Ten catastrophes: All-time worst tech industry executive decisions

Ten catastrophes: All-time worst tech industry executive decisions

Summary: IT, software and computer companies are certainly not without their share of poor executive decisions and mismanagement. While dozens of notable examples could have made our list, these were by far the top top 10 worst in the history of the technology industry, causing many billions of dollars of lost revenue or resulted in the downfall of entire companies.


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  • Mention the name "Windows Vista" in most circles, you'll probably get a mixture of reactions. Groans, snickers, and utter disgust.

    Windows XP wasn’t supposed to last as long as it did. As soon as XP shipped in 2001, work got under way for the next version, code-named “Longhorn.” The feature list got bigger and more ambitious as time went on, and Longhorn was shown off with great fanfare at Microsoft’s Professional Developers Conference in 2003.
    Those plans were tossed aside completely in August 2004, with what later became infamous as the “Longhorn reset.” In September 2005, Windows boss Jim Allchin publicly acknowledged the do-over, acknowledging that Longhorn had been “crashing into the ground.”
    The design goals of what was eventually named Windows Vista were admirable: improve Windows' security model, introduce widespread 64-bit technology into the desktop OS, improve networking performance, refine the user interface, and better integrate search capabilities. Unfortunately, the unwieldy and disorganized project took more than five years to deliver unsatisfactory results.
    Windows Vista was released to manufacturing in November 2006, with a consumer debut in January 2007. Vista got mostly negative reviews, thanks to significantly higher resource requirements, incompatibilities with some popular hardware and software programs, and a controversial security feature called User Account Control (UAC) that was derided as overly intrusive. Service Packs would later resolve many of Vista's issues, but its reputation as a slow, buggy failure was sealed.
    Eventually, the technologies that were created for Windows Vista were refined and re-engineered. Vista’s successor, Windows 7, was released a little less than three years after Vista's introduction to much better reviews.
    Nobody knows how much the Vista debacle really cost Microsoft, but it damaged the company's reputation and almost certainly amounted to billions of dollars of stalled upgrades and a significant exodus of users to Apple’s Mac platform.

    In 1985, Apple Computer was in the midst of a technology transition. In the previous year, the company had just launched its first Macintosh computer, which had replaced the Apple ][ and Apple III line it had been selling successfully for the last several years.
    Founder Steve Jobs had recruited former Pepsi-Cola executive John Sculley to act as Apple's CEO, in order to help grow the company. While Jobs was considered to be a charismatic and dynamic employee at Apple and at the Macintosh division which was under his direct leadership, he was also erratic, difficult to work with and temperamental, and it was beginning to put a strain on his relationship with his team members as well as on the Board of Directors of the company.
    Facing a sales slump due to overwhelming competition from companies like IBM and Compaq that were selling PCs and clones, Jobs' relationship with Sculley deteriorated which resulted in his ouster from the company he and Steve Wozniak founded.
    The 11-year period that Apple continued on without Steve Jobs is universally considered to be a major low point for the company. Without Jobs' vision and guidance, innovation slowed and Apple underwent several leadership changes. Revenue and stock valuation plummeted, the company was on the verge of financial oblivion, and by the mid 1990's the company was in desperate need for a replacement to the aging Macintosh OS. 
    In 1996, Apple purchased Steve Jobs' NeXT, which would serve as the foundation for what would become OS X and later on the iOS which powers the iPhone and iPad. Gil Amelio, the current CEO, was ousted in 1997 in a boardroom coup and Steve Jobs returned as Chairman and CEO.
    Jobs would guide the company into the release of the iMac, the iPod, OSX and and x86-based Macs, and then later the iPhone, iPad and Apple TV, ushering in a new golden age for Apple.

