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Tech Turkeys of 2013

Thanksgiving of 2013 is upon us, and you know what that means... holiday gift lists and end of year news re-cap articles!

But before we get there, we think it would be best to talk about Turkeys. Not Thanksgiving Turkeys, the juicy, delicious kind with savory gravy that everyone loves. We're talking about TECH TURKEYS, the worst products and services that have graced the pages of ZDNet over the past year.

This year, our Turkeys come in two flavors: Those that truly displayed their Gobble-Gobble from a purely technical perspective (Type 1) and those that failed to realize revenue or garner significant industry adoption (Type 2).

So without further ado, from the Editors and Contributors of ZDNet, the TECH TURKEYS of 2013.

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Healthcare.gov, the Obamaturkey

We begin our list of 2013 Tech Turkeys with the biggest Type 1 Tech Failure of them all.

There's nothing more amusing than watching a giant government fall flat on its face implementing an IT project. There is an exception, of course. That's when the IT project disrupts the operation and business model of the largest industry in the history of mankind and the healthcare coverage for a large percentage of Americans who need ongoing care.

It's not that America's healthcare and health insurance didn't need reform -- it desperately did. The majority of bankruptcies in the U.S. have been filed because of healthcare-related financial hardship and the majority of those were filed by people who had paid-up health insurance policies. So healthcare reform was an absolute necessity.

No, the turkey here was how our beleagured government went about accomplishing (or, rather, not accomplishing the task). It all went wrong. The front-end Web site couldn't stay on long enough for anyone to use it. The back-end service providers didn't really want to be participating, so there was inherent friction in even the interoperability, and, of course, this was the most politically charged IT project probably in world history.

What's the future of Healthcare.gov? Prognosis isn't good. Even though the leading opponent to the existence of the service, John Boehner, spent an afternoon trying to sign up, and the Affordable Care Act has weathered every challenge imaginable, the simple fact is this project took just about every single IT best practice and threw them out the window.

Gobble gobble.

-- David Gewirtz

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Four turkeys of the apocalypse: The NSA, Edward Snowden. Glenn Greenwald, and the Guardian

By now, the name Edward Snowden is as well known as Julian Assange, and Bradley Manning, especially amongst those who are always looking for reasons to complain about their government.

While many of you would point the turkey finger squarely at the NSA for its alleged monitoring of metadata and international information, that's not where I'm pointing my finger. Instead, the turkey test points directly at whatever lax procedure in how the NSA works with contractors that let Snowden gain access to his purloined documents.

Spying will always be necessary for national security, no matter what the nation or the age.

But the turkey goes to the thief Snowden and his enablers Glenn Greenwald and the UK publication, the Guardian. Those two have been leaking out details from Snowden's haul, just about once a week since June. The idea for them is to keep themselves in the news cycle and keep the conversation going, no matter what harm it does to the protection of American citizens or to the companies that employ them.

Another turkey finger goes out to the other nations who have taken this opportunity to cry foul (or fowl), and who have done so by conveniently ignoring their own spying transgressions perpetrated over the years against American interests.

-- David Gewirtz

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#FISC #Fail

Individuals all over the world may feel used by the NSA, but so do some companies. One of the details that emerged from the surveillance scandal was the fact that companies like Microsoft, Google, Yahoo! and Facebook aren't legally allowed to disclose aggregate data on their compliance with secret US government requests for personal user data. They argue that this prevents them from defending themselves adequately against charges that their surveillance is widespread.

After months of negotiations with the government to agree on an acceptable level of disclosure, Microsoft and Google sued the Federal Government in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) seeking an order to allow disclosure. The government seems determined to resist.

-- Larry Seltzer

 

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The turkey distortion field: OS X Mavericks, iCloud and iWork

Apple. Synonymous in many consumers' minds with perfection, Apple shipped a serious turkey this holiday season in OS X Mavericks. Oddly named as the first non-cat variant of OS X, the product has been rife with deal-breaking problems preventing customers from using the computers they've paid so much to acquire.

