Open Source

Sanity check: The 10 biggest technology belly flops of 2007

While 2007 gave us some fantastic technological innovations, it also brought the usual spate of bungles, miscues, and faux pas. In the spirit of learning from our mistakes, here is the Tech Sanity Check list of the biggest belly flops in technology in 2007.

While 2007 gave us some fantastic technological innovations, it also brought the usual spate of bungles, miscues, and faux pas. Since I believe that you learn more from your mistakes than your successes, it's important to look at some of the most glaring errors that were made manifest in the business technology sector during 2007. There were a lot of opportunities for learning this year.

Note: This information is also available as a PDF download.

10. HD DVD and Blu-ray repeat the VHS-Betamax blunder

While many mistakes are forgivable, the ones that involve wittingly repeating past errors are often greeted by the public with far less tolerance. That's the case with the next-generation version of DVD discs. The original DVD consolidated around a single standard when it became a mass-market technology, but the next-gen DVD has forked into two camps, HD DVD and Blu-Ray -- mostly because of greed and intense competition -- and in 2007 both camps started releasing movies and players in their incompatible standards.

Toshiba, Microsoft, Intel, DreamWorks, and Time-Warner Paramount are lined up behind HD DVD, while Sony, Disney, Apple, Pioneer, Panasonic, Philips, and Fox are lined up behind Blu-ray. Numerous meetings were held in 2005 to try to come up with a single standard, but neither group would make enough compromises to appease the other -- in fear of giving the other an advantage in what is expected to be a multi-billion dollar market. The ironic part is that all of this hearkens back to the video tape era that preceded DVD. In the 1980s there were two incompatible types of video tapes, VHS and Betamax. The battle lasted for years and ultimately resulted in the Sony-backed Betamax standard losing and many of the consumers who had bought those systems having to repurchase equipment and videos.

This battle also matters for business technology because it will affect the next generation of data discs -- HD-DVD Rom and Blu-ray Rom. These discs will have capacity ranging from 15 GB all the way up to (theoretically) 100 GB. This will enable great portability of big files and big chunks of data, and could completely replace data tapes as a backup standard. For more on this topic, see the CNET Quick Guide: HD DVD vs. Blu-ray.

9. Red Flag Linux is exposed as a bargaining chip rather than a Linux victory

Earlier this decade, the Chinese government appeared to throw its support behind homegrown Red Flag Linux as a way to have full transparency and control over worker software and reduce dependence on U.S.-based Microsoft. At the time, Linux advocates such as Doc Searls were asking, "Is it possible that the top Linux distribution--at least for desktops--is Red...Flag? Given a combination of Chinese demographics and government encouragement, that may well be the case." However, it was all a ruse.

The reality is that Red Flag Linux on the desktop never really took off in China, despite the government's public support. Pirated copies of Windows have always ruled the day. As I wrote in Sanity check: How Microsoft beat Linux in China and what it means for freedom, justice, and the price of software, the fear of Red Flag Linux taking hold in China led to Microsoft to negotiate a deal with the Chinese government to give them a cut-rate cost on licensing and alleve their security and source code concerns.

Ironically, Linux on the desktop may be even less of a story in China than it is in the United States, where it's less than two percent of the desktop market according to W3Counter.

8. eBay fumbles the ball with Skype

During 2005 and 2006 I knew more and more business professionals who were turning to Skype. At the time, Skype reported that 30% of its users were in businesses and I wrote about Skype's moves to better serve businesses and IT departments. In the fall of 2005, eBay purchased Skype in a move that left a lot of people scratching their heads because there were no obvious synergies between the two companies.

I continue to use Skype, especially for video calls and international calls, but I cannot think of one significant new feature that Skype launched in 2007. After a great wave of innovation in 2005-2006, the product seems to have hit a plateau during a year when companies such as Microsoft and Cisco have been making huge moves in IP telephony and unified communications.

Skype was well-positioned to become a clear leader in unified communications, potentially even launching a new VoIP standard or an entirely new market category with UC-as-a-Service. If Skype had been bought by someone like Lucent, Nortel, Siemens, or even Google, we might have seen that happen. Instead, Skype is being marginalized as little more than a nifty little consumer VoIP application, and eBay appears to be stumped about what to do with it.

7. The Wall Street Journal teaches users how to sabotage IT

On July 30, The Wall Street Journal published an article "Ten Things Your IT Department Won't Tell You" that provided tips on how users can circumvent their IT departments to install software on their PCs, visit blocked Web sites, save corporate files offline, access mail on contraband smartphones, and several other dangerous and irresponsible activities. I wrote a scathing criticism of this article in Sanity check: Did The Wall Street Journal sabotage businesses by publishing tips on how to circumvent IT?

