Soon Forqueran smelled smoke, then saw flames shooting out of the passenger window. Within moments the fire hit three boxes of ammunition stored in the glove box. Forqueran and his buddy ducked for cover as bullets whizzed by and the gas tank exploded .

Several flaming laptops made headlines in 2006, but it was Forqueran's story that pushed Dell to recall 4.1 million laptops containing Sony lithium ion batteries. Apple, IBM/Lenovo, Toshiba, and others soon followed, and laptop makers vowed to build a safer lithium ion battery battery by July 2007.

Big Mistake: Buying anything powered by a Sony lithium ion battery.

Bigger Mistake: Packing your laptop next to the ammo.

2. Spying the HP Way

Hiring private eyes to illegally obtain phone records, putting reporters under surveillance, digging through their trash, planting tracking bugs in their e-mail, and mulling plans to place informants inside newsrooms--the HP corporate spying scandal had a Watergate-style stink on it that an ocean of perfume couldn't wash away.

But deposed HP chair Patricia Dunn's Congressional testimony on the matter, which ranged from pleas of ignorance to haughty self-righteousness, had its own lingering aroma.

Dunn and other HP executives were ultimately forced to resign; the California State Attorney General's office has charged her and four others with fraud, identity theft, and conspiracy.

Big Mistake: Spying on reporters, board members, and their families.

Bigger Mistake: Not renting the DVD of "All the President's Men."

3. Hacking the Vote

Are electronic voting machines insecure? In May, security researchers discovered a previously unknown backdoor in Diebold's AccuVote-TS touch-screen voting machines that could allow an attacker to manipulate votes, cause malfunctions, or create a 'voting virus' that spreads from machine to machine--all in under a minute and with little fear of detection. Meanwhile, Princeton researchers also found Diebold's touch-screen machines could be opened with the same kind of key used for hotel mini-bars, offering easy access to the machine's memory card. Diebold promised to fix the vulnerability eventually, but also said they weren't too worried. Why? Because such hacks would require "evil and nefarious election officials"--who don't exist.

We feel much better now.

Big Mistake: Allowing insecure voting machines anywhere near this country's electoral process.

Bigger Mistake: Electing Homer Simpson president--which might happen if we keep using these machines.

Biggest Mistakes #4-#6

4. AOL: You've Got Manslaughter!

Last July, researchers at AOL thought it would be really cool to release search data for 650,000 or so of its members. By replacing customer names with numbers, they thought nobody would mind. They thought wrong. Among the search terms were names, addresses, Social Security numbers, and other personally identifiable information. Brave bloggers digging through the data came up with even more fascinating search strings, such as "is cocaine good for you?" (user #1766737), "finance me some gold teeth" (user #519928), and "how to kill your wife" (user #17556639). After howls of protest, AOL apologized and pulled the data, but not before some enterprising Netizens downloaded a copy and grafted a search interface onto it. The employees responsible for the gaffe and CTO Maureen Govern are now researching new employment opportunities.

Big Mistake: Blindly releasing customers' personal data.

Bigger Mistake: Confirming our worst suspicions about who's really using AOL.

5. Vista: Missing in Action

Microsoft put a moon-sized lump of coal in PC makers' stockings when it announced that consumer versions of Windows Vista would ship on January 30, 2007. While business customers can now download the oft-delayed OS, PCs with Vista preinstalled won't appear until after the 2006 holiday shopping season.

To appease angry hardware makers, Microsoft announced a voucher program that may or may not provide free upgrades to buyers of new PCs, depending on (a) who sold the system, (b) when it was purchased, (c) what version of XP came with it, and (d) which of the four different flavors of Vista they choose. (Got all that?) Then, of course, you'll have to upgrade the OS yourself. Hey, if it were easy, it wouldn't be Microsoft.

Big Mistake: Microsoft making a major OS upgrade as painful as humanly possible.

Bigger Mistake: Users not switching to Linux or the Mac when they had the chance.