    Once a prosperous, medium-sized and laid-back Northern California software company that produced successful and reliable vertical market UNIX operating systems for x86-based servers throughout the 1980s through the early 2000's, the Santa Cruz Operation (SCO) began its demise shortly after being acquired by Caldera, Inc., based out of Provo, Utah.
    Part of the Nay Noorda-backed family of companies known as the Canopy Group, the company re-named itself  "The SCO Group" and soon began to find itself in a bit of an identity crisis. SCO Group's first incoming CEO and former CEO of Caldera Ransom Love wanted to merge Caldera and SCO's Linux and UNIX product lines, and create a best of breed OS.
    SCO had partnered with Intel, IBM and Sequent briefly during the mid-1990s on "Project Monterrey", an attempt to unify, merge and port the best aspects of the company's UNIXWare OS and IBM's AIX to the new Intel Itanium as well as IBM's POWER processor.
    With the rise in popularity of Linux and 64-bit x86 chips, interest in Itanium waned and the effort to market the completed IA-64 variant was scuttled.
    SCO's failure to market the IA-64 version of Monterey resulted in Ransom Love being pushed aside and succeeded by Darl Mcbride. With McBride at the helm of SCO, the company became entirely focused on litigation as opposed to product development. 
    SCO not only sued IBM for alleged contributions of Monterey code to the Open Source Linux kernel, but also large customers, end-users and vendors of various Linux OSes, including Red Hat and Novell.
    This turned the company into a pariah not only among the legion of Open Source and Linux developers but SCO's own customers and the entire technology industry. The litigation debacle went on for years, chronicled in gory detail on sites such as Groklaw.
    SCO's sales of UNIX products went down the toilet, and was forced to lay off virtually all of its employees to focus entirely on its lawsuits. 
    In 2007, SCO filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. In 2009, Darl Mcbride was fired. Early in 2011, UnXis Inc purchased SCO's remaining UNIX software assets. 
    As of August 2001, SCO Group remained active only as a shell in order to continue its appeals processes on litigation against Novell regarding transfer of UNIX copyrights during its UNIXWare sale in 1995.
    This appeal found in favor of Novell (which is now a fully-owned subsidiary of Attachmate, Inc.) as exclusive holder of the UNIX copyrights on August 30, 2011 by the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.

Topics: Banking, CXO, Enterprise Software


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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  • So, what goes down as the all time worst?

    I picked what I thought were the all-time worst decisions in the history of the technology industry. But maybe I missed a few key ones. What other ones caused billions of dollars of lost revenue or sank entire companies?
    • RE: Ten catastrophes: All-time worst tech industry executive decisions

      @jperlow What about Excite's George Bell turning down Larry Page's and Sergey Brin's offer to sell Google to them for $1M in 1999?
      • It gets worse than that...

        @jim.mcmaster : if you trust wikipedia's recount of the story, Vinod Khosla had decreased the amount to $750K but George threw him out of the office, thinking he had wasted both men's time.

        George is now a venture capitalist with General Catalyst and still talks about his tenure at Excite@Home.


    • RE: Ten catastrophes: All-time worst tech industry executive decisions


      Xerox's decision to sideline it's PC development then allowing Apple and Microsoft to basically walk in and take whatever they wanted from it at a minimal cost.

      The rest is history.
      • 'Allowing' was different, though: Apple paid with its shares, and Microsoft

        @bannedagain: ... paid nothing.
      • RE: Ten catastrophes: All-time worst tech industry executive decisions

        @bannedagain Xerox's PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) was a great incubator of future new technology breathroughs for many others - not for themselves. Besides Steve Jobs grabbing the mouse GUI technology for Apple, Bob Metcalfe - a PARC engineer, invented Ethernet and walked out to start his own company 3Com. Xerox would just say, we are a "document" company.
      • RE: Ten catastrophes: All-time worst tech industry executive decisions


        I knew a lady who worked at Xerox. She almost wept when talking about the stuff tha the research division came up with, but the suits basically gave away for peanuts reasoning that there was no market for it.
      • RE: Ten catastrophes: All-time worst tech industry executive decisions

        @bannedagain Yes, the Xerox PARC thing has to be the worst fiasco of all time. They had everything, GUI, OOP, TCP/IP, etc., and basically gave it away.
      • RE: Ten catastrophes: All-time worst tech industry executive decisions

        @bannedagain Xerox did not have PC development, they had own personal computer line.