I'm surprised the Journal didn't publish a tip on how to break into the corporate data center, steal valuable servers, and then sell them on the black market for several thousand dollars each. Maybe they're saving those tips for 2008.

6. Attackers take down e-mail servers at the Pentagon

In June, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates confirmed that attackers penetrated an unclassified e-mail server at the Pentagon and that the server had to be taken offline when the compromise was discovered. As a result, over 1,500 workers lost access to e-mail. Gates wasn't one of them. When questioned by journalists, he admitted "I don't do e-mail. I'm a very low-tech person."

Almost immediately, there were reports that the source of the attack came from China, possibly even the Chinese Army. The Chinese government unequivocally denied the reports, saying that it was opposed to "any criminal acts undermining computer systems, including hacking."

However, in September, Fox News ran a segment in which it claimed that it had information pinpointing China for the attack. National Security Correspondent Jennifer Griffith reported, "Military sources tell Fox that in June of this year Chinese hackers linked to the Chinese government broke into the Pentagon's computers, breaching the firewalls in place to protect Defense Department computers from hackers seeking classified or operational plans. The breach in June was into unclassified computer email accounts in the Defense Secretary's policy office." Nevertheless, some media watchdogs have criticized the Fox report.

If anyone should be able to lock down their standard IT systems, it's the national defense agency of the United States. If they are incapable of protecting such valuable data assets then it's either a sad commentary on the state of information security or a strong indictment of that agency. I fear that it may be a combination of the two.

5. 802.11n can't get its standards together

It's already been a couple years since wireless vendors started offering "pre-N" and "Draft-N" wireless equipment that takes advantage of the next generation Wireless LAN technology, 802.11n. Promising longer range and much higher bandwidth (up to 300 Mbps) than previous versions of the wireless standard, 802.11n has been widely anticipated because of the widespread adoption of 802.11b and 802.11g, which provide solid network coverage but are limited in bandwidth.

The final release of the 802.11n standard has been considered "imminent" since 2006 and the official standard was expected to be only incrementally different than the various draft versions. As a result, many of the consumer-oriented vendors such as Linksys and Netgear have pushed forward with launching 802.11n equipment.

In 2007, numerous enterprise wireless vendors such as Cisco and Xirrus joined the party and decided to release 802.11n equipment with the promise of upgrading (via firmware) to the final version of N when it was ratified. While that may sound encouraging, the IEEE does not look like it will ratify 802.11n any time soon. The official release has been pushed back to late 2008 or early 2009. With so much pre-N equipment already on the market, it could become a serious compatibility nightmare when 802.11n does finally hit the market and become the predominant WLAN standard.

4. The iPhone doesn't include 3G

Apple shook up the smartphone market with the June 29 launch of its iPhone. Last week, I placed the iPhone at the top of my list of The 10 most important business technology products of 2007. Even though the iPhone is not a great business smartphone because of its lack of mobile messaging support, it has jump-started the smartphone market in a major way.

As I've mentioned before, I think the most significant feature of the iPhone is that is the first smartphone to provide a usable Web experience. With its pan and zoom controls, it allows you to effectively access standard Web pages rather than having to access special mobile or text versions of Web sites. This is highly effective when using the iPhone in Wi-Fi mode, but when you have to switch over to the cellular network, the iPhone's strong Web experience is rendered far less effective because the iPhone is limited to AT&T's pedestrian EDGE network. Steve Jobs has stated that the iPhone wasn't designed to run on AT&T's faster 3G network because the 3G chips are power hogs. That was a big mistake because it severely handicapped the phone's best feature.

Last week, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson confirmed that a 3G iPhone is coming in 2008. Anyone that is considering buying an iPhone should put their plans on ice until the 3G version arrives.

3. Sun makes Java open source, but it's a decade too late

I keenly remember when Sun introduced Java in the mid-1990s as cross-platform technology that would allow developers to "Write once, run everywhere." In reality, the cross-platform dreams of Java didn't quite pan out, as Java developers soon came up with their own pejorative version of the slogan: "Write once, debug everywhere." Nevertheless, Java has morphed into a solid Web technology that has become popular with enterprises and huge Web sites.

