2014 in review: Tech turkeys of the year

And now, for your reading pleasure, we present the worst products and services and technology screw-ups of 2014.
By Zack Whittaker, Contributor
1 of 14 White House

"Gobble, gobble"

Thanksgiving of 2014 is upon us, and you know what that means... holiday gift lists and end-of-year news recap 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 and technology screwups that have graced the pages of ZDNet over the past year.

This year, our Turkeys come in three flavors:

Those that truly displayed their gobble-gobble from a purely technical perspective; those that failed to realize revenue or garner significant industry adoption; and, those that failed via administrative incompetence or lack of security oversight.

So without further ado, from the editors of ZDNet, the Tech Turkeys of 2014.

2 of 14 Zack Whittaker/ZDNET

Amazon's abysmal Fire Phone sales

Amazon’s debut phone had the promise to be the third-place contender in the already crowded smartphone space, potentially taking on the likes of Windows Phone and BlackBerry. But it didn’t take long for the wider consumer market to wholeheartedly reject the so-called Fire phone.

Why? It cost too much; it landed on an AT&T contract — many of the cellular giant’s customers are already defecting in droves to T-Mobile; and it failed to do anything outstanding that rivals — iOS and Android platforms — didn’t already do. It was style and design over substance, offering gimmicks over anything particularly purposeful.

Estimates pointed to Amazon selling no more than 35,000 Fire phones over a period of several months — or less than 1 percent — after it was first released. It became a massive resource drag and ate a hole in Amazon’s recent earnings. Even one Amazon executive said the pricing was way off, leading to its stumbling off the starting block.


(Image: CNET)

3 of 14 Zack Whittaker/ZDNET

Chromebooks still have a fraction market share

There’s a tendency to take a product that hasn’t yet been released out of testing, like Google Glass, and dub it a failure because nothing has changed in a few weeks, months, or even a year. Google can’t say the same thing about its ongoing Chromebook experiment, which, despite its widespread hooks in retail stores, education, and low-income markets, has yet to make any real dent in the markets that, well, actually matter.

ZDNet’s Ed Bott crunched the numbers to show that while the PC market is still far from healthy, and the Mac business is booming, Chromebooks still have a fraction of the overall market share. 

Google’s efforts have been valiant, but the audience has not been receptive to anything that isn’t slapped with a "Mac" or "Windows" label. Even though the major players have kindled their own love for the devices, notably Lenovo and HP, their reception has been tepid at best.

The PC industry continues to struggle, but its resurgence is on the horizon, as consumers and business customers feel malaise towards the tablet and post-PC market. Will Google see some improvement? Likely, but it probably won’t be by much.


(Image: CNET)

4 of 14 Andy Hertzfeld/Google+

IBM's slow, slow crumble

After announcing its fiscal first quarter earnings, IBM stock took a beating on Wall Street after the Armonk, New York-based technology giant announced that it would take a $4.7 billion charge against revenue in the third quarter.

Big Blue would also end up having to pay GlobalFoundries to the tune of $1.5 billion to divest itself of their semiconductor manufacturing operations.

While IBM's problems are symptomatic of a decline in both their hardware and services businesses, Forbes' Steve Denning nailed it when he outlined the core of IBM's problems as being largely leadership-related:

  • A relentless (arguably reckless) pursuit of cost-cutting
  • Shifting towards cheaper expertise (offshore)
  • Automatic staff-culling via an awful yearly stack ranking reviews process (the dreaded PBC, or "Personal Business Commitment")
  • Fading technical expertise and inability to retain top technical people
  • Extreme bureaucracy and lack of agility
  • Acquisitions focus instead of home-grown innovation
  • Decline in key businesses
  • Inability to be price-competitive with the current leaders in cloud

Can IBM be saved? We still think so. Check out Jason Perlow's analysis.

5 of 14 Zack Whittaker/ZDNET

Satya Nadella's karma chameleon

If you’re the chief executive of one of the largest companies in the world, choosing your words when speaking publicly should be at the very top of your priority list.

But when Satya Nadella, less than a year into the job, comes out with comments that could be perceived (because they basically were) as sexist (at a women’s conference no less), you’d be forgiven to think it was just a giant joke, or an April Fool’s gag.

Nobody can be that clueless. But Nadella was, and spent the following days carefully dancing around his comments, only to issue an "apology, not apology" by explaining his comments without actually retracting them. 

It was his first major screw-up as chief executive. Despite his best intentions — most people will kind of get the gist of what he meant (even if it was poorly delivered) — he came across as someone who’s firmly at the table of the old boy’s club. And that’s coming from a company with almost one-third of its employees women.


(Image: CNET)

6 of 14 Zack Whittaker/ZDNET

JP Morgan, Target, Home Depot, US Postal Services all hacked

Several highly publicized hacks of large retailers and banking/government institutions in 2014 have exposed many millions of credit card numbers and personal identifying information (PII). These attacks have proven that our financial transactions with some of the largest names in business are anything but secure when determined criminals have selected them for penetration.

Is there any recourse or solution for the average consumer whose information has been exposed? We have some suggestions.


(Image: Target)

7 of 14 CNET

Comcast's customer service

Everyone hates their cable company. Whether it is the all-day waits to get provisioned requiring a day off from work, throttled speeds when paying premium prices for high-performance broadband connections or just plain awful customer service, we can all identify, regardless of our respective services provider.