6. Laptop Losers

When privacy guru Robert Ellis Smith called 2006 "the year of the stolen laptop," he wasn't exaggerating. The list of organizations that misplaced computers containing people's personal information is a Who's Who of bungling bureaucracies: Aetna, EDS, Equifax, Ernst & Young, Fidelity Investments, the FTC, ING, the IRS, Starbucks, T-Mobile, Toyota, Union Pacific, the U.S. Department of Transportation (three times), and Verizon, to name but a few.

The big kahuna of laptop losses occurred last May, when a machine containing the personal data of 28 million U.S. military veterans was stolen from the home of a Department of Veterans Affairs analyst. (The vets dodged a bullet when the missing laptop was recovered a month later with the database unbreached.) In most cases the data was neither encrypted nor password-protected, allowing easy access for identity thieves.

Big Mistake: Organizations' failing to safeguard customer's names, addresses, and Social Security numbers.

Bigger Mistake: The public's trusting these clowns with our information in the first place.

Biggest Mistakes #7-#9

7. YouTube Boobs

The year 2006 may be remembered as the year Internet video started kicking butt and taking names. The list of ordinary citizens undone by YouTube is long, but the highlights include: the Comcast repairman who fell asleep on the wrong person's couch (and woke up to a termination notice); the CNN anchor who left her microphone on during a presidential address and broadcast a rather personal conversation from the loo; the LAPD beating yet another restrained suspect; and, of course, the now ex-senator from Virginia who got bitten by a "macaca."

We have met Big Brother, and He is Us.

Big Mistake: Forgetting how a digital video camera and the Internet can create instant celebrities, willing or otherwise.

Bigger Mistake: Calling your constituent a monkey.

8. PlayStation 3: Late, Expensive, and Incompatible

When it was announced in spring 2005, the Sony PlayStation 3 was going to be the greatest thing to hit home gaming since a hedgehog named Sonic. Then came the delays. By the time the PS3 arrived, it was six months late, and Nintendo's cheaper and more innovative Wii had stolen much of its thunder. At $599 for the 60GB model, the PS3 is twice the price of the original PlayStation 2, yet research firm iSupply--which describes the PS3 as having supercomputer qualities--estimates that Sony still loses more than $200 per unit.

Thanks to manufacturing delays, Sony shipped an estimated 150,000 units for the North American launch, or less than half the number it had originally planned. And the PS3 was incompatible with more than 200 PlayStation and PS2 games, though Sony is addressing that problem through online updates.

The good news? Game-crazed youth are buying up PS3s and reselling them on eBay for double the asking price. And unlike, say, Sony batteries, they don't catch fire--at least, not yet.

Big Mistake: Trying to turn a supercomputer into a gaming device.

Bigger Mistake: Failing to drive a stake through the heart of Nintendo when the opportunity offered.

9. Delusions of Podhood

Last September Apple shipped at least two dozen iPods containing the RavMonE Trojan, a nasty bit of Windows malware. That's bad enough, but the company's less-than-contrite response was even worse. ("As you might imagine, we are upset at Windows for not being more hardy against such viruses, and even more upset with ourselves for not catching it.") Given those glass palaces Apple likes to erect as stores, you'd think they'd be more careful about throwing stones.

Big Mistake: Shipping iPods containing malware.

Bigger Mistake: Using your "apology" to take a swipe at your competitor.

Biggest Mistakes #10-#12

10. Google: Blogging for Dummies

You'd assume the company that owns Blogger.com might know a little something about, well, blogging. You'd be wrong. Not once, not twice, but three times Google bungled its own blogs in 2006. After a butter-fingered employee accidentally deleted the company's official blog last March, 19-year-old college student Trey Philips immediately laid claim to googleblog.blogspot.com (but quickly gave it back). In October, an attacker exploited a bug inside Blogger to post a bogus message claiming Google had discontinued a joint advertising project with eBay.

That same month, a Google employee posted two messages to its Blogger Buzz site that were meant for her personal blog (nothing naughty, thank Google).

Big Mistake: Allowing the Google-teers to blog without adult supervision.

Bigger Mistake: Believing any big corporation walks on water, even if it's trading at more than $500 a share.

11. RIAA: Scouts Dishonor

The good news: Both the RIAA and MPAA made it through the entire year without suing a single dead person for illegally downloading files.

