Digital Crave

Terrible tech blunders – which one is fake?

Digital Crave

Photo: Leonardo Rizzi/Flickr

Photo: Leonardo Rizzi/Flickr

When Apple launched iOS 6 earlier this year, the Apple Maps feature was roundly criticized for being incomplete and inaccurate. Apple Maps quickly became a late-night monologue punchline — even the venerable Mad Magazine got in on the act — and it ultimately led to the dismissal of Apple senior vice president Scott Forstall.

But Apple Maps is far from being the tech industry's worst blunder. We've collected below several of the most egregious gaffes of the consumer technology industry. Some of these were expensive industry-wide mistakes that cost millions, others were products that just never caught on. And one of them, in fact, is entirely fake. Can you spot the fake blunder? No fair searching online.

Sony's Betamax is Slain by VHS

The VCR format wars of the late 1970s and early 1980s have become legend in technology and marketing circles. The scrum eventually boiled down to two heavyweights in the emerging (and gargantuan) home video market — Sony's Betamax cassette format versus JVC's VHS tapes. Betamax had better picture quality, but VHS won out, thanks in part to a longer recording time that could accommodate ball games and Hollywood movies. It also didn't help that VHS-compatible VCRs were less expensive, since JVC licensed its technology to competitors — and Sony didn't. Betamax joined the long parade of format war losers like the 8-track, HD-DVD and Tesla's alternating current.

Photo: birgerking / Flickr

Facebook's Beacon Prompts Class Action Suit

Facebook's controversial online advertising system went live in November 2007, and almost instantly produced the biggest privacy-concern backlash of the social media era. Beacon essentially broadcast Facebook users' activity on third-party sites within the News Feed area. So if you made a particular purchase online, or played a particular game, it showed up on your Facebook page. Various opt-in and opt-out scenarios were attempted before things got really complicated and a class-action lawsuit was filed. Beacon was shut down in September 2009, and Mark Zuckerberg eventually conceded that the program was a mistake.

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Photo: Wikipedia.org

Photo: Wikipedia.org

DigiScents Prototype Stinks Up the Internet

At the tail end of the dot-com era, a tiny start-up out of Oakland, California, began hyping a truly unique product. The iSmell peripheral plugged into your PC's USB port and provided aromas to go along with the websites you were visiting. Officially titled the iSmell Personal Scent Synthesizer, the device emitted electronically-triggered aromas and was designed to enhance the online experience for visitors to perfume sites or even restaurants. The iSmell never got past prototype stage, though, and has since passed into the annals of early Internet lore.

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Photo: stiefkind/Flickr

Photo: stiefkind/Flickr

The Apple III Melts Floppies

The design issues involved in manufacturing a personal computing device are impossibly huge, which is why there are several dozen industries devoted to the task. The Apple III, released in 1980, was a commercial failure due in part to widespread complaints of overheating issues. The unit had no air vents or fans, and instead relied on an unconventional heat sink system built into the casing itself. Users complained about malfunctioning displays, detached chips and even melted floppy disks. These alarming reports, combined with the Apple III's expensive starting price, damaged the machine's reputation beyond repair. With the demise of the Apple III, IBM and the PC more or less locked up the business market for the rest of the millennium.

Photo: n3rraD/Flickr

Photo: n3rraD/Flickr

Sony's Laptop Batteries Melt Themselves

Certainly the most explosive blunder on our list concerns the 2006 recall by Sony of millions of lithium-ion battery packs used primarily in laptop computers. As several viral photos and videos at the time illustrated, the battery packs had a nasty tendency to overheat and — if jostled in just the right way — actually explode into flames. The batteries were manufactured by Sony, but used in dozens of brand-name laptop lines from other companies like Dell and Acer. Considering the sensitive body parts typically in contact with a laptop computer, the flaming battery fiasco hit a nerve with the buying public and prompted one of the largest recalls in the history of the business.

Photo: john_a_ward/Flickr

Photo: john_a_ward/Flickr

The MENSA Alternate Keyboard Spells Failure

The story behind the standard QWERTY keyboard configuration is pretty well known. The arrangement of letters was dictated by mechanical typewriter issues, and subsequent attempts to create a more sensible keyboard layout — like the Dvorak system — never got traction. In 1999, the high-IQ society MENSA partnered with Apple to promote an alternate keyboard that optimized keystrokes according to an algorithm actually patented by MENSA itself. Unfortunately, the MENSA keyboard failed so spectacularly in user testing that Apple never even officially acknowledged the collaboration.

Photo: Sh4rp_i/Flickr

Photo: Sh4rp_i/Flickr

Intel's "Floating Point" Bug Costs $450 Million

A prime example of how a small engineering problem can become a huge PR headache, Intel's "floating point" processor scandal made headlines in 1994. A flaw in the company's line of 66MHz Pentium chips produced incorrect results in certain super-advanced mathematical calculations. Intel engineers knew of this issue, but figured that since it had no real-world effect, there was no point in issuing a recall. However, once CNN picked up the story — uncovered by a inquisitive mathematics professor — consumers got steamed and Wall Street panicked. Intel eventually claimed a $450 million loss in regard to the flawed processors, but the PR cost was certainly much steeper.

Photo: dmuth/Flickr

Photo: dmuth/Flickr

Microsoft Bob Tries to Make Computing Friendly

With the release of Windows 95 — in 1995, appropriately enough — Microsoft made a huge push into the general consumer market, hoping to put a PC in every home. Part of that plan was the overly friendly graphical user interface (GUI) called "Bob." The program was designed to make navigating the PC easier for novice users, and included one of the first e-mail clients, with which users could send up to 15 messages per month for the low, low price of five dollars. (Additional e-mails cost 45 cents apiece.) "Bob" was discontinued in Windows 98, although its legacy would live on with the talking paperclip feature in the Microsoft Office software suite.

Answer: The MENSA keyboard is fake.

Note: This was written by Glenn McDonald, a Digital Crave contributor.

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