On November 13, 2006, Sun began taking the first steps toward making Java an open source platform. On May 8, 2007, Sun released the Java class library, one of the final steps in opening up the technology. While the Java move is wise and admirable, it's not nearly as significant as it could have been if it were done 5-10 years ago. If this move were done sooner, it could have potentially turned Java into a key Internet platform standard, uniting small Web servers and huge Web farms under a single Web platform Today, Java will have a tough time competing with the PHP/Apache lock on the low end of the Web development scale. Plus, you have Ruby also making inroads into this world. Java is arguably the strongest technology with better standards and the best libraries, but that may not matter at this point.

Ironically, Sun would have likely made more money by open-sourcing Java a decade ago and turning it into a Web platform around which it could have built an ecosystem of hardware, consulting, and training.

2. Windows Vista strikes out with businesses

As the most widely-hyped version of Windows since Windows 95, the expectations that Microsoft built around Windows Vista were monumental. Unfortunately, the product has not delivered. Despite some very creative marketing from Microsoft, Vista offers little to no incentive for businesses to upgrade. In fact, with its application compatibility and driver problems and the User Access Control debacle, there are significant incentives for businesses and IT departments to avoid Vista.

Microsoft has claimed that Windows Vista sales have been stronger than Windows XP during the same time frame after its launch and that revenue from Vista has helped drive Microsoft's strong earnings in 2007, but I questioned the true meaning of those assertions in Sanity check: The truth about Windows Vista adoption in 2007.

Nearly all of the IT managers and IT consultants that I know are steadfastly avoiding Vista, and opinions of Vista among IT professionals in the trenches have gotten progressively worse throughout 2007.

1. TJX admits that 45 million customer records were compromised by attackers

It may be the largest and most expensive information security breach in history. On January 17, TJX announced that it had discovered a significant pattern of intrusions to its computer systems that exposed customer data. TJX ordered a full investigation, and in the months that followed it was revealed that the breach was due to an insecure wireless network and that 45.7 million customer accounts were compromised over a period of two years.

The total cost of this information security disaster could ultimately top $1 billion, and as more evidence is disclosed it could tell a disturbing tale of a new breed of attackers that are motivated by financial gain and well-connected with organized crime. Criminals used to rob banks "because that's where the money is," as famous robber Willie Sutton once said. In 2007, it became clear that many criminals now view digital systems as the most lucrative targets and that they have designed elaborate systems to quietly siphon money and steal identities for financial gain.

Are these the worst? Are there any of these that you think don't belong on the list? Are there others that should have made the list? Join the discussion.

About

Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.

106 comments
davidsgenericemail
davidsgenericemail

jason, if you were SOOOO concerned about the WSJ article on how to circumvent my IT department, then why did you bother to mention it again, let alone provide a link to it?!? that's about the worst example of pushing the enemy's agenda i've ever seen. dude: if you're disgusted with someone sharing information that's delicate, then linking all of your readers back to that same information only makes you an accomplice. don't mention it. don't link to it. don't give them any "airtime". ignore them. david koff editor, message to america http://messagetoamerica.blogspot.com

Joe_R
Joe_R

You may or may not know this, but ebay currently uses Skype as an additional built-in tool to allow real verbal dialogue between a buyer and seller through its on-line auction pages. It doesn't surprise me in the least that ebay might have made a decision to buy a technology instead of creating one from scratch, especially if copyright and patent issues were involved. The move might not make sense to the regular VoIP consumer who thought that Skype could expand and get better, but ebay is in the on-line auction business, not the VoIP business. I'm sure that ebay bought the company to use that technology to enhance and improve its current business model, and for the benefit of its customers to enhance and improve the ebay experience for them, not to grow into a conglomerate enterprise. The move might be bad (or inconvenient) for customers in the VoIP market, but it was probably a great business move by ebay to improve its own on-line auction business.

DT2
DT2

Has anyone noticed that there is a common denominator in the current HD-DVD/Blu-Ray and previous VHS/BETA debaucles. That common denominator is Sony...

DT2
DT2

Has anyone noticed that there is a common denominator in the current HD-DVD/Blu-Ray and previous VHS/BETA debaucles. That common denominator is Sony...

