2011 in Review: The 52 Lamest Moments in Tech
Americans, as Winston Churchill famously pointed out, can be counted on to do the right thing -- after exhausting all other possibilities. It’s the same deal with tech companies. The wonders they bring us are many, varied, and never-ending, but they’ve always been accompanied by an equally rich assortment of misadventures and wrongheaded ideas. The successes and failures feed off each other, propelling the entire industry forward in herky-jerky, unpredictable fashion.
It may just be me, but I can’t remember many years as peculiar as 2011 turned out to be for this business. Even demonstrably gifted and sensible people like Netflix’s Reed Hastings seemed to fall victim to a fever that made them do strange, ill-advised things. I hope that 2012 is a tad less weird, but 2011 has been fascinating to cover, and never, ever boring.
In hallowed Technologizer tradition, it’s time to recap the year in dumb. Celebrities, corporate intrigue, sex, violence -- they’re all here. Gird yourself, people: Things are about to get really stupid.
1. Stop this woman before she tweets again.
Proceedings begin in a court case charging that rocker Courtney Love defamed fashion designer Dawn “Boudoir Queen” Simorangkir on Twitter and MySpace. A judge eventually rules that Love is guilty. She’s booted off Twitter for more than two months and must pay Simorangkir $430,000. By May, Love is in Twitter legal hot water again -- this time over her tweets about her former lawyer.
2. Thrilling! At least if you hated Flock.
Social gaming behemoth Zynga buys pioneering social browser Flock. Shawn Hardin, Flock’s CEO, says he’s “thrilled” by the development. But it’s not until three months later that anyone involved admits that the acquisition is terrible news for Flock fans: the browser is being discontinued.
3. Bing sting.
Google injects fake results into search results to confirm its suspicion that Microsoft’s Bing is watching IE users’ Google searches and blending data from the results into Bing results. It publicly accuses Microsoft of cheating; Microsoft responds by mocking Google’s “spy-novelesque stunt.”
4. Penney which way you can.
The New York Times’ David Segal reports that retail relic J.C. Penney’s impressive rankings in Google search results on an array of topics have been goosed by the creation of phantom sites such as bulgariapropertyportal.com, which exist only to be stuffed with links to Penney’s pages. Google promises to take “corrective action” and Penney denies all knowledge.
5. Pity they couldn’t have bided their time until this digital thing blew over.
Once-mighty bookstore chain Borders declares bankruptcy and starts shuttering stores. In July, it announces that it’s going out of business, period. The retailer’s many missteps included refusing to operate its own Web site for years, doubling down on CD sales at the same time that the iPod was changing music forever, and taking e-books far less seriously than its major rivals, Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.
6. But wait -- actors are real people too, aren’t they? Aren’t they?
At the CTIA conference in Orlando, Samsung shows videos featuring “real” people heartily endorsing its Galaxy Tab. They’re real, all right -- real actors, as I eventually figure out.
7. Good to hear they can take a little criticism.
In the same video presentation, Samsung shows a mock article about the Galaxy Tab from a fake business magazine. The text is cribbed from my not-entirely-positive review of the original Galaxy Tab.
8. $3 billion worth of fail.
AT&T launches a $39 billion bid to acquire T-Mobile USA. The former Ma Bell is apparently pretty darn confident that the deal will go through: It tells T-Mobile that it’ll pay it a $3 billion fee (plus valuable spectrum) if it doesn’t. But both the Justice Department and the FCC hate the merger. In December, AT&T pulls the plug and says that T-Mobile will get its cash and spectrum.
9. In the 1990s, this would have been done with VHS and dial-up modems.
Rather than striking deals with movie companies, super-genius startup Zediva’s new streaming service takes advantage of what its founders think is a legal loophole: It involves DVDs and banks of Internet-connected DVD players. Oddly enough, Hollywood is nonplussed. In August, a judge closes the loophole.
10. Bring me the head of Babar the First.
Bob Parsons, founder of exuberantly cheesy domain registrar GoDaddy sparks outrage when he shares a video of himself shooting an elephant in Zimbabwe. He says that the pachyderm was a rogue and that starving villagers will benefit from the protein it provides. PETA, oddly enough, isn’t placated.
11. A blow to dupes and patsies everywhere.
12. A day or two? Hey, no biggie.
Sony’s PlayStation Network suffers an outage, for unspecified reasons; Sony calmly says it may take “a full day or two” to restore service.