        PC was IBM's own personal computer line and it lost it to PC-clone manufacturers who it had licensed PC BIOS and because it did not buy PC-DOS from Microsoft but just licensed and allowed Microsoft to license it to PC-compatible personal computer manufacturers (later made PC-clone personal computers).

        Even today Xerox Star GUI is awesome. They had everything correctly then and if Xerox would have continued and pursued that, they would have own the world and today we would have much better tech industry and better personal computers at home and work instead what Microsoft and Apple has come up even today (OS X 1.6, iOS 5, Windows 7, Windows 8, Windows Phone).

        Thanks to IBM who invented the PC at 1981 as without it, we would have now incompatible personal computers (if not counting what Xerox was doing).
      • RE: Ten catastrophes: All-time worst tech industry executive decisions

        Maybe it was the best decision for us - users. Ideas are not worth much without implementation.
    • RE: Ten catastrophes: All-time worst tech industry executive decisions

      @jperlow great article but how did you leave out Xerox PARC? If you calculate the value to computing of Ethernet, the mouse and the GUI interface, three developments that were born at XEROX PARC and walked righgt out the front door, I think this closely parallels the Microsoft -IBM blunders.
      • RE: Ten catastrophes: All-time worst tech industry executive decisions

        @whooizit1 Xerox PARC is a big time blunder, but the company was never really serious about creating a PC industry or being a real computer company. It was pure research. For the money they put into these technologies compared to some of the other catastrophic losses we're talking about on this list, it's probably not on the same order. Had they continued to develop it and make a real business out of it and ship the Alto in numbers (remember the early graphical workstations they made in limited quantities cost a fortune) they may have created something wonderful and made a lot of money, but I have difficulty quantifying "losses" with PARC per se. There is no question that Apple was able to capitalize on PARC, but it wasn't until years later when the board electronics could be miniaturized and the costs could be brought down to produce the first Mac.
      • RE: Ten catastrophes: All-time worst tech industry executive decisions

        @whooizit1 I don't get author's rationale ("research entity") excluding Xerox given their colossal blunders. Another missed opportunity... Adobe founders are also PARC alumni.

        Xerox's workstations were still being produced (and pricey - $12k) a few years after the Mac's intro.
    • Microsoft's decision to make Ballmer CEO

      @jperlow ... the personal loyalty of one man to another has cost shareholders untold money, and humbled a once vibrant and powerful company.

      Microsoft 1995: Toyota
      Microsoft 2011: Kodak
      • HollywoodDog


        HollywoodDog 1995: John Travolta
        HollywoodDog 2011: Gilbert Godfried.

        Oh, that's not tech related. Wow, just like you. ;)
        William Farrell
      • HA!

        @HollywoodDog ... That's a good one, thanks.

        When they make the movie of my life, I was rather hoping for Richard Gere, not Gilbert Godfried.
      • RE: Ten catastrophes: All-time worst tech industry executive decisions


        Didn't Richard Gere get a hampster shoved up his butt?

        hmm... nice ambition
    • RE: Ten catastrophes: All-time worst tech industry executive decisions

      @jperlow I see that there are already numerous replies regarding Xerox, but I wanted to cast one more vote. They invented the GUI, mouse, laser printer and Ethernet and gave it all away. They virtually help Apple steal the Mac technology and never received a dime from it, then they tried to sue Apple 10 years later.

      Read the book "The Billions Nobody Wanted" which is about the copier industry and then contrast it to what Xerox did with all the brilliant ideas that came out of PARC.

      Obviously as hot button of mine as an ex-Xeroid!
      • RE: Ten catastrophes: All-time worst tech industry executive decisions

        @adolimpio I think ncr had some horrible blunders too but don't recall them.
      • RE: Ten catastrophes: All-time worst tech industry executive decisions

        if xerox PARC is unforgiving we won't have a vibrant tech industry. luckily they forego greed for the benefit of the US of A, kudos to them and many thanks.