Sunday, January 13, 2013
The top 10 tech 'fails' of 2012
Fri December 28, 2012
Well, you can't win 'em all.
In 2012, we saw big tech advances. Smartphones got bigger. Tablets got smaller. Social media played a role in everything from a presidential election to disaster relief.
But with advances come clunkers.
When you're in a field that demands near-constant innovation and unprecedented levels of creativity, sometimes even the most successful players are going to shoot and miss.
So, at the risk of playing Scrooge in this season of good will, here we come to wallow in it. Because, let's face it: The Internet loves a good fail.
Behold the top 10 tech "fails" of 2012, with wishes for happier days ahead to all involved.
Apple's unofficial slogan, "It Just Works," took a beating on this one.
Along with the rollout of the much anticipated iPhone 5 in September, Apple overhauled iOS, the operating system that runs the phone, its iPad and other mobile devices. A much-hyped feature of the change was Apple's first effort at its own mapping app -- after dumping rival Google's map software.
The result was so bad that a few days later Apple's CEO was essentially telling customers to use Google Maps.
Entire cities appeared in the wrong place. Landmarks such as the Washington Monument showed up submerged in bodies of water, and big chunks of the globe appeared as roadless wastelands.
"At Apple, we strive to make world-class products that deliver the best experience possible to our customers," CEO Tim Cook wrote in a rare apology. "With the launch of our new Maps last week, we fell short on this commitment. We are extremely sorry for the frustration this has caused our customers and we are doing everything we can to make Maps better."
It was a little more than a month later when Scott Forstall, vice president in charge of iOS, was ousted from the company, reportedly, in part, for not wanting to apologize for Maps.
The company has been gradually improving Maps, but as recently as this month Australian police complained that an Apple Maps glitch could endanger motorists by mislocating a city of 30,000 people in the middle of the outback.
Everybody uses Facebook. And everybody likes to make money. So everybody's going to gobble up Facebook stock, right?
So went the conventional thinking -- at least among those of us who spend more time thinking about mobile phones than mutual funds. But on Wall Street? Not so much.
It's hard to remember a stock opening more hyped than Facebook's when it hit the market in May. The stock began the day worth about $38. Then, after what everyone predicted to be a dynamic day of trading for the social media superstar, it closed at ... well ... about $38.
It wouldn't take long for the pinstripe-suit types to decide it wasn't even worth that. Facebook's stock bottomed out in September, falling below $18. Since then, it's been steadily rebounding and currently sells for about $28.
Facebook says it has solid financial plans for the future. And the stock may well keep climbing, eventually turning a profit for folks who bought early.
But that fateful day in May will be a reminder that Wall Street and Silicon Valley don't always play well together.
When the man who created Napster and helped launch Facebook talks, the tech industry listens.
And when Sean Parker and partner Shawn Fanning tease something new called Airtime, techies fall all over themselves to see what the next great innovation will be.
But then, at a fancy launch event featuring celebrities such as Alicia Keys and Snoop Dogg, Parker announces that it's ... basically, a random Web chat tool.
Cue the collective, "Huh?"
It didn't help that, at that fancy event, Airtime crashed over and over again. Or that folks had a hard time seeing how it would be different than Chatroulette (although Parker promised more users would actually be wearing pants).
In October, Parker admitted that Airtme, launched with more than $33 million in backing, had just 10,000 active users. (That's $3,300 spent per user, if you're scoring along at home.)
"Running a startup is like eating glass," he said at the All Things D conference. "You just start to like the taste of your own blood."
"These aren't your grandma's coupons!" the digital generation so brashly declared.
With their mobile apps and irreverent style, daily-deal offerings such as Groupon and Living Social were all the rage as 2012 dawned.
Now? Um, not so much.
Groupon, perhaps the best-known player in the field, watched its value plummet 79% in 2012. Its stock value dropped about three-quarters since opening in November 2011 as high-profile investors washed their hands of it.
And this is the company Google reportedly tried to buy for $6 billion in 2010.
LivingSocial, meanwhile, announced last month it was laying off 400 people. That's after announcing months of revenue losses.
So what happened? Inbox fatigue made some users stop checking the deals. A glut of offers you don't care about (pottery classes?) can make your eyes glaze over. And some businesses quit making offers, saying they never saw the promised returns on their investment.
When Google gets something right, they get it really, really right.
Redefining Web search? Yep. World's leading mobile system? Check. A car that drives itself? Vroom!
But some of the Big G's outings in the gadget world have hit with a thud. Enter ... the Nexus Q.
The size and shape of a Magic Eight Ball, the Nexus Q is (or was ... it's hard to say) a media streamer that uses Android to play audio and video. It's also made in the United States, no small thing in a world where virtually all gadgets come from China.
Unfortunately, in the grand tradition of Google Wave, nobody really knew what it was when it was released in June. Its release date was pushed back and, eventually, Google just gave everybody who pre-ordered a free one.
The Q has not officially been canned. But on Google's online store, the never-released gadget is listed as "not available at this time."
Stop Online Piracy Act
The new law was supposed to be about fighting online piracy. Who's going to be against that, right?
Answer: Pretty much the whole Internet.
Members of Congress sponsored the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, and related bills to make it easier to shut down websites that illegally share music, movies and other content.
