1996 to 2006: Great comedy moments in tech

ZDNet UK's decade-long scrutiny of the IT sector has seen its highs and lows — but it's also had its fair share of laughs

As we look back over the first 10 years of ZDNet UK, one recurring theme is that the technology industry has a great sense of its own importance. Sometimes this is well-deserved, but sometimes it is tragically misplaced.

Any sector that takes itself too seriously is setting itself up for a fall, and tech is ripe with some juicy examples. Our 10-year retrospective wouldn't be complete without a look back at some of the comedy moments that have provided light relief from takeovers, job losses and security scares, and cut some of tech's biggest figures down to size into the bargain.

Yes… it's Bill
It may be obvious and unfair given his philanthropic calling, but any search for unintended comedy in the computer industry has to begin with one man. William Henry Gates III. From the now legendary pictures of a youthful Bill smirking at a police photographer following his arrest for speeding, Gates has been an endless source of amusement.

One of the earliest stories captured by a fledgling ZDNet UK exposing the comedy potential of the then Microsoft chief executive involved some sneaky snaps of Bill doing what could only describe as the "funky chicken", during a hearty attempt at disco dancing back at Comdex '97. The theory that Gates was attempting to boost his public image ahead of the first rumblings of the US Department of Justice antitrust investigation was touted at the time — clearly no one is capable of dancing that well, least of all Bill.

Trade shows, where on-stage demonstrations are stalked by disaster, have always been hard on Bill. The most famous incident probably involves the curse of Microsoft users everywhere — the Blue Screen of Death. In a comforting piece of Schadenfreude, Gates himself fell victim to a BSoD incident while unveiling the then-new Windows 98 at Comdex on 20 April, 1998. The demonstration apparently crashed when a Microsoft minion connected a scanner to a PC.

The Monkey Boy cometh
Luckily for Gates, he has always had a larger-than-life Oliver Hardy to distract from his own Laurel-like antics. Brash, bruising and belligerent are just three of many 'B' words used to describe Microsoft chief executive officer Steve "I don’t throw chairs" Ballmer. Where Bill's amusement value has always been firmly tied to his geekiness, Ballmer is funny in the same way as the Tasmanian Devil — a spitting, spluttering, human tsunami of gracelessness. Steve's most famous incident happened at one of his innumerable trade show appearances where he cavorted on stage in a now legendary burst of lunacy dubbed the Monkey Boy incident.

Craig Barrett should never Walk this Way
It's not only the likes of Bill and Steve who have fallen foul of the conference circuit. Some tech chief executives appear suicidal in their enthusiasm to leap clear out of their comfort zone when put anywhere near an audience. Intel's ageing chief executive Craig Barrett demonstrated the most reckless example of listening to his marketers while abandoning any of his own common sense when he stepped on stage with geriatric rock legend Steven Tyler from Aerosmith. In one of the most excruciatingly embarrassing demonstrations a tech audience has ever had to suffer, Barrett attempted to sing and shuffle along to a tuneless rendition of Walk This Way. Be afraid, be very afraid. 

To baldly go…
Another inextricable Intel conference appearance that deserves a mention involves that god-like figure of geek mythology, Star Trek actor William Shatner. At the 2002 IDF, Intel's chief technical officer, Pat Gelsinger, hauled Shatner on stage to discuss the finer points of technology. After expressing great wonder at the mysteries of the flush toilet, Shatner apparently wound up the discussion with the immortal line: "None of this shit works for me". Not quite, "Beam me up Scotty", but equally memorable for attendees that year no doubt.

The Office meets Microsoft
Most managers live in abject fear that they might share any of the shocking idiosyncrasies exhibited by Ricky Gervais' David Brent character in The Office — the BBC's hugely successful TV series. Not so Microsoft's UK management .

It emerged in 2004 that the software giant had enlisted Gervais and his writing partner Steven Merchant to create a series of training videos for its staff. As the actual videos have never been released — perhaps Gervais and Merchant don't want to publicise that they have taken the Microsoft shilling — we can only speculate on the results. Detractors might think that Gervais and Merchant would find plenty of ammunition to work with at Microsoft's UK HQ in Reading but the company actually topped The Times's list of 100 best places to work in 2003 and came second the year before.

However, we'd like to think that the final decision to sign off The Office pair's participation was made by Gates himself after empathising with Brent's now infamous dancing routine.

BlackBerry leaves New Labour red faced
Filling some of the comedy black hole left by The Office this year is the Political satire The Thick of It — a Yes Minister for the post millennium — with its cutting depiction of life inside New Labour. One ferociously obnoxious spin doctor character in the show is an obvious take-off of Tony Blair's press lieutenant Alistair Campbell.

The real-life scourge of Fleet Street is responsible for one of the best home-grown tech gaffes of the last few years, when he accidentally sent a message meant for a colleague to the very journalists he was deriding. According to reports, Campbell meant to email a colleague to indicate he wanted to say "fuck off and cover something important you twats!" to the BBC's Newsnight team, on his BlackBerry device, but accidentally sent the email to the journalists in question.

According to the Evening Standard, Newsnight later received a second email from Campbell suggesting the first email was a joke and should be ignored. Never was a truer word spoken in jest.

Upgrade becomes retrograde
Continuing the theme of government cock-ups, this incident was not exactly comedy but it was certainly farcical. In November 2004, reports emerged that a routine software upgrade knocked out 80 percent of the PCs in the sprawling UK Department of Work and Pensions. Some 80,000 machines were disabled when an upgrade to Windows XP, meant for a small group of machines, was accidentally applied to all the PCs in the department, with predictable results.

The sheer scale of this mishap puts it firmly in the realms of the absurd, although managers at Microsoft and EDS, the company managing the remote upgrade, probably didn't see the funny side. The Government was also unlikely to see the comedic value either, given that the DWP incident was the latest in a long line of spectacular public-sector computer problems, which included the failure of the £450m IT project at the Child Support Agency and the collapse of the £500m Electronic Benefits Transfer System.

Beware of Greeks baring games
It's not only the UK Government that has a hard time managing technology. The Greeks may have been ahead of their time when it came to modern thought and philosophy but they have been distinctly backward at embracing innovations in entertainment. In July 2002, the Greek Government enacted Law Number 3037 which banned electronic games with "electronic mechanisms and software" from public and private places. The blanket ban was introduced after the Government admitted it was incapable of distinguishing innocuous video games from illegal gambling machines. One online report said that even watching a film on DVD — many of which contained promotional games linked to the movie — had resulted in an arrest and a €10,000 fine. The law was eventually restricted to focus only on gambling, but the whole episode did little for Greece's position in the international league of tech-friendly nations.

Your picks?
If you have any suggestions for comedy moments from the last 10 years that we may have missed, please add them using the Talkback facility below.