The year's top stories: Oracle crapware, Windows 8.1, the NSA, and more [2013 in Review]

My most popular stories of the year covered a wide range of topics. Here are the stories you found most interesting.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

Every year at this time, my ZDNet overlords generate a list that ranks my year’s worth of posts by how many of you read each one.

It’s a fascinating list, not so much for the horse-race aspect as for the trends it highlights. Think of it as my own personal Google Zeitgeist, as measured by reader response.

This year, rather than simply rank the most popular posts, I decided to categorize them. This post offers a look back on the top five categories, as voted by you.

1. Oracle installs deceptive software with Java updates

I have to admit, this one surprised me. For the most part, I write about Microsoft software. But my most popular post of the year, by far, was last January’s look back at how Oracle pushes unwanted software on users of Java, using sleazy and deceptive techniques.

A close look at how Oracle installs deceptive software with Java updates

Java is the new king of foistware, displacing Adobe and Skype from the top of the heap.

And it earned that place with a combination of software update practices that are among the most user-hostile and cynical in the industry.

Sadly, Oracle has not changed its ways. As I confirmed yesterday, it continues to push the Ask toolbar and other unwanted products on anyone who installs or updates Java software.


2. Windows 8.1 replaces Windows 8

The 2012 launch of Windows 8 was not Microsoft’s most shining moment. This year’s release of Windows 8.1 was a rapid-fire attempt by Microsoft to improve the user experience and to demonstrate that the company can operate on Internet time. So it’s fitting that the top two posts in this category covered both parts of the story:

Windows 8, one year later: 10 mistakes Microsoft made (and how they plan to fix things)

Windows 8 had arrived at a turning point in the PC industry, with consumers turning away from conventional PCs in favor of smaller tablets and mobile devices. In theory, the new operating system had anticipated this shift. In practice, it didn't quite work out that way.

What went wrong? Let's count the ways...

Hands-on with the Windows 8.1 preview

It's not just a service pack. Windows 8.1 is filled with dozens of significant improvements, large and small, that improve its usability. The built-in apps also get some major upgrades and additions. Is this enough to silence the skeptics?

Other popular Windows 8.1-related posts:

3. Microsoft releases the Surface Pro

In 2012, Microsoft announced its plans to produce its first-ever line of Windows PCs under the Surface brand. This year, the company officially acknowledged that the original Surface with Windows RT was a flop, taking a write-down of more than $900 million. The Surface Pro, which has the guts of a more conventional PC, arrived in February. In my review, I called it “brilliant, quirky, and flawed.”

But the story that drew the most reader response was one that only a Windows geek could love:

Surface Pro versus MacBook Air: Who's being dishonest with storage space?

Unlike the Surface RT, which is a tablet that does a few PC-like things,  Surface Pro is a real, no-compromises PC. It can power a 2560x1600 30-inch display, it runs Windows 8 Pro, it supports Hyper-V virtualization, you can run PhotoShop and AutoCAD on it. It deserves to be compared head to head with another full PC like the MacBook Air.


Roughly eight months later, Microsoft released the Surface 2 and the Surface Pro 2. Both are significant improvements on their predecessors.

4. The NSA and bad journalism

For many ZDNet readers, the defining story of the year was the ongoing scandal involving pervasive NSA surveillance, with the catalyst being the release by Edward Snowden of a treasure trove of leaked documents from inside the previously secretive agency.

In December, CBS 60 Minutes broadcast a report that was widely and accurately panned as terrible journalism, a one-sided opportunity for the NSA to tell its side of the story, complete with a ludicrous tale of a potential virus that could brick every computer in the world. What few remember is that the NSA story started with some equally awful reporting about the PRISM program, as I wrote in June:

The real story in the NSA scandal is the collapse of journalism

The story alleges that the NSA is “reaching deep inside the machinery of American companies that host hundreds of millions of American-held accounts on American soil.” It specifically names nine companies: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple. And the story alleges, “From inside a company's data stream the NSA is capable of pulling out anything it likes.”

Within hours after the story broke, it had been amplified by other news agencies and tech websites and had inspired expressions of outrage over this invasion of privacy. And seven of the nine companies named issued categorical denials that they knew of or participated in any such program.

And then a funny thing happened the next morning. If you followed the link to that story, you found a completely different story, nearly twice as long, with a slightly different headline. The new story wasn’t  just expanded; it had been stripped of key details, with no acknowledgment of the changes.


Those original stories alleged that tech giants like Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and Apple “participate knowingly” in NSA surveillance. We now know that that isn’t true, that the NSA tapped into the feeds direct from data centers, without the knowledge of those companies. They were, in fact, victims.

But the damage was done.

5. So long, TechNet subscriptions

For years, Microsoft’s TechNet subscriptions were one of the best bargains in computing, especially for would-be IT pros. They were also, unfortunately, a magnet for pirates, who resold the cheap licenses to unsuspecting customers online. This year, on short notice, Microsoft announced it was killing off the subscription service.

Microsoft to shut down TechNet subscription service

Good night, TechNet.

The online Technet blogs and customer support forums will live on, but Microsoft announced today in a letter to subscribers that it plans to retire its venerable TechNet subscriptions service. New subscriptions will no longer be available after August 31, 2013, and the subscription service will shut down as current subscribers' contracts end.

There was a flurry of protest from TechNet subscribers, and Microsoft made a few changes to soften the blow for some of its most loyal customers. But by this time next year TechNet subscriptions will be a thing of the past.

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