13. Flippin’ ridiculous.
Two years after spending $550 million for Flip camcorder maker Pure Digital -- and one day before a new Flip was scheduled to debut -- Cisco suddenly loses interest in consumer products and kills the entire Flip line. At the time of its death, it’s the nation’s best-selling camcorder.
14. Apparently he was under the mistaken impression that BBC stood for “BlackBerry Cheerleaders.”
Irritated at questions about BlackBerry security and censorship issues in India and the Middle East, RIM founder and co-CEO Mike Lazaridis abruptly declares that his TV interview with the BBC is over.
Sony says that the PlayStation Network has suffered an “external intrusion” and won’t be back online until it’s been fortified against further attacks. It make no predictions about when that might be. In all, it takes almost six weeks before it’s fully up and running again -- and it turns out that whoever broken in stole personal information such as names and address for 70 million customers. Oh, and maybe credit-card information, too.
16. We said “professional.” We didn’t say “good.”
After seven months of ever-increasing hype, RIM releases the BlackBerry PlayBook, which it calls “the first professional tablet.” It’s remarkably buggy, includes a nearly unusable version of Flash, and lacks the one software feature that’s synonymous with the BlackBerry name: built-in e-mail.
17. The fine art of pointlessly raising expectations.
In an interview, HP’s European honcho says that its TouchPad -- which was announced in February and isn’t supposed to ship until an unspecified date in the summer -- will be better than the iPad. “We call it number one plus,” he helpfully explains.
18. Insert your own “weiner” joke here.
Anthony Weiner, a Democratic congressman from New York, means to send a dirty photograph of himself to a woman he doesn’t know as a direct message on Twitter. He accidentally posts it as a public tweet. After trying to convince the world that his account was hacked -- and additional disclosures about other embarrassing tweets -- he admits the cover-up and eventually resigns.
19. I love you. You love me.
Addressing mounting criticism from shareholders and the media, RIM co-CEOs Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie lavish praise on each other. “Jim and I have the perfect balance to make the hard decisions,” says Lazaridis. “…RIM has taken a unique path and the reason why we do things might not always be obvious from the outside.”
20. Maybe “never” would have been a better release date after all.
After fourteen years of delays, legendary unreleased game Duke Nukem -- perhaps the most vaporous single product in the history of vaporware -- is finally released. The reviews are unanimous: It’s a disaster in virtually every way a game can be disastrous, from the abysmal taste (alien rape jokes!) to the antiquated gameplay.
21. Sadly, threatening to withhold copies of Duke Nukem Forever II proved a surprisingly ineffective threat.
Griping about the “venom” in reviews of Duke Nukem Forever, PR firm the Redner Group says it might stop sending review copies of games to the publications in question. It ends up having to apologize for the threat and is fired by 2K, the game’s publisher.
22. Bad Revue.
Logitech says the failure of the lackluster software platform known as Google TV has cost it tens of millions of dollars, and that sales of its Google TV-based Revue box are “negative“ -- apparently meaning that more of them are being returned than sold.
23. You can’t miss it -- it’s right in between the fake Sunglass Hut and the place selling counterfeit Cinnabons.
A blogger visiting Kunming, China visits an “Apple Store” that turns out to be an elaborate fraud -- from the tasteful wooden tabletops to the spiral staircase to the name tags worn by employees. It and another faux store are soon shut down by Chinese officials.
24. Ungrateful Netflix customers unfairly resent perfectly reasonable massive price hike.
Netflix changes its pricing policies in ways that impose much higher prices on many customers: a $9.99 plan now costs $16.98. Its cryptic blog post on the changes gets more than 12,000 comments. Very few of them are from customers who are delighted by the news. Many say they’re quitting the service; the company goes on to lose 800,000 subscribers in the third quarter alone.
25. Apple losing iPhone prototypes? Sorry, not plausible.
In an incident that doesn’t make the news until September, Apple security employees enter a San Francisco home and search it for a lost iPhone prototype which they believe is inside. The San Francisco Police Department initially denies being involved in the visit, then says that it was; the home’s occupant says he didn’t know the searchers were Apple staffers rather than police officers, and that he wouldn’t have allowed them inside if that had been clear.