But opponents argued it went too far and could end up shutting down legitimate sites while stifling free expression in the process.
Unfortunately for backers of SOPA, Web heavyweights such as Google, Facebook, Reddit and Wikipedia joined the fight against the bill. Sites went black on January 18 to raise awareness. Members of communities such as Reddit put intense pressure on lawmakers (including soon-to-be GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan) until they dropped their support or went on record opposing the bill.
The unprecedented backlash eventually caused supporters to shelve SOPA, and quite possibly ushered in a new age of Web activism.
'Social discovery' apps
If the first wave of social networking was about hooking up with friends, the next wave would be about meeting strangers -- or so the thinking went.
Tech-world pundits predicted a new wave of "social discovery" apps that would change the way we meet people. The basic idea was that, by using phones' GPS, users could see who else was nearby and then meet up with other users with shared friends or similar interests.
"If we get this right, I cannot think of a bigger thing to be working on right now," Paul Davison, CEO of the app Highlight, told CNN in June. "We can take billions and billions of dollars."
Significantly, he also chose not to tell a reporter how many users the app had at the time.
Banjo and Glancee were apps that did something similar. Others, such as Skout and Grindr, were even more specific -- they let you hunt down willing partners for a quick hookup.
But here's the thing -- some users, particularly women, found the apps a little creepy.
OK, so you know that somebody sitting in the same bar as you likes the Pixies, "Firefly," the fantasy stylings of George R.R. Martin and the Atlanta Braves. Are you really just going to start waving around your smartphone to get their attention?
Sure, they've got good taste. But they still might be jerks.
It was supposed to be a tech-world slam-dunk. Instead, it became a cautionary tale about what some feel could become a tech "bubble."
Color, a photo-sharing mobile app, stoked excitement in the startup community that was virtually unrivaled. Before it had a single user, Color had raised $41 million from investors. So certain were its Silicon Valley creators that, reportedly, they turned down a $200 million buyout offer from Google.
With much fanfare, Color launched in March 2011. But users soon complained that the app, designed to share photos with the people around you, often didn't find anyone for them to share with. Its creators were forced to announce they were working on a major overhaul on the same day it was released.
Color tallied about 1 million users at its peak and, more recently, was reportedly down to about 100,000. Compare that to the roughly 100 million users of photo app Instagram (it had about 27 million when Facebook bought it last year), and you see the problem.
Color will be shutting down on New Year's Eve.
It reads like an old VH1 "Behind the Music" episode.
"Zynga was riding high. Love them or hate them, its games like "Mafia Wars" and "FarmVille" were everywhere, clogging up Facebook pages and spurring millions of bored casual gamers to pay real cash for virtual cows. Then, it all came crumbling down."
OK, maybe "crumbling down" is an overstatement. But things in The 'Ville definitely didn't go Zynga's way in 2012.
In October, Zynga announced it was laying off 5% of its employees, shutting down its studio in Boston and proposing the closure of others in Japan and England.
(It would be entirely cynical to suggest Zynga hoped to bury that news by making the announcement during Apple's much-hyped iPad Mini event. So we won't suggest that here.)
Facebook, which gets a cut when people spend money on games such as "FarmVille," said that income from Zynga was down 20% over last year.
And, like unskilled mafia warriors, Zynga shot itself in the foot again in March when it bought the company that makes mobile game "Draw Something" for an eye-popping $180 million. But fascination with "Draw Something" dropped off fast. When's the last time you played?
OK, so you can post something stupid anywhere. But there's something about Twitter's rapid-fire, 140-character bursts that brings out the stupid in people.
From companies embarrassing themselves to celebrities behaving badly, it's hard to name just one Twitter doofus. But here are a few nominees:
• Chris Brown, the hip-hop star, consistently used Twitter to make himself look like a foul-mouthed rage monster. Instead of thanking fans after winning a Grammy, he launched a profanity-laced bromide at his "haters." Then there were the misogynistic, scatological insults he hurled at comedian-critic Jenny Johnson before "quitting" Twitter. (He's back.)
• McDonald's thought it would get a little of that social media love it had been hearing about in January when it created the #McDstories hashtag -- asking customers to share their favorite McDonald's memories. Then it found out what happens when you give the Internet open access to your advertising effort. McDonald's yanked the campaign after just two hours and countless food-horror stories about fingernails, insects and bouts of food poisoning.
• Spike Lee was, like many Twitter users, angered by the killing of Florida teen Trayvon Martin. Tweeting the home address of shooter George Zimmerman would have been questionable enough. But Lee mistakenly tweeted out the address of a couple who have a son by that name. They had to leave their home after being besieged by reporters and threats. Lee would later apologize and "reach an agreement" with the aggrieved family.
• Greek triple jumper Paraskevi Papachristou was on her way to the Olympics when she tried a little ill-advised Twitter humor. With so many African Olympians in London, "the West Nile mosquitoes will at least eat homemade food!" she wrote. Her tweet was quickly criticized as racially insensitive, and Greece's Olympic Committee barred her from participating in the Games.
• Oprah Winfrey had been gushing for weeks about how much she loved the new Microsoft Surface tablet, culminating in this tweet: "Gotta say love that SURFACE! Have bought 12 already for Christmas gifts." Unfortunately for her, those words were followed by ... "via Twitter for iPad."