From problems with Gmail to the inability of some of us to reliably access network shares to corrupting external hard drives, Mavericks has been a problem.

But it's not just the OS. It's also Apple's productivity software that's been sapping the will to live from its customers. With promised fixes to such advanced technologies as word counts, headers and footers, and scrolling, it's clear that the software wasn't ready for prime time -- and that's after the company simply nuked key features that their loyal customers depended on.

Mavericks has accomplished the seemingly impossible. It simultaneously made Apple look bad while making Windows 8.1 and even the universally used but universally unloved Microsoft Office look good. Even Microsoft couldn't make its own products look good, but somehow, Apple's magical reality distortion effect couldn't hide the reality of its own product reliability failure.

-- David Gewirtz

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Turkeymorphism: iOS 7

The release of iOS 7 saw the introduction of badly-needed changes to the aging, although still-useful and user-friendly UX paradigm along with an updated, cleaner look and feel that eliminatinated of all vestiges of skeumorphism from the OS, as a side-effect of the exit of former iOS chief Scott Forstall from the company back in October of 2012, who was a major proponent of the skeumorph UX ideology.

However, reaction to the new iOS 7 has been a mixed bag, with veteran users in some cases being totally bewildered by the changes. In many ways, iOS 7 was Apple's Windows 8 moment.

I don't expect Apple to return to their previous skeumorphic design, but some UX refinements based on the customer feedback we've seen over the last few months are likely ito be implemented in order to make the experience less jarring and confusing.

Read more about Apple's challenges in removing the skeumorphic UX in iOS 7 here.

--Jason Perlow

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GMail, the messaging platform that hates your mail clients

There's always been a fundamental contradiction at the core of Gmail. Despite Google's lofty rhetoric about open standards, the Gmail protocols are undocumented and not available for licensing. Apps can perform a limited set of interactions with Gmail via its API, but if you want to build a communications app that connects directly to Gmail, you have to use either IMAP or (shudder) POP. Either way, you get a severely compromised experience. And neither configuration gives you access to calendars and contacts.

Set aside the problems with Gmail's increasingly dated, cluttered, and confusing user experience and ignore the many issues of privacy associated with a company that profiles you based on the contents of your email. For me, the fundamental requirement of a modern email service is that it allows you to access all of your data from any device, using either a web browser or a native app. That latter requirement is where Gmail is continually falling short—apparently deliberately.

--Ed Bott

Read more about the case against GMail here.

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8 of 21 ZDNet UK/ZDNet

Twitterducken

Twitter has been on a tear lately by re-vamping all of its native apps on the various mobile platforms.

The company has also read the riot act to 3rd-party application developers, which have now been told their userbases can never exceed a certain amount of API calls and 100,000 users total, effectively making the migration path toward's Twitter's own clients inevitable.

This would not be so bad, if it weren't for the fact that Twitter's own clients, well... suck compared to the stuff that has been created by 3rd-parties.

Not only do Twitter's mobile clients lack significant features the other clients for mobile platforms have, and lack the polish and refinement that exists in 3rd-party software, but in the case of the iPad version, it's actually a horrendous waste of space if you use the software in landscape mode.

Dear Twitter: Your clients for mobile platforms are a whale of a fail.

--Jason Perlow

 

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MS Update Mess

Just as it reached its 10th birthdayMicrosoft's Patch Tuesday started spitting out bad updates and improper reports and false detections. It got bad enough that the company had to with draw released updates more than once.

What was behind the bad stretch? That's not clear, but November's updates didn't have any big problems.

--Larry Seltzer

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Anything goes with the kids' smartphones

When the iPhone came out with no security model at all, and business users insisted on bringing their own device to work, Apple and third parties quickly hacked up a security system (actually stolen from BlackBerry) called Mobile Device Management or MDM. The system has gotten much more secure and capable in the years since.