Grim Death
Grim Death

Oh Man i laughed soo hard with that red flag linux post that was just plain funny.I swear linux never fails to entertain me with there success or with there failures!

dlmeyer
dlmeyer

Oh, right, November last year. And I still haven't seen one. Lots of pictures!

carpeweb
carpeweb

OK, I'm picking a nit here, but I think Bayer must be pleased by your use of their trademarked brand "Aleve" (one l) instead of "alleviate".

gabrielbear
gabrielbear

VHS vs Betamax also gave us the Sony decision--the landmark that created the modern model of time-shifted, ad-reduced, on demand media consumption. Standards are always approximations. They are useful for starting points and definitions. They are useful for interchangeability, travel, etc. Much of the world is consumed by battles for standards superiority, whether of economic models, or moral systems. in reality there is one Standard: what works? and one metric for what works--healthy children. if children learn spelling better by interacting with Java based crossword puzzles or maps, Java is good. if Java forces me to finally move from mozilla to firefox, then mozilla is becoming as extinct as its logo--and no longer a a relevant standard method for communication. if an i/t department reduces expectations of privacy, honesty and loyalty by the employers, it is natural for a system to compensate with ways to bypass a false authority, and the WSJ imho should be complimented for giving a justice tool to its end readers at the risk of offending its sponsors. Another solution to the problem that the WSJ addressed would be for people to stop feeling they had to access work email when they should be with their friends and families: to realise that mankind was not made to work, but that work was made for mankind to use as a tool for exploring reality.

sireofstorms
sireofstorms

Your comments regarding the Wall Street Journal's publishing of IT workarounds remind one of the foam-at-the-mouth mewlings of Dark Ages religious scholars, who felt that keeping the masses ignorant was a Good Idea. Relax, Jason. Let others be Chicken Little when it comes to the free press. You are a better writer than that, and certainly don't need to throw trite censorship arguments into your otherwise impeccable recipe.

bill
bill

I think Blu-Ray will be a slam dunk winner. Why? ?? The name is sooooo much cooler. Without knowing a thing about the technology, I would bet on Blu-Ray any day. THe name HD-DVD is too confusing, with DVD-ROM and DVD-Rs in various formats already out there. Go ahead, ask the average Joe if he knows the difference between DVD+R and DVDI-RW, and then there's DVD-D and DVD-ROM. Makes my head swim! HD-DVD just sounds like another DVD, only maybe a little bit "HDer". ?? But Blu-Ray sounds like something from Buck Rogers. "Bloooooo-Ray. Hoooooooo-Ray!" So don't underestimate the market's ability to choose based on silly criteria like a cool name. ?? Nope, Blu-Ray is it.

davidjhs
davidjhs

The biggest flop of all is JAVA. This stupid junk is trying to take over my entire computer, just like AOL did a few years ago, until I wised up and JUNKED that crap - I wish I could figure out a way to remove JAVA from my pc & not be forced to use it, ever - but, no JAVA, no crossword puzzles, no online game playing, nothing. So until something better comes along, we're stuck with it. I even had to stop using my COX email service because of JAVA interference, moving everything over to MSN's Hotmail. At least THAT problem is solved. djhs

michael.laborde
michael.laborde

Warner Bros. is not an HD-DVD supporter. They are format neutral and put out high definition DVDs in both formats. They are seen as a potential decider in the battle if they can be swayed to go to one format over the other but so far have stuck to the neutral stance.

Ronin69
Ronin69

While these are technology related. The flops are almost all traced to poor business decisions... not technology. HD-DVD battles (business) e-bay buys Skype (business) 802.11n standards (business) 3G iphone (business) Java open source (business) Vista no features (business)

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

If it wasn't for TJX's lax security, Vista would have topped this list. Maybe is should be on top anyway. TJX's problem was a passive failure of omission; Vista is an active failure of commission.

dcolbert
dcolbert

Since around early 2001, when I saw Intel hit with the first wave of crippling e-mail trojans (Fun Love, et. al.) I've privately harbored the opinion that network security is a lost cause. In response to having its global infrastructure, e-mail in particular, crippled, Intel launched a massive response, investing far more time and money in security response than prior to this attack. Unfortunately, from my perspective, we simply moved resourced from development and engineering into security response as our driving priority. Intel did not suffer another massive outbreak like the first few the rest of the time I was there, but we spent almost all of our time and resources as an organization making certain that this was the case - and I never felt assured that we would not miss a back-door or otherwise be compromised again, even with the massive investments we had made. My point is that to thoroughly secure your network, services and apps against intrustion is a nearly insurmountable job. I don't really believe it can be done. We buy ourselves the illusion of security and the complacency of knowing we have made our best effort - while development and more mundane support and maintenence roles fall by the wayside. The economic ramaifcations of such a huge investment in security is also chilling. It drives TCO through the roof - which hurts the economy in every way imaginable. It creates a world where only the deepest pockets can afford to securely offer IP based services with any assurance that security is in place driving small players from the market. Finally, it creates a security environment where there is so much to defend oneself from - that even the most seasoned IT professionals are stretched to the limits of their knowledge trying to defend their networks from every concievable attack that might be launched against them. I think the Pentagon security breach points to nothing more than this fact - IT security as an industry promises us secure solutions to protect our networks, but the complexity and cost involved makes it impractical to learn and to implement in a cost-effective manner - if you're serious about iron-tight security. If you're not, the best you are getting is a false sense of security that you've exercised your due-dilligence in implementing security solutions that will at least deter the script-kiddies. The thing that most places have going for them, home users with always-on broadband included, is that they are relative "needles in a haystack" and there are probably far more exciting targets far more wide open than they are. Corporations and Government are not wise shepherds of our private information. We're simply a pack of Sardines rolled into a ball hoping that the predators miss us when they attack.

