When the technology historians of the distant future look back on 2012, they may remember it as, above all, the year of the apology. Tech companies kept expressing regret for stuff: product flaws, privacy abuses, advertising deceptions and much, much more. Apple, Dell, Google, Microsoft and Nokia were among the industry giants that issued at least one apology. Even seemingly innocent bystanders such as Spike Lee and KitchenAid got sucked into the vortex of remorse.
As is my wont — and in tribute to the late Business 2.0’s 101 Dumbest Moments in Business and Esquire‘s iconic Dubious Achievement Awards — I’ve compiled a list of the year’s biggest tech-related blunders, lapses in judgement, bad behavior and general weirdness. Some of these items were followed by apologies, heartfelt or otherwise; others weren’t but should have been; a few were so self-defeating that they amounted to their own punishment. All of them helped make the year memorable — and collectively, they set a high bar for 2013’s mistakes.
1. The not-so-tragic death of a not-very-wonderful dream.
In 2010, Chandrasekar Rathakrishnan’s Fusion Garage removed TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington from his own CrunchPad project and released it as a half-baked tablet called the JooJoo, which failed almost immediately. In 2011, Fusion Garage pretended to be a start-up called TabCo and released a half-baked tablet called the Grid-10, which failed almost immediately. And in 2012? Fusion Garage’s big accomplishment was failing, period.
2. Crime and self-punishment.
After an advertising firm hired by Google pays bloggers to write about Chrome — violating Google’s own rules — the search engine reacts by penalizing its own browser, pushing it down in results for the search term browser for 60 days.
3. Everyone knows it’s Wendi.
The British media are amused by the way Wendi Deng Murdoch, spouse of Rupert Murdoch, bawls out her husband on Twitter. Except it turns out that it’s a fraudulent account — even though Twitter has marked it as “verified,” a supposed guarantee that it’s the real deal.
4. Holy piracy, Batman!
Sweden recognizes Isak Gerson’s Kopimism as an official religion. The creed, which claims 3,000 members, holds that file sharing is a sacred act.
5. The crowd goes wild.
At a new Apple Store in Beijing’s Sanlitun district, 300 people show up to buy new iPhones. The throng alarms store officials, who cancel the opening. The shoppers are not pleased. One of them begins pelting the retail establishment with eggs; others chase off the security guards.
6. Let’s be evil.
A Kenyan business-listing company called Mocality accuses local Google staffers of accessing its data without permission, then contacting its customers and claiming, inaccurately, that Mocality charges for its services and that Google has a relationship with Mocality. Google admits that Mocality’s charges are true and says that it’s “mortified” by the situation.
7. Feats of clay.
In Vancouver, Apple fans discover that the iPads they’ve purchased at Best Buy and other stores are actually iPad boxes filled with modeling clay. It seems that criminals bought iPads and then returned them for refunds — but they kept the iPads and refilled the boxes.
8. Hey, at least Polaroid is still flourishing — oh, wait.
Eastman Kodak, an icon of American technical innovation and business success for the entire 20th century, files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
9. Meet Mr. Optimism.
Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie, longtime co-CEOs of beleaguered BlackBerry maker RIM, finally step down. Their successor, RIM co-COO Thorsten Heins, says he doesn’t “think significant change [is] needed” at the company, a stance that leaves observers wondering if he’s been paying attention.
10. Shop till you flop.
After legendary Apple Store chief Ron Johnson departs to run JCPenney, Apple replaces him with John Browett, CEO of British retailer Dixons. His former employer has a schlocky reputation, and a bevy of British tech enthusiasts are befuddled by the hire. But not for long; Browett is gone before the holiday season begins.
11. Xoom, Xoom, Xoom.
Motorola says that about 100 refurbished Xoom tablets sold through the daily-deal site Woot may still have their previous owners’ information on them. By way of apology, it offers two years of free credit monitoring to affected consumers.
12. In other news, McDonald’s new Big Mac is ditching the two all-beef patties, the special sauce, the lettuce, the cheese and the sesame-seed bun.
Microsoft reveals that Windows 8 will do away with Windows’ most familiar feature: its Start button.
13. I don’t even want to know what coupons Target sends once it’s figured out you’ve died.
A New York Times article reveals that Target’s mining of its customers’ information is so invasive and clever that the company figured out a high school girl was pregnant — and sent her coupons for products such as cribs and baby clothing — before her parents got wise about it.
14. Sorry, fellas.
A high-tech London billboard for a nonprofit organization uses facial detection to identify bystanders as women or men — and refuses to show its ad to the guys.
15. At least they didn’t call it eleventy-billion-G.
An iOS software update changes the 3G indicator on AT&T iPhones to read 4G, even though the phones are running on the same wireless network as before and their speed hasn’t improved. (AT&T, like T-Mobile, has simply decided to start saying that its spruced-up 3G network is a 4G network.) Only with the iPhone 5’s release in September does AT&T get a true 4G iPhone.
Public radio’s This American Life retracts an entire episode based on Mike Daisey’s monologue The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. Daisey’s much praised work, based on his visit to Apple’s Chinese manufacturing partner Foxconn, includes alarming details about underage workers, dangerous conditions and other matters — but it turns out that Daisey fudged numerous details to make his story more shocking and melodramatic.
Microsoft’s “Smoked by Windows Phone” competition, which lets Microsoft Store visitors with iPhones and Android phones try to outrace Windows Phone at common tasks, backfires when blogger and Android user Sahas Katta manages to win. Store employees refuse to acknowledge his victory and provide him with prizes, a decision Microsoft overturns after Katta blogs about the experience.
18. Just like Foursquare, only profoundly creepy.
Cult of Mac’s John Brownlee reports on Girls Around Me, an iPhone application that uses publicly available Facebook and Foursquare data to show the photos and locations of nearby women, none of whom have given permission to be tracked by the app. After Foursquare cuts off access to its data, the program’s Russian developers yank it from the App Store.