The same technology could give parents meaningful control over kids' smartphones and tablets, but the industry hasn't bothered with it yet, being busy enough making buckets of money on business licenses. Eventually, parental MDM will come to market. Such systems could help protect against cyberbullying, sexual exploitation of children on social networks, sexting, and other such hot button problems. More practically, parental MDM could parents stop kids from blowing time and money on the stupid stuff that kids want to do with their phones.

Read more about the future in parental MDM here.

--Larry Seltzer

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Java, the Criminal's Favorite Platform

Way back when Java was born in the 1990's one of its main selling points was as a secure platform to avoid the dangers of native code. My, how times have changed. For some time now, vulnerabilities in client-side Java have been the preferred "attack vector" for malicious programmers seeking to sneak their way onto users' systems. Oracle either can't, or won't change their practices, as many other companies have, to make such attacks less frequent and less severe.

In all fairness to Java, there are other applications for which the security problems are not an issue. Java is popular as a server application platform and it suffers little, if at all, from the problems it has on the client. All Android development is done in Java (although the code runs in Google's Dalvik virtual machine, not Oracle's Java VM). Whatever security problems Android has, they don't derive from it being programmed in Java.

--Larry Seltzer

If you absolutely must use Java, read here about where to download a more secure version for your PC.

 

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Electric car technology is a gruesome road accident

Welcome to Turkeys, Type 2.

In the last year we've seen various aspects of the EV ecosystem self-destruct. GM's Volt sales have been so awful that the company decided to temporarily suspend production of the car in the spring of last year for over a month and had to issue heavy discounts to move inventory.

To be kind as well as factually correct, GM sold over 23,000 Volts in 2012, which is triple what it did in 2011, but that isn't saying an awful lot.

If you compare the total sales of the Volt to date with the vehicle that shares its platform, the top-selling compact car in North America --  the Chevy Cruze -- it's so small that it's practically a rounding error. Approximately 237,000 Cruzes were sold in 2012, and 231,000 in 2011.

And it's not just GM that can't seem to make significant headway with EVs. Nissan's Leaf failed to make even 10,000 deliveries in the US in 2012. The company did a bit better this year, but these numbers are certainly not significant by any means. The company hit the total US sales milestone of 25,000 cars back in May, again after over a $6000 price cut before federal incentives.

And those are the electric cars that are doing well-ish.

In 2013, both CODA Automotive, an electric car company and EV battery manufacturer, as well as A123 Systems, another battery manufacturer have filed for bankruptcy protection.

Fisker Automotive, the producer of the exotic Karma plug-in electric hybrid sports car who hired the former head of GM's Volt division, Tony Posawatz, to be its CEO, fired almost all of its staff and in October agreed to sell the remainder of its assets by Hybrid Technology, one of its original investors.

Better Place, which was a Palo Alto and Israeli-based startup that tried to create an international subscriber network of charging stations for EVs also ceased operations this year, after burning through approximately $700 millon of capital from multiple seed investors since beginning their venture funding in 2010.

-- Jason Perlow

Read more about the failure of Electric Cars here.

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Smart watches are not quite as smart as turkeys which are dumb as rocks

Small screens, tiny batteries, a general air of nerdiness and no particular reason to exist: it's never been easy selling smartwatches and it's not going to get any easier anytime soon.

Samsung was first off the blocks this time around with the release of the Galaxy Gear, and has apparently shipped 800,000 of the smartwatch (although it's unclear how many it has sold). But despite plenty of rumours that they're working on rival timepieces, few of the other big players (Google, Apple, or Microsoft in particular) seem especially keen to join the smartwatch race, leaving it to startups, Kickstarter-powered projects and fitness bands to make most of the running.

The real problem with smartwatches is the lack of discernible interest from consumers, outside of niche (mostly sports) users. Of course, if you ask people what they want, it's well known they'll only ever demand a faster horse, so it's always how to gauge how consumer interest in nascent products and technologies will develop.

-- Steve Ranger

Read more on the failure of Smart Watches by Steve Ranger here.

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Beleaguered Beyond All Repair BlackBerry

Recently I said that I was not going to put any more words into the subject of BlackBerry's demise.