But Comcast truly distinguised themselves this year when Ryan Block, a technology writer for AOL, tried to have his service disconnected. The recording of the exchange between Block and an unidentified customer service representative is a classic example of customer interaction being driven by corporate policy in the worst possible way.

8 of 14 CNET

Samsung's Tizen mobile operating system

While Samsung has been the poster child for the success of Google's Android mobile operating system, resulting in hundreds of millions of unit sales for the Korean consumer electronics giant, the relationship has not been an easy one.

Samsung has been trying to reduce its dependency on Android for some time now, with the development of its own Linux-based Tizen OS. This year saw the introduction of the first Tizen-based products in market, namely Samsung's Gear smartwatch, which has had a lukewarm reception at best.

While Samsung had initially planned to release a handset running Tizen in Russia, the company has yet to actually release a smartphone based on their flagship operating system.

9 of 14 Wikimedia Commons

The Internet's Heartbleed bug

Heartbleed. Chances are, even if you don't work in information technology, you've heard all about it this year.

To recap, this is a bug that affects the open-source OpenSSL library that is used in many Linux and Unix web server systems and potentially gives an attacker the ability to capture data in the clear.

Given that Linux powers most of the Internet-facing web systems, that's an awful lot of exposure.

How did this come to be? It's a simple case of yet another very critical open source project being underfunded and understaffed, which did not apply best practices towards software development and code review.

Since the bug was exposed, many of the commercial services you all know and love have all patched their OpenSSL to 1.0.1f or later, which is not vulnerable to the Heartbleed bug. The current version, as of October 15, is 1.0.1j.

Still, there are huge number of unpatched systems with OpenSSL out there. So if you have data sitting on some random web server, it could get compromised some day and you could be a target.

10 of 14 ZDNet

Hollywood's iCloud intrusions

Over the course of Labor Day weekend of 2014 we got a bombshell: a massive photo dump of extremely private moments from Hollywood's most famous actresses, as a result of what appears to be a targeted iCloud hack using "brute force" methods.

Much of the fault of this can be attributed to security policies set by the administrators of iCloud, which did not lock out accounts after repeated failed attempts. 

Over a hundred nude photos, some extremely explicit, were posted in total on the infamous discussion board 4chan during that weekend.

Many of these were from "Girl on Fire" Jennifer Lawrence; others included Kirsten Dunst, Kate Upton, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead.

11 of 14 CNET

Apple's "Bendgate"

What do you get when you forge a massive 5.5-inch ultra-thin smartphone out of light and flexible aluminum alloy and then shove it into your pants pocket without a case on? You get "bendgate."

Apple's constant pursuit of going thinner with their devices and presenting them as sexy tech objets d'art may be good for moving product, but it lulls consumers into a sense of false security.

Using a smartphone without a rigid protective case, regardless of vendor, is just stupid. Don't be a turkey. Use a case.

12 of 14 Zack Whittaker/ZDNET

USA Freedom Act to rein in the NSA

The Edward Snowden revelations were, some might say, unexpected. It took a lot of people by surprise — not least the public, but also the legislators whose jobs first and foremost are to keep the intelligence services in check.

After the September 11 attacks, it took less than two months for the Patriot Act to be signed into law. For the Freedom Act, designed to repair the relationship between the US intelligence community and global governments and their citizens (and leaders!), you would think they would be on that sooner rather than later.

More than a year later, and the Senate is still stumbling over the House’s efforts, which failed to win over the support of the privacy groups and civil liberties campaigners. It had all the hope in the world but in the end a divided Congress failed to pass anything of real value to the American public.

Things will heat up again in the new year. But will it garner the support of the industry, the privacy groups, and the public? Or is it too late?


(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

13 of 14 Zack Whittaker/ZDNET

Facebook's transgender outings

If in the last two years you heard the words "real names policy," Facebook floated to the top of the list. Despite dropping that policy earlier this year, Facebook continues to enforce real names on the site. The trouble is, not everyone wants to go by their birth name

Earlier this year, Facebook flubbed by outing a number of gay, transgender, and adult performers, which many claimed would put them at risk from privacy violations — even attacks — which they had not subscribed to. They had, in fact, used pseudonyms that they felt comfortable with, not realizing this would be a problem to the social networking giant. Facebook, after all, has never enforced legal names, according to Facebook’s chief product officer Chris Cox.

It was a controversy. Whose right was it to out someone’s real name without their permission? Although the social network had in recent years been ahead of the curve by allowing users to self-identify their gender on the site, on this occasion the company was left black-eyed and bruised.

Facebook reversed its "outing" — albeit a little too late — and apologized for the hurt it caused


(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

14 of 14 CNET

Apple's botched iOS 8.0.1 update

Hardware may be tougher to recall, but software is easier to get wrong. That's exactly what happened after Apple released the first software update to iOS 8, which landed earlier this year on iPhones and iPads.

What went wrong? No idea. Nobody outside Apple knows — even now.

When the update landed, the latest iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus handsets (older devices appeared unaffected) would lose network connectivity and have the Touch ID fingerprint sensor fail. Apple later pulled the update, and, more than a day later issued iOS 8.0.2 which aimed to fix both the original and new issues. 

The knock-on effect was pretty big. People don't want to update their phones with potentially bug-ridden software. Even now, iOS 8 adoption remains significantly lower than expected. It's ground to a halt at just 56 percent of all iOS users on the latest iOS 8 software or later.

Apple said around 40,000 people were affected by the dodgy update. (It's worth noting that Apple also said "Bendgate" affected just nine people. Turns out that number was grossly underplayed.)

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