Their big blunder (and the bad news): Enlisting the Boy Scouts of America in their hunt for file-sharing scofflaws. Scouts in the Los Angeles area can now earn an activity patch for learning about peer-to-peer networks, touring a Hollywood studio, or recording a public service announcement about the evils of file swapping.

Big Mistake: Using a revered institution to serve a narrow industry agenda.

Bigger Mistake: Teaching young boys how to rat out their parents for downloading "Hips Don't Lie."

12. Windows: Genuinely Disadvantaged

If a piece of software quietly installed itself, couldn't be removed, and phoned home with information about your system, you'd probably call it spyware. Microsoft has another name for it: Windows Genuine Advantage. Last April, Microsoft began distributing WGA as a "critical" Windows update that transmitted data back to Redmond after every reboot and nagged owners of counterfeit copies of XP (and some legit ones) to pony up for the genuine article.

WGA's installation and disclosure process caused angry users to sue the software giant. Microsoft backed off, slightly, by letting people shut off the nagging and reducing how often the software phoned home. But it still maintains that WGA exists to protect us from the evils of Windows piracy.

Big Mistake: Microsoft thinking nobody would notice.

Bigger Mistake: Users believing Vista's validation process will be any better.

Biggest Mistakes #13-#15

13: RadioShack's Virtual Axe

When RadioShack downsized last August, it did some of the dirty work via e-mail--sending out electronic 'clean out your desk' notices to roughly 400 employees at its Fort Worth headquarters. In so doing, the troubled electronics retailer earned itself even more ill will than it did with those cloying TV commercials starring Howie Long and Terri Hatcher.

Big Mistake: Firing people by e-mail.

Bigger Mistake: Hiring Howie and Terri in the first place.

14. Wal-Mart Gets Flogged

After LonelyGirl15 was revealed as a hoax, the filmmakers behind the popular YouTube vixen became Hollywood darlings. When Walmarting Across America was discovered to be sponsored indirectly by the retailer itself, its creators were raked over the burning hot coals of the blogosphere.

Jim Thresher and Laura St. Claire's blog concept was appealingly simple: They'd drive their RV 2843 miles from Las Vegas to Atlanta, stopping each night at a different Wal-Mart and reporting on the "great people" they met there. The problem? The trip was paid for by Working Families for Wal-Mart, which is in turn largely funded by the retail juggernaut, and stage-managed by Edelman Public Relations--facts that were suspiciously absent from the blog's folksy entries.

Edelman made a public mea culpa and then revealed it managed two other flogs for the Godzilla of superstores: Working Families for Wal-Mart and Paid Critics.

Big Mistake: Confusing blogging with PR.

Bigger Mistake: Not hiring LonelyGirl15 actress Jennifer Rose to go along for the ride.

15. The New Newer Newest AOL

Maybe it was AOL's rapidly evaporating user base. Maybe it was the blogger whose taped phone conversation proved it's easier to quit the Mafia than to cancel your AOL account.

Or maybe they finally realized there was no one left on the planet who hadn't received (and thrown away) a free AOL disc. Whatever the inspiration, last August Time Warner announced that it was turning its pricey paid-access network into a free, ad-sponsored content service--the fourth "plan to save AOL" since the two companies merged five years ago. At the same time, AOL's Netscape subsidiary said it was reinventing itself as a Digg.com-style news site.

Four months later, the architects of these changes--CEO Jonathan Miller and Netscape honcho Jason Calacanis--are gone. Meet the new AOL, same as the old AOL.

Big Mistake: Changing direction so often even your own employees have vertigo.

Bigger Mistake: Anyone else caring.

Biggest Mistakes #16-#18

16. Bloggers 1, Apple 0

In December 2004 Apple filed suit against Apple rumor blogs O'Grady's PowerPage and AppleInsider to find out who inside the company was leaking information to these blogs about an upcoming Apple product. (Apple had filed a similar suit against Think Secret in January 2006.)

Last May, the California Court of Appeal dismissed Apple's claims against PowerPage and AppleInsider, ruling that bloggers were protected under the state laws protecting journalists. The fate of the Think Secret suit is still to be determined.