Instead, I wanted to concentrate on the future, about what was likely to happen after the company was gone, and how might the void created by the company's departure might be filled.

I thought I was finished with those sorts of thought experiments. But with the transpiring of recent events that include an on-and-off acquisition roller-coaster ride, the ouster and replacement of the company's CEO this month as well as the departure of much of their management old guard this week, I still think about what the company could have done to avoid such a mess.

--Jason Perlow

Read about an alternate history where Beleaguered BlackBerry avoids becoming a Tech Turkey here.

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Chromebook, Captain Dunsel's Favorite Computer

Perhaps it's too soon to tell if Chromebooks will succeed. Perhaps Google will convince enough developers to write packaged apps, especially ones that work offline, that it will be a more useful system. Perhaps some way will develop to support hardware (like scanners) that are currently unavailable. Perhaps.

Like a lot of new technologies, Chromebooks have novelty value. It's kind of cool that a browser could be the whole device. That doesn't make it a good buy. If you compare Chromebooks to what you can get in a *real* computer today at today's prices, there's just no reason to settle for less. [Disagree? Consider the arguments in our recent debate on the value of Chromebooks.]

-- Larry Seltzer

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Ubuntu Edge, the grand experiment that didn't hit its numbers

Predictably, the Ubuntu Edge superphone missed its $32 million funding target. And thus the naysayers rejoiced, cheering with glee that Mark Shuttleworth’s and Canonical’s grand experiment was not to be.

The tech culture is infested with a tendency to project failure onto new ideas, particularly if sacred cows are being threatened by them. It’s like attending a NASCAR or Formula 1 event with the hopes of seeing a gruesome crash by a freshman driver, rather than for the fun of watching the race itself and enjoying  the upstarts give the established racing teams a run for the money.

It’s as if no matter what you do, nobody can be made happy. Wall Street and industry writers/analysts navel gaze and fire pot shots when Apple and Google/Samsung/et cetera don’t get innovative enough with their products and engage in iterative aesthetic improvements and gimmickry rather than releasing things that are truly transformative.

But try something radically different and have it not take off like a rocket the first time around? Oh, well then you’re a failure.

Unfortunately, while we commend Ubuntu's experiment, by virtue of not achieving its lofty goals, it's a hatchet to the neck out in the in technology history woodshed for the Edge.

--Jason Perlow

Read more about the Ubuntu Edge's vision for a "one device" here.

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iPhone 5c: An old phone in new clothes

Rumors are circulating that Apple is cutting orders for the iPhone 5c in the face of weak demand, and this in turn is fueling speculation that the handset might be a misstep by the Cupertino giant.

But if the iPhone 5c ends up being a flop, what's behind the failure?

  • Old model in new clothes

While the iPhone 5c is undeniably a new handset, under the shiny polycarbonate shell it is essentially a rebadged iPhone 5. While it is unquestionably an upgrade for anyone running a non-retina display iPhone, for those already owning an iPhone 4s or iPhone 5, there's not much new beyond the color.

  • No sane color option

The iPhone 5c comes in white, pink, yellow, blue, and green, there's no subdued black/charcoal/space grey option. Given that a black (or a variant on black) has always seemed to be the most popular choice of finish, the fact that it is not on offer might be putting a damper on sales.

  • Stuck with one color

You can dress up the iPhone 5c is different colored silicone skins (at $29 a pop) or you can use third-party cases, but as to the actual color of your handset, you're stuck with it for the duration of ownership.

  • Price shock

Apple lists an unlocked 16GB iPhone 5c at $549, which is only $100 less than a 16GB iPhone 5s. 

  • Second best

While there no denying that the iPhone 5c is a new handset, it isn't a flagship handset, and with so much attention focused on the iPhone 5s, does this make the iPhone 5c seems a lesser, inferior, second best purchase?

For all these reasons, we're calling the 5C a turkey.

--Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

For more about why the iPhone 5c might be a flop, click here.