26. Paying for pals.
GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has an impressive 1.3 million followers on Twitter. Reportedly, however, only 8 percent of them are real people. The rest are dummy accounts or otherwise questionable.
27. A JooJoo by any other name would smell as putrid.
A mysterious startup called TabCo tries its darndest to generate buzz for its upcoming tablet. It turns out that “TabCo” is Fusion Garage, which shut TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington out of his own CrunchPad project and released it as the spectacularly unsuccessful JooJoo. Its new tablet, the Grid 10, is based on Android even though founder Chandra Rathakrishnan says it’s not an Android tablet. By December, the company has been fired by its own PR and law firms and has suspended sales of the Grid.
28. If at first you don’t succeed, give up.
After months of generating hype and raising expectations, HP finds that its TouchPad -- which is promising, but also buggy and unsatisfying -- isn’t an instant success. So it kills the tablet, along with its WebOS-based phones -- just six weeks after the tablet hit the market. The execution is so swift that the pricey TV campaign can’t be immediately canceled and continues on.
29. Or maybe it’s actually because of the “terrible idea effect.”
Along with its exit from the WebOS hardware businesses, HP says it’s considering spinning off or selling its PC business, the world’s largest, and says that deliberating the possibility may take as long as 18 months. CEO Léo Apotheker blames a mysterious “tablet effect” -- which presumably has something to do with the iPad -- for company’s lack of faith in the future of its PC division. (After Apotheker is fired in September, the company changes its mind and decides to stick with PCs after all.)
Copyright troll Righthaven, which aims to make money by suing sites for copyright infringement on behalf of newspapers, is told that it didn’t have the right to sue a forum poster who cut and pasted an op-ed piece -- and that his copying was fair use in any event. The company is required to pay his $34,000 legal bill. By the end of the year, the company’s lawsuits have left it owing so much money to so many people that the U.S. Marshals go after its assets and it’s forced to auction off its own domain name.
31. The name game.
Google is having trouble properly enforcing its real-names policy on Google+. which insists that members use their real names rather than anything even sightly pseudonym-like. The company briefly kicks off sex columnist Violet Blue, even though that’s her legal name. But for some reason it doesn’t tell 50 Cent that he must go by the name Curtis Jackson.
32. And people said it wouldn’t last.
One year after AOL’s acquisition of TechCrunch, founder Michael Arrington and other key staffers leave, after a bizarre soap opera involving a public power struggle between Arrington and his boss, Arianna Huffington. AOL CEO Tim Armstrong initially says that it’s fine for Arrington to continue to run TechCrunch while launching an AOL-backed venture-capital fund, but eventually decides that it’s unacceptable.
33. What’s ending.
On its Twitter feed, Web show What’s Trending incorrectly reports that Steve Jobs has passed away. It then says that the news is “completely unconfirmed.” But CBS, which had partnered with the show, instantly terminates its relationship after early news stories mistakenly blame CBS for the gaffe.
34. Ha ha ha. No really, what are your plans?
In a weirdly self-indulgent blog post/video that begins with an apology for mishandling the recent price hikes, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings announces that the company is spinning off its discs-by-mail service into a new company called Qwikster. Even though Netflix will continue to own Qwikster, anyone who wants both streaming service and discs will have to maintain separate accounts. Customers despise the idea. Netflix comes to its senses and kills it after less than a month.
35. And thus ends the Apotheker error -- I mean era.
After eleven months of strange decisions poor communications, and a tumbling stock price, HP cans CEO Léo Apotheker, replacing him with former eBay CEO and unsuccessful California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman. Apotheker goes home with $25 million in severance.
36. Nanny nanny poo poo.
Database behemoth Oracle and just-agreed-to-be-acquired-by-HP enterprise software company Autonomy engage in a totally pointless, incredibly childish public spat over the question of whether Autonomy had previously shopped itself to Oracle. One of Oracle’s press releases on the topic is titled “Another Whopper from Autonomy CEO Mike Lynch.”
37. Heist indeed.
After theater owners squawk, Universal cancels plans to let Comcast subscribers rent a pay-per-view version of the Ben Stiller/Eddie Murphy movie Tower Heist shortly after its theatrical debut. For $60.
BlackBerry users around the world are bedeviled by the worst outage ever -- a week of unreliable service that’s compounded by dismal communications by RIM executives. When the company tries to make amends, it does so with a mundane bundle of free software, including a poker game.
