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November 28, 2011

Top 10 Software Fumbles

Adobe’s announcement that it is no longer producing Flash for mobile devices is the latest in a long line of foibles by then-leading software developers. We highlight some of the great fumbles– where great companies have really dropped the ball.

By Allan Swann

Adobe Flash (mobile)
Adobe’s long delayed mobile flash was cancelled this week, following Steve Jobs’ now infamous crusade which kept it off any Apple mobile devices. Once the fancy website designer’s tool of choice, Flash was utterly focused on high end functionality – and thus could never get it to work on mobiles. The industry now focuses on portability, compatibility and speed. The more versatile and open ended HTML5 looks set to become the new industry standard. Expect desktop Flash to disappear in the next few years too.

Google TV
Google TV (and indeed all Internet TV ventures) have been boycotted (and blocked) by most of the major American content providers. Sony and Logitech, the hardware suppliers, have both slashed their prices and it hasn’t even launched here yet. Is there a place for a dedicated Internet TV, when the average PC connected to a 42-inch plasma can run ITV Player, BBC iPlayer and Sky Go just fine?

Netscape Navigator/Communicator
In the mid 90s Netscape’s web browser possessed 90% market share. By 2006, it had less than 1%. While it is easy to blame Microsoft’s OS monopoly which saw Internet Explorer integrated with Windows 95, its worth remembering that Netscape 6, which competed with Internet Explorer 4, was, frankly, inferior. By the time the Microsoft Antitrust Trial was over, Netscape was all but ruined anyhow. Fortunately the remnants evolved into open source browser Mozilla Firefox.

Sony-BMG Audio CDs
It’s easy to forget just what a panic the music industry was during the rise of the MP3 (and perhaps still is). While attempting to resist Apple’s emerging digital music dominance (and often preparing their own doomed-to-fail online stores) the stopgap across the industry appeared to be crazy CD copy protection. None was crazier than Sony-BMG’s infamous 2005 effort which installed a rootkit (basically a backdoor to your computer that is invisible to anti-malware and anti-virus software). Any reasonable hacker could then install whatever he liked (key loggers, Trojans) free from scrutiny. Ouch. It’s estimated that over half a million computers were infected. After Sony denied the problem, then issued a botched fix, they finally refunded all CDs and ended up settling in court. The iPod never looked back.

IBM OS/2 Warp
In 1994 IBM battled Microsoft for operating system dominance. OS/2 Warp, its Windows 95 competitor, was much hyped in tech/enterprise circles, and many IT staff working at the time would argue that it was superior. Marketing won the day. Instead of marketing the product as a high end tool, IBM went with a bizarre hippie advertising campaign Thus began Microsoft’s golden age.

Nero Burning Rom
Nero once produced the CD burning software of choice, Nero’s Burning Rom. It then used its near monopoly to… jack up its prices, lower its product quality and introduce hyper-aggressive licensing schemes. Once the free open source alternatives caught up, it was left limping.

Windows ME & Windows Vista
No list is complete without mentioning Microsoft’s two greatest failings – Windows ME and Windows Vista. It is no coincidence that the resurgence of Apple and the rise of Linux coincided with these two ‘events’. Both were meant to be revolutionary, generational shifts in operating systems. Both caused Microsoft to prolong support for its OS predecessors (Windows 98 and Windows XP). ME was a bug riddled, crashing mess that didn’t work with most devices. Vista was a hardware hog, that didn’t have the drivers to work with most devices. These disasters would’ve bankrupted lesser companies, but fortunately led to the excellent Windows XP and Windows 7.

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MySpace is arguably still popular by most web standards. Before Facebook, MySpace was the big one. From 2005-2008 it was the most visited social networking site in the world, and in hits it outranked Google in the US. Once valued at $12 billion under Rupert Murdoch, it was sold earlier this year for $35 million. The eternal social network question remains (and Facebook is no different) how do you monetise this product?

Lotus 1-2-3
Lotus 1-2-3 was the essential business program in the 80s. Lotus’s spreadsheet software was everywhere in the mid-1980s, and is often considered to be one of the cornerstones of IBM’s PC successes in the period (who later bought the company). Microsoft’s Excel, and its bundling into the Office Suite, saw Lotus 1-2-3 fall flat on its face. Lotus never regained that traction.

Google Buzz!
Buzz! was Google’s first proper attempt at building a social networking website. The first rule (and biggest business obstacle) of social media is privacy. Google failed on the ‘Don’t be evil’ front by sharing user’s information in ways they probably never intended and bombarding them with junk. Tabloid stories of abusive ex boyfriends gaining access to contact information, and totalitarian governments using this information to target dissidents blew it pieces after just 18 months. Google+ now claims 40 million users, so perhaps the lessons have been learned.

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