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Microsoft Surface RT / Windows RT

$900 million writedown. That’s pretty much the killer stat that says something went terribly wrong with the first generation of devices in what was supposed to be the next big thing in Microsoft Windows.

What went wrong? Let’s count the ways:

  • The flagship Windows RT device, Surface RT, was underpowered and overpriced.
  • Its form factor, a 10.6-inch tablet with a kickstand, looked an awful lot like a regular notebook PC, just as the market was turning its attention to smaller devices like the iPad Mini and Nexus 7. Timing is everything.
  • A decidedly weird marketing campaign with flashy dancers and scary schoolgirls did little to establish the value of these devices.
  • Apps. Not enough. Not good enough (at least not in the crucial first 60 days). Missing some of the stars of other platforms. And completely blocked from running Windows desktop apps, including alternative browsers..

Add it all up and you have a very rough year. On the bright side, that less-than –stellar launch makes it a cinch that Surface 2 will get a better reception.

--Ed Bott

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Windows 8: Arrogance in high form

Depending on your point of view, Microsoft made the boldest, most decisive bet in its history when it rolled out Windows 8. Or it stubbornly and arrogantly dismissed feedback from its users, especially early adopters.

Windows 8 eliminates some of the touchstones of the Windows 7 desktop interface in favor of a new user experience that emphasizes touch-enabled, mobile devices. Microsoft had the ability to include at least some options in Windows 8 so that upgraders could get the many benefits of the new Windows while still keeping those familiar touchstones. They chose not to.

In fact, Windows 8 didn’t even include even a simple tutorial. That decision is widely perceived as arrogant. As a result, people who bought new PCs using a genuinely innovative Windows release cursed it roundly. And they told their friends. Some of the hard edges are softened in Windows 8.1, but you only get once chance to make a first impression.

-- Ed Bott

For more about Windows 8's adoption challenges, click here.

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Google Glassholes

In 2013, Google released an SDK, as well as hardware specifications for its Glass augmented-reality monocular device, which was seeded to an initial batch of select software developers and high-profile end-users.

These folks are among those who are willing to pay the early adoption fee of $1,500 and become one of the select few to wear, test, and develop software for the product.

There's a not-so-flattering descriptor that has already been applied to this group of digital cognoscenti who have been seen recently at industry conferences and public venues wearing the device: Glassholes.

It could certainly be argued that whenever a new consumer technology enters society, those who are quick to adopt it are typically ridiculed by the have-nots. Eventually, many of these technologies become commonplace and are more accepted by the mainstream, particularly when they become more affordable.

But price aside, there's much to qualify Glass as a turkey even it its very much beta and developer-oriented state. It can't be used for more than five hours without running out of power, its video recording time is limited to about 30 minutes, it has horrible audio capabilities and the screen resolution of the monocular eypeice is abyssmal. 

Even should this product be released at half the price sometime next year, we're still calling this one a turkey.

--Jason Perlow

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Businesses still depending on Windows XP: Our bet on top Tech Turkey for 2014

You hear that ticking sound? The one that gets noticeably louder every day?

That’s the sound of the alarm clock set to go off on April 8, 2014. On that date, Microsoft will release its last security updates for Windows XP, whose extended support period will come to a hard stop. That end date is now less than six months away, which means you really should stop procrastinating and start planning on how you’re going to avoid being part of a relatively small population that will be targeted by every piece of villainous scum in the universe.

Exactly how many PCs will still be out there running Windows XP next April? Good luck with that forecast. It’s hard enough to get current estimates, with the two most popular sources estimating that XP-powered machines constitute between 20.5 percent (StatCounter) and 31.42 percent (NetMarketShare) of the installed base of PCs and Macs worldwide.

If we assume that 1-2 percent of those machines upgrade or die each month for the next six months, that still leaves more than 100 million PCs still running Windows XP when security updates stop next April.

Will you be using one of them? We hope not.

--Ed Bott

Read more about the looming Windows XP security update End-of-Life here. 

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