We are surrounded by failure in the tech world, and some of those failures are big enough to sit in our memories for years. After the latest news from Google, we were reminded of many other shameful moments in tech. We put together our own RWW Hall of Shame to see if we could learn any lessons from these sordid tales of woe.
Google's Street View brought the concept of "payload data" to the forefront: While those nifty cars with cameras were cruising our communities, Google was purposely collecting data transmitted over open Wi-Fi networks to which it could connect. First Google said it wasn't intentionally doing this, then the word leaked out that many project teams within Google had access to this information. Google should have come clean on its intentions, and the executive who authorized the project should come out of the Googleplex and take responsibility for being "evil."
But Google is hardly alone in acting shamefully. Consider:
- Amazon should be chastised for patenting one-click shopping. Leave it to Amazon to have gotten one of the most annoying software patents of all time: the ability to purchase something with a single click online. Lately, it has been very unresponsive to its customers and has suffered lengthy outages with its Web services. The company needs to swallow a huge antihubris pill and come out with better support mechanisms if it wants to keep its customers.
- Last year, Netflix tried to split itself into two companies, one for streaming and one focused on its legacy DVD rental business. The split didn't go well, and as a result, Netflix lost at least 10 percent of its customers, with many of them going to competitors. Certainly, trying to charge more for the same service it had previously offered was bad news, no matter how small the increment.
- Lexmark was one of the first laser-printer companies that forced customers to use its toner cartridges. It did this via adding special ID chips to its toner cartridges and then having its printers check for the ID, so you needed to buy Lexmark cartridges as replacements. Apart from starting an entire cottage industry focused on defeating this procedure, requiring your customers to act a specific way is generally a really bad idea.
- Sony deserves mention for installing malware on its music CDs in the name of copy protection. Back in 2005, Sony made news with its special rights management software from a company called First 4 Internet. The software came with the music CD from the Van Zants called Get Right with the Man (ironic title completely unintentional). The software is used to play the music files from the CD and monitor how the PC uses the music, ostensibly to prevent digital copying and ripping the music. Sadly, the software did more than that, including burrowing deep into your Windows OS and purposely disguising itself and hiding its executable files from plain sight. Worse yet, the software stole performance from your computer in doing its bidding. That got a lot of attention, and Sony was forced to offer a removal tool. Now the issue is moot, as how many of us really buy CDs anymore?
- Sears provided its own malware on MySHCcommunity.com. Sony wasn't the only big company that installed spyware on your PC. You would think that others had learned from its mistakes, but in 2008, Sears decided to try it on its own with a special website that pretended to be a portal for its resellers. Oops! There is such a thing as being too close a partner. Again, denials were followed by fixes.
- Dell shipped a laptop that brought fresh meaning to the term "explosive new release." Back in 1993, Dell made news with its SL320i laptop, which had an exploding battery. Initially the company denied it, then worked hard to offer replacements. Since then, Dell has gotten its customer-service listening act together and today is an exemplary social-media operation.
- Miniscribe developed the concept of "brick drives." In late 1989, the well-known Longmont, Colorado, disk-drive maker found its short-term financial situation in bad shape and thought it had the solution: Ship bricks instead of disk drives that customers had ordered, use the payments to stabilize its situation, then chalk it all up to a packaging error and send out the real drives. We'll never know if it would have worked, because the company laid off a number of employees who had been complicit in the shipments - and who then turned around and outed the whole scheme. (As if the customers wouldn't have noticed that their drive installs were more difficult than usual.) At least Miniscribe paid for its sins with a very quick bankruptcy.
Some lessons learned from these events: Denial is not a river in Egypt. Come clean with the facts and offer a fix ASAP. Also, make good on any customer slight. In an era when customers can tweet and post on social media, you want to work toward keeping the customer happy, and the cost will be small. Finally, steer clear of putting any software on someone's PC without his or her knowledge. Anything else is just spyware.
Feel free to suggest some of your own egregious and shameful tech acts from the past.