39. Um, does this mean we can stop worrying about Facebook privacy until 2031?
Facebook settles with the Federal Trade Commission over a bevy of privacy and security issues going back years. It agrees to undergo regular audits of its practices for the next two decades. In a blog post, Mark Zuckerberg admits to “a bunch of mistakes” and announces the appointment of not one but two Chief Privacy Officers.
40. Hey, every airline did without a website for decades.
Virgin America, an airline that caters to a tech-savvy crowd -- every flight is equipped with seatside power plugs and Wi-Fi -- suffers a severe case of technical gremlins when it switches reservation systems. For weeks, customers have trouble using the company’s site to make reservations or do much of anything with tickets they’ve already purchased; as of December 30th, the line’s home page still has a notification about nagging issues.
41. Con-Siri-cy theory.
The American Civil Liberties Union goes into a tizzy when it discovers that Siri, the voice assistant in Apple’s iPhone 4S, can’t tell you where to buy contraceptives or get an abortion. It wonders if the omissions are intentional on Apple’s part -- and apparently doesn’t notice that Siri is a rather rough beta that can’t do many, many things that you might expect it would be able to accomplish.
42. Now that’s frictionless sharing!
A Facebook bug makes some members’ private photos public -- such as snapshots uploaded by Mark Zuckerberg, including one of him brandishing a chicken.
43. Drowning their misery.
Two RIM executives are arrested and charged with belligerent, drunken behavior on a flight to Beijing. After being subdued and handcuffed by crew members, the duo reportedly chew through their restraints.
44. Silicon Valley’s own Amazing Kreskin.
On a European tour, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt starts issuing predictions. Within six months, he says, developers will abandon iOS as their preferred platform in favor of Google’s Android. By the same time, the majority of TVs will come with Google TV built in and Google will release an Android tablet “of the highest quality.” Journalists everywhere make mental notes to fact-check Schmidt’s assertions come mid-2012.
45. Zuck vs. Zuck.
Facebook sues Mark Zuckerberg -- who is, in this case, the Israeli owner of a Like-selling service that Facebook says violates its terms of service. The Israeli Zuck, the former Rotem Guez, had gone to court to legally change his name to that of Facebook’s founder in hopes of discouraging the company from going after him.
46. Except for the part about the forged contract, it all sounds so convincing.
Facebook lawyers tell a federal court that a 2004 contract between Paul Ceglia and Mark Zuckerberg giving Ceglia 50 percent of Facebook is a fake, no more than two years old. Ceglia has previously been in legal trouble for fraudulent sales of wood chips, as well as selling a plot of land which he didn’t actually own.
47. Better late than never. Probably.
RIM says the next-generation BlackBerry has been delayed until late 2012 because it’s waiting for a new dual-core LTE chip. It’s forced to deny a report that its excuse is a cover-up for massive software problems.
48. Oh, like Apple knows how many models it sells.
The New York Times, researching an article about the large quantity of BlackBerry models and the possibility that the line is being hurt by too many options, asks RIM how many different BlackBerry handsets are available. RIM says it doesn’t know.
49. Life’s good!
PR giant Ogilvy offers $500 Amex gift cards to bloggers who post about its client LG Electronics. (After I ask what’s going on, it admits that the offer violates its own policies and changes its plans.)
50. Flip! Flop!
Go Daddy explains its courageous stance in favor of SOPA, a controversial bill which would aim to discourage online piracy by blocking sites accused of enabling theft. Thousands of angry customers transfer their domains away from the company. Within 24 hours, it’s suddenly taking a courageous stance against SOPA.
51. Can’t TouchWiz this.
Samsung says it won’t update its enormously successful Galaxy S smartphone to Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, even though the Nexus S, a slight variant of the Galaxy, already has it. It says that its TouchWiz user interface makes the upgrade impossible.
52. Out of Control.
A customer contacts Ocean Marketing’s Paul Christoforo, who does PR for a company called N-Control, about a back-ordered game controller called the Avenger. Christoforo begins by brushing off the buyer, who turns out to be persistent. The e-mail thread gets weird sfast as Christoforo begins hurling insults and veiled threats, bragging about his connections and accomplishments, and generally being a huge jackass. Surprise ending: N-Control fires him.
That’s it for 2011. Happy new year, everybody!
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