Top 7 Epic Tech Fails of 2011

We all like a good success story, and we've had a lot of those this year. But we would be remiss not to mention some of tech's biggest flops. We don't want to indulge in too much Schadenfreude, but you've got to admit that the Qwikster saga was pretty funny.

There were some plain old duds this year, as well as some gross miscalculations. There were even a few serious transgressions. What follows is our list of the seven most spectacular tech failures of 2011.

7. Qwikster , Netflix

What was Netflix smoking when it tried to spin off its DVD business with the name Qwikster? We see a lot of dumb product names around here, but Qwikster definitely takes the cake this year.

It was terribly timed, too. Netflix had just separated its streaming and DVD pricing plans, raising rates for customers who had both, which drove a million customers away. The Qwikster saga added insult to injury.

In addition to costing more, Netflix was going to force users to go to two separate websites, one for Netflix streaming and one for Qwikster DVDs. The fiasco reached a fever pitch when the Internet's attention turned to Jason Castillo, young owner of the @Qwikster Twitter account, who had a pot-smoking Elmo as his avatar. Hilarity ensued.

It only took a month for Netflix to reverse its decision. Despite the regrettable Qwikster incident, we think Netflix got a bad rap this year. Were those price increases really so bad, considering how much it costs to, say, go to a movie? Regardless, the Qwikster incident was not what Netflix needed, so it's a good thing that's over with.

6. Google Axes [insert favorite service]

In an effort to slim down and "ship the Plus part" of its services, Google shut down a swath of products this year, leaving some users in the lurch. Google's a busy place these days, and it has to prioritize, but its strategy of "letting a thousand flowers bloom" means that not everything can make it into "a nice bouquet."

Those are quotes from Sergey Brin, by the way. Google has built thousands of cool things over the year, letting users play with them for free. Some people built lasting workflows upon them that are broken now. Google's house-cleaning this year left Web denizens with a clear message: Don't trust free services.

Google dumped Android App Inventor, a do-it-yourself programming tool that was beloved by computer science educators. It axed Buzz, an ill-fated social network, and Labs, its arsenal of neat, usable experiments on top of Google's existing products. It turned off Code Search, which was an asset to developers. It killed off Timeline search, which allowed interesting date range filtering of Google search results. In the last round, it shut down Wave, Knol, Friend Connect and more.

These services didn't have lots of users, but they had some, and those people are out of luck. Fortunately, several of these, such as App Inventor and Code Search, were open-sourced and rescued by other institutions.

5. Google Redesigns [insert other favorite service]

Axing little-used services was one thing, but Google gave some of its major services makeovers this year, and they were the cause of much consternation. The most infamous change was the Google Reader overhaul. In an effort to unify the product line under the Google+ banner, Google ended up eliminating social features that were beloved by Reader users.

Google also brought the same kind of design to Gmail. It was good looking, which was new for Google products, but it took some unfortunate hits in usability, such as replacing text buttons with inscrutable icons.

Google is redesigning things around Plus so often, it's hard to get used to the way anything works. After rolling out a ubiquitous black nav bar across all Google services just this summer, it completely changed the nav bar again in November. And the Plussification of Google services is only accelerating, so get used to not being used to it

4. Color

Oh, Color. What do you do, and what are you doing? This app made headlines this year for raising $41 million and having nothing to show for it. Well, let's be fair. Color shipped an app, but no one has any idea what it's for. Then it re-shipped its app, tied to Facebook this time, and as you'll see from the major corrections in that story, we still have no idea what it's for.

It has something to do with sharing photos of places and events. It uses your phone's microphone to figure out where you are. And it has a horrendous first-time user experience full of scary silhouette people like those Homeland Security signs that make no sense.

Our boss, Richard MacManus, was pretty stoked about Color at first, but let's just say he regrets the error and leave it at that, shall we?

We documented some interesting-ish use cases of Color, but the app failed to catch on. Meanwhile, talented people started quitting. In December, Color relaunched as a Facebook-centric app, but we still couldn't figure it out. This is what $41 million will get you these days?

3. Sony PlayStation Network's Security Fiasco

As you read this, keep in mind that people pay for things on this service. *(Correction: Initially, this read "pay for this service," which isn't quite right. There's no subscription, but users do pay for things in the Playstation Store.) On April 20, the Sony Playstation Network, used by 77 million people, was hacked. A week later, with users' passwords and credit card info still in limbo, Sony had to take down the whole network in order to fix it. There was no timeframe for when it would come back online.

Three weeks later, Sony brought PSN back online, only to find that the email password reset service for bringing users back online had been compromised. In all, the attack took five weeks to correct. It took Sony three weeks to offer a meaningful response.

Outages will happen. Users should get used to that, but there are good ways to handle it, and then there's the way Sony handled it.

And then...

2. RIM

RIM wins the award for Most Blithe Tech Company of The Year. As its once-dominant mobile position evaporated, it suffered a three-day service outage caused by a backlog of email, and it fiddled while Rome burned. Millions of people, many of them enterprise customers, had no mobile service for three days.

It took RIM several hours to acknowledge that anything was wrong, and when it did, there was no explanation, much less a timeframe for restoring service. Eventually, RIM figured out that it had to offer its users $100 in premium applications to make amends, but the damage had been done. The outage cost RIM $50 million in lost sales.
Enjoy this annoying Blackberry PlayBook commercial:

Further darkening the skies over RIM is the BlackBerry PlayBook, its tablet, which has fallen far short of shipment estimates and cost RIM hundreds of millions in write-offs. RIM hasn't figured out its next steps for the PlayBook. It can't even decide on a name for the OS.

1. HP, WebOS & the "Tablet Effect"

Hewlett-Packard was the company Steve Jobs idolized when he was starting out. How ironic that the last great product Jobs launched in his life would basically ruin HP's consumer business. Of all the tech crash landings at the end of 2011, HP's hit hardest and skidded farthest.

There's a lot wrong with HP. More than can fit in a round-up. But the example of the TouchPad can serve as a metaphor.

Last year, HP bought Palm and webOS along with it. The tech world was excited to see what HP could deliver, hoping for a third way between iOS and Android. Instead, we got the HP TouchPad, the paragon of the fact that you can't undercut the iPad on price and still compete on quality.

The TouchPad's hardware was flawed. It didn't sell. Retailers were sitting on hundreds of thousands of them. Before long, citing the crushing reality of the "tablet effect" (read: the iPad effect), then-CEO Léo Apotheker announced that HP was axing the webOS hardware. Of course, TouchPads sold like hotcakes shortly thereafter... when they were marked down to $99.

It was a liquidation. A fire sale. Apotheker was an enterprise guy. He couldn't sell consumer products. This was bungled so badly, it looked like HP would get out of consumer PCs altogether, but that didn't quite happen. Apotheker was replaced by Meg Whitman as CEO, HP open-sourced webOS, and analysts revised their estimates.
So that's that. The seven most epic tech fails in 2011. Did we miss anybody? Feel free to share your favorite failures in the comments.


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