Score one for the little guys. Then again, in light of HP's pretexting scandal, using legal means to uncover confidential sources seems almost quaint.

Big Mistake: Trying to bully bloggers into turning over their sources.

Bigger Mistake: Not hiring Patricia Dunn to plug the leaks.

17. Too Much, Too Zune

The latest attempt at an iPod Killer, Microsoft's Zune, debuted to mixed reviews.

The Zune combines a nice screen and sound with yet another complicated proprietary Digital Rights Management scheme. For example, you can share tunes with other Zune users in the same room using Wi-Fi, but each song is only good for three days or three plays before it's deleted. Meanwhile, you can't download tracks via Wi-Fi or share songs across the Internet a la MusicGremlin

What Zune will likely end up killing is any significant further development of Microsoft's PlaysForSure DRM system, used by partners like Napster and Rhapsody, whose content won't play on the Zune. If you're a user who has filled your music library with PlaysForSure tunes, welcome to the social!

Big Mistake: Introducing yet another DRM system to a market that doesn't want them.

Bigger Mistake: Calling any audio player, particularly one from Microsoft, an iPod Killer.

18. DHS: The Phantom Menace

The good news: The U.S. Department of Homeland Security finally tested our nation's digital defenses last February during a simulated five-day cyber attack.

The bad news: We lost. Seven months after completing Operation Cyber Storm, the DHS revealed the results of the exercise--major communications breakdowns across the board and an embarrassing lack of preparedness.

Essentially, our country's digital infrastructure could get owned by a clever 14-year-old running an Amiga. For an agency that's received a cybersecurity grade of F from the House Government Reform Committee for three straight years, we'd expect no less.

Big Mistake: Not studying hard enough for the test.

Bigger Mistake: Not hiring the 14-year-old as the DHS's new Cybersecurity Czar.

Biggest Mistakes #19-#21

19. Hacker Hoaxer

Browser geeks got some troubling news last October when security researchers claimed they'd identified a serious security breach in the way Firefox handles JavaScript. Mozilla.org coders then scrambled to isolate and patch the hole before it was exploited. Trouble was, the breach was entirely bogus--"a joke," said Andrew Wbeelsoi, the young hacker who'd presented the fake flaw at the Toorcon conference, stretching the definition of humor to the breaking point.

That's one way to get your 15 minutes of fame, just not the right way.

Big Mistake: Presenting a "humorous" slide show at a meeting of serious security geeks.

Bigger Mistake: Not changing your name before submitting your resume to Mozilla.org.

20. Amanda Goes Boom

She was the first star of the video blogging revolution. But last July, Rocketboom.com's quirky-yet-perky Amanda Congdon parted ways with co-boomer Andrew Baron.

The reasons behind the breakup were never really made clear. Congdon has since landed gigs with ABC and HBO.

And after a huge spike in traffic when new hostess Joanne Colan came aboard, Rocketboom's daily draw has sunk to its lowest level in a year, according to Alexa, which tracks site traffic.

No question who won this battle of the egos.

Big Mistake: Taking away the daily Amanda fix for thousands of geeks.

Bigger Mistake: Not begging her to come back.

21. No Accounting for Taste

It was the most ambitious calendar alteration since Pope Gregory XIII. In 2000, Computer Associates CEO Sanjay Kumar and seven associates invented the "35-day month," quietly moving several days' worth of revenue from one fiscal period to another in an effort to boost CA's stock price. Unfortunately, the Kumarian calendar, while ingenious, was also illegal. Last April, Kumar pleaded guilty to his part in the $2.2 billion accounting scandal and will soon be a guest of the federal government for the next 12 years. Meanwhile, CA is trying to get back some of the $14.9 million it spent defending Kumar by repo'ing his $9 million house, yacht, and a fleet of cars including two Ferraris.

Big Mistake: Kumar proclaiming his innocence after most of his co-conspirators had rolled over.

Bigger Mistake: CA standing by its man to the bitter end.

PC World Contributing Editor Dan Tynan rarely makes mistakes... while he sleeps. When awake, he writes PC World's Gadget Freak column. He's also author of the soon-to-be-remaindered Computer Privacy Annoyances (O'Reilly Media, 2005).

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