As great of a year as it was in 2011, there were also a lot of pretty crappy moments in tech for the year gone by. Major gaffes, failures of innovation, poor market analysis, and failed corporate maneuvers were very much par for the course this year. Opportunities for companies, devices and services to sweep the market and rock the industry were left by the wayside. Some of these things should have panned out, and some of them I hope never see the light of day.
1) RIM Being…. RIM
Research in Motion has performed pathetically in a year where it mattered more than ever. With Android reaching near saturation with hundreds of devices and launching Honeycomb and Ice Cream Sandwich, Apple doubling down on the iPad and iPhone with iOS 5, and Microsoft gaining major points for the Mango upgrade; you’d expect RIM to maintain pace. Their response was BlackBerry OS 7, a mild refresh of the previous geriatric OS and a few new phones who’s greatest achievement was having a processor above 1Ghz. Don’t forget their tablet too. The ill-named “Playbook” was meant to be a tablet for businesses but continues to lack essential software, a robust app catalog, and is plagued by performance issues. Its sales have been pretty pathetic, so now RIM is taking a huge write-off in order to move their excess stock at discounted prices. RIM’s failures this year have been tremendous. They failed to capitalize on their QNX software in the Playbook and instead stuck with the sluggish and antiquated BB OS. The planned QNX based phone OS, BBX, had its name rejected and is now just BlackBerry 10 and yet still has no clear release date or devices announced. The devices are still nothing to be happy with as the company sticks to its standard design guidelines instead of offering a compelling touchscreen device or QWERTY slider. RIM is going to have a really, really rough 2012. Let’s hope this new OS brings them back.
2) HP Treats WebOS Like Shit
Let’s wind back the clock about two years ago. Palm, after years of struggling with their old platform, launches webOS and the Pre. The hardware is solid and the software is unique. Nothing is perfect in the initial launch, but it’s a good start. But that start never came. Palm released few additional webOS phones and none of them were truly innovative. Palm was bought by HP in early 2010 with HP promising to use webOS as a way to enter the exploding smartphone market. It seemed like a great plan. webOS had a lot of potential and simply needed the engineering background of HP to keep momentum. HP was the largest PC OEM in America and webOS would have given it a unique platform to work with. Nearly a year later, HP finally unveiled two new phones and a tablet along with significant refinements to the webOS software. It looked like a great future for HP and webOS. It took months for HP to release its first new phone to an utterly silent response. Oh, but then there was the tablet that went on sale for seven weeks before being discontinued and given away in a fire sale. Now, HP has written off webOS entirely and abandoned commercial development indefinitely. webOS will continue as an open source project, but I doubt it will have any form of real commercial backing for mainstream device. webOS was not a perfect OS, but it was unique. It was built on web standards, had incredible multitasking and it was elegant for users. It was the artist’s Android. The mobile market is better with competition and with only three main players, it feels a little stale often. webOS had potential, but instead of supporting it by building an ecosystem with devices and integration with PC services, HP barely gave it a chance.
3) Nokia Makes Meego Stillborn
Continuing our theme of terrible management in the mobile market, we now turn to Nokia. While I’ve lauded their reinvention by adopting Windows Phone 7, it has been a rocky start down that road. Nokia was hobbled by their devotion to Symbian, an OS that was once at the height of the smartphone market but failed to innovate. While Nokia’s phones were excellent, their software couldn’t match the competition. In the early days of Nokia’s floundering market share, the company embarked on an ambitious project with Intel to fuse the two companies’ mobile Linux platforms into one. Intel’s Moblin netbook OS would be combined with Nokia’s Maemo smartphone distribution for a scalable and flexible OS that could be used from phones to tablets and computers. It was a really cool idea that never took off. MeeGo was delayed again and again until it was so far out that Nokia straight up abandoned development. Or did they? Apparently Nokia didn’t get its own memo and launches the N9, the first and only MeeGo phone, early last fall. The problem? It was great. The N9 itself was beautifully created from a unibody polycarbonate shell with a 3.9″ AMOLED screen, no buttons and a great camera. MeeGo was an intuitive and simple OS, beautifully designed and capable of becoming a powerhouse platform. But here was Nokia, simply chucking this great phone out into the ether with no support whatsoever. Critics loved the N9 and MeeGo, but nothing came of it. The best we’ve gotten is the N9 design hijacked by the Windows Phone Lumia 800.
4) AT&T – T-Mobile Merger Goes Bust
39 Billion dollars was a big check for AT&T to write, but the rewards posed to be greater. Wanting to abandon its American operations, Deutsche Telekom put T-Mobile up for sale with AT&T ready to pounce. An AT&T acquisition would have made them the largest wireless carrier in the country and the only proprietary of GSM cellular service. It was ripe for becoming a monopoly, but also could have made AT&T’s network vastly more powerful for all consumers. Essentially, there were a lot of pros and cons. It wasn’t meant to be, however, as the FCC dropped the ban hammer on the deal, citing that AT&T’s evidence for the acquisition helping consumers was essentially FUBAR. Now AT&T is left without T-Mobile’s spectrum or capacity to help with their network build out, plus they have to pay Deutsche Telekom a $4 Billion severance check. It was an expensive failure for AT&T that was poorly executed. The company should have figured that the FCC wasn’t a dumb agency anymore, not with my man Julius Genachowski running the show. Maybe next time they won’t mislead the general public to get their way.
Just… no. I mean what kind of country do we live in where bills like NDAA and SOPA can be considered by this government? This is not the kind of thing we elect officials for, to publicly and proudly sponsor bills for mass censorship.
6) Netflix Almost Kills Itself
I never got a chance to report on Netflix’s terrible year, but trust me that I have some things to say to that company. It goes like this: Netflix is rocking in 2011, its streaming service is becoming its fastest growing segment by far with numerous devices and applications allowing users to access their content. There were rumors of Netflix looking for original content in order to take on companies like HBO. It looked like Arrested Development was going to come directly to Netflix for its revival miniseries leading up to the movie. The company was in a great place and then fucked it all up. First they hiked prices on their most popular plan: one at-a-time DVDs + unlimited streaming from a sensible $9.99 to $15.99. The company clearly wanted people to feel the pressure towards going with the cheaper streaming plan. However, since virtually all first run movies were only available in discs, the reaction from consumers was not great. It got worse when the company decided to spin-off its entire DVD-by-mail company into something called Qwikster. It was stupid and unnecessary, a bad attempt by Netflix to prematurely shed DVDs from its business plan. The fall out was significant and Netflix eventually reversed their decision, but not before its stock plummeted by almost 50%.
7) Sony PSN Hack Takes Its Toll
I almost forgot! Another wonderful example of failure this year comes to us from Sony for its dreaded Play Station Network hacking scandal. Essentially, PSN was taken down by a group of hackers operating as the LulzSec, a group of internet pranksters and activists who were fighting back against Sony’s prosecution of a man who figured out how to jailbreak the PS3. The attack lasted nearly a month and required Sony to completely rebuild their online infrastructure. My outrage began two weeks into the mishagas but the ordeal had fallout far exceeding the actual take down of PSN. It made Sony look weak, it showed their poor implementation of cyber security, and endangered PSN subscribers who had their personal information taken. The PSN attack was only one of the first major attacks of the year by LulzSec, but it gave them an ego which lead to even more dangerous attacks later in the year.
A year in tech can be both great and terrible. Anything I’ve missed?