yzayv
yzayv

Do you think Apple *wanted* the iPhone to be/do less than it could at launch? I sometimes question Steve Jobs' decisions, and I don't always like him. But I think he was being truthful about the 3G issue. I think it's coming, but 3G internet on a phone with an hour battery is less useful than a slower connection with an all-day battery. If you're at a desk all day, you could keep your iPhone charged constantly, but if you're out in the world what good is a phone with a less than full day's usefulness?

TOYJ2
TOYJ2

I afraid Blue Ray will be the ultimate winner, like the VHS-Beta struggle, the one with the porn industy backing will win and most are follwing Blu-Ray.

Jay-Dee
Jay-Dee

I don't know why this is on the list. Instead of the vendors telling us what's best (a la Vista?) we get to tell them at the cash register. This is free market competition. You may have heard of it.

f.chapman
f.chapman

#1: The loss of 25 million child benefit records in the UK. On 18th October - A Junior official from HMRC in Washington, Tyne and Wear, sends two unencrypted CDs containing password-protected records to audit office in London through courier TNT, neither recorded nor registered. The records contain names, addresses, bank details, DOBs, etc, etc... http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/7104945.stm BTW, the WSJ article is patent non-sense any IT dept worth it's salt would laugh-out-loud at the paltry circumvention techniques. A childish attempt at scare mongering written by people who patently know very little about what they purport to be experts in...

JB Tucson
JB Tucson

Great job, it's my the top ten list of top ten lists for 2007.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

A good article, I wonder how many people are holding off on investing in a HD-DVD system until this problem works itself out - I am, and know of many others who are waiting for a resolution. If a enough consumers hold off, then we could see the whole future of both become an extremely fragile structure. I know a lot of people who got so upset with the VHZ / Beta argument, they didn't get a video recorder until they started reaching the price of throw away items - they didn't see enough use to them to fork out large sums on questionable accessories. I think we'll see a lot of that happening with this as well.

The Scummy One
The Scummy One

I would add another. HP's descision to outsource digital photography, and cut staff in QA. HP desktops and notebooks (business class) have suffered in the last half of '07. If I made the purchasing descisions, I would be looking elsewhere right now. #12 is the new Radia/Radix platform for application management. It is a huge hog, and forces updates when they are pushed, not on bootup or shutdown like the previous version. When it is pushed while working your system just shuts down and reboots without time to save data, wasting sometimes an hours worth of work. What a POS SW distrobution program...

Tig2
Tig2

It looks to me like you managed to catch out the worst of the worst here. I still shake my head over the apparent steadfast attitude of business that what happened to TJX couldn't possibly happen to them. I suggest that it most certainly CAN, and likely WILL. I thought the WSJ article was a total kick in the teeth to IT departments everywhere. What it never suggested that business do was start communicating with IT to effect functional, business empowering changes. iPhone. While it is an admittedly very cool toy, I thought that Apple made some really big mistakes there. Not releasing the product as the best it could be was a stupid move. The point that you missed, Jason, was the obsoleting of one of the models- the 4GB is no longer on the product line-up, and the decision to cut the price by an astonishing 33% within such a short time of release. To Apple's credit, they DID offer $100 gift cards (good at Apple, of course) to their early adopters. Still it put them in the position of looking like smeg at a time when they really don't want to look that bad. Finally, Vista is the reason that I am posting from a MacBook. I looked at it logically and came to the decision that if I was going to be forced to make workflow changes, I would rather do it from a completely OS agnostic hardware platform. Sosumi. (For those not in the know, Sosumi was the name of one of the sounds that Apple made back in the old System 7 days. Something about not being allowed to use a feedback sound that could be expressed as a tune or something- don't recall all the detail.) Edit to add a link to the whole story: http://www.boingboing.net/2005/03/24/early-apple-sound-de.html

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