Technology marches onward with unrelenting determination year after year. The gadgets that run our lives get cheaper, faster, and more beautiful without fail. However, that doesn’t mean that individual companies can’t pull a boner from time to time, and 2012 was no exception. Let’s take a look at the five biggest technology fails of the past year.
The HP-Autonomy deal
Before HP ousted its consumer-hating CEO Leo Apotheker in 2011, he inked a deal to buy UK-based business services and consulting firm Autonomy for $11.1 billion. This action was undertaken with the understanding that HP was leaving the consumer market. When new CEO Meg Whitman joined the company, fresh off her loss in the California gubernatorial race, she stuck with Autonomy in 2012.
HP had employed accountants to go over Autonomy’s books, but it now seems they missed some big red flags. The deal has turned out to be a massive mistake for HP, which has recently announced it is taking an $8.8 billion writedown on the acquisition in its quarterly earnings. That means that HP believes it paid several times more for Autonomy than it was actually worth. For a company still reeling from the failure of WebOS and declines in its PC sales, this is no small bump in the road.
HP has claimed there is evidence of extensive fraud at Autonomy, which inflated its revenues prior to the sale. Still, if the evidence was so extensive, why did the board not realize what was happening sooner? The handling of the situation has been a disaster in its own right. Autonomy’s founder has pushed back against the allegations, but HP isn’t backing down. Whatever went wrong, HP messed this one up big time. It might take months to see how deep this rabbit hole goes.
The Nexus Q
Oh, Google. The speakers were so enthusiastic about the Nexus Q back at Google I/O 2012. The Nexus Q was a spherical set-top media streamer that connected to Android devices and played content exclusively from Google Play. It was announced alongside the Nexus 7, a small tablet that does appear to be a certifiable hit. However, the Nexus Q launch could not have gone worse for Google.
The search giant gave out free units to attendees of Google I/O, but that didn’t earn the device any good will — it was widely panned for lacking in functionality. No Netflix, no Hulu, and no NAS access? The Nexus Q was proudly made in the USA, and the pricing showed it. Google took pre-orders at $299, which was far higher than competing set-top boxes.
As the terrible reviews rolled in, Google reconsidered its strategy. Google said it was re-tooling the Nexus Q after getting feedback from reviewers and developers. Those brave few who pre-ordered the Nexus Q got theirs for free. However, the device never showed up for sale again, and now even the placeholder has been pulled as the new round of Nexus devices have rolled out.
The Nexus Q was a bold move, but it you have to wonder why Google announced it. Why didn’t anyone stop and ask who the Nexus Q was supposed to be for?
The folks at Apple have a reputation for user-friendly design and careful incremental changes. That’s why the buggy mess that is Apple Maps has been such a surprise. Google had been providing the mapping data for iOS since the first iPhone launched back in 2007, but the increasingly adversarial relationship between the two companies eventually sent Cupertino off on a quest to do its own maps. This turns out to have been a mistake.
Apple bought several companies to bolster its mapping efforts, but the end result was just not very good. Users found a myriad of issues with the software including missing addresses, no public transit info, corrupted satellite data, entire cities missing or in the wrong place, and buggy navigation. There have even been reports recently that several dozen Australian iPhone users have been led dangerously astray by their phones, which incorrectly placed a city in the middle of a remote wilderness park.
Things got so bad in September that Apple CEO Tim Cook had to issue an apology for the fiasco and advised users to take a look at some alternative mapping apps while Apple sorted out the issues. This by itself is unprecedented. Apple’s mobile software chief Scott Forstall, and iOS Maps manager Richard Williamson have both been fired in the wake of the debacle.
Google released a new Google Maps app on iOS late in 2012. It quickly became the most downloaded free app in the App Store. How’s that humble pie tasting, Apple?
Next page: Microsoft’s Metro problems, and the sad story of RIM
Microsoft’s “Metro” problems
Microsoft always seems to be walking back its naming schemes. Remember Windows Phone 7 Series? The Surface switcheroo? Windows/MSN Live/Mesh Skydrive? Redmond’s 2012 failure was with its prevalent Metro branding. Windows 8 brings the Metro UI and apps to the desktop, but now we don’t even know what to call it. Despite having a cadre of lawyers on retainer all over the world, no one seemed to notice that “Metro” was trademarked by someone else. Numerous reports point to a trademark challenge by Germany-based Metro AG. Now Metro has been replaced by — well, nothing really.
The company has been adamant that Metro was never supposed to be a consumer-facing term, but it was fairly prominent going all the way back to the launch of Windows Phone 7. So now developers can’t use the term, and Microsoft has been slow to come up with a reasonable alternative. This situation confuses the conversation because Windows 8 runs both “Metro” apps and regular Windows apps. The best option seems to be “Windows 8 style,” but that’s pretty awkward.
The embarrassment might have been lessened if Microsoft hadn’t pushed Metro to the forefront in Windows 8 with such insistence. The Desktop has been demoted to be “just another app.” Metro (or whatever they’re calling it) might make sense on a tablet, but users with a mouse are feeling perplexed. It may even be because of this mess that Windows boss Steven Sinofsky was fired.
Windows 8 didn’t get the big activation bump seen in the last release, and this despite having rock-bottom pricing. It’s been a lukewarm reception for Microsoft’s new OS, and that’s largely due to the Metro UI. It might be the right move down the road, but it’s a tough sell now.
RIM’s lost year
2012 started on an upbeat note for Canadian smartphone pioneer Research in Motion (RIM). The old co-CEOs were gone and Thorsten Heins was newly at the helm. What followed was a year in which the only way RIM seemed to be able to make news was to announce that it had lost more money. And it did — a lot of it.
The light at the end of the tunnel was expected to be BlackBerry 10. Finally RIM would catch up with the competition and gets its mobile platform modernized. However, each quarterly report brought news of more delays. Rather than launching in 2012 as originally intended, BlackBerry 10 has been pushed to early 2013. Even the company’s preferred narrative that BlackBerry is still wildly popular overseas is looking less plausible. RIM had to cut several thousand jobs last summer, and recent news hasn’t been encouraging either. Its revenue as reported in December is down 47% from last year, and it saw the first overall subscriber decrease in its history. RIM can’t afford another year like 2012.
I’m sure these technology behemoths didn’t go into 2012 expecting to stumble like they did. For some these snafus are just a momentary spot of embarrassment in an otherwise great year. For others, it’s a sign of major problems going forward. Here’s to a more productive 2013.