Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The 25 worst tech products of all time


AOL CD Mobile


1. America Online (1989-2006)
How do we loathe AOL? Let us count the ways. Since America Online emerged from the belly of a BBS called Quantum "PC-Link" in 1989, users have suffered through awful software, inaccessible dial-up numbers, rapacious marketing, in-your-face advertising, questionable billing practices, inexcusably poor customer service and enough spam to last a lifetime. And, all the while, AOL remained more expensive than its major competitors. This lethal combination earned the world's biggest ISP the top spot on our list of bottom feeders.

But at least they provided us with all those free coffee cup coasters and mobiles..

2. RealNetworks RealPlayer (1999)
A frustrating inability to play media files--due in part to constantly changing file formats--was only part of Real's problem. RealPlayer also had a disturbing way of making itself a little too much at home on your PC--installing itself as the default media player, taking liberties with your Windows Registry, popping up annoying "messages" that were really just advertisements and so on.

3. Syncronys SoftRAM (1995)
Back in 1995, when RAM cost $30 to $50 a megabyte and Windows 95 apps were demanding more and more of it, the idea of "doubling" your system memory by installing a $30 piece of software sounded mighty tempting. The 700,000 users who bought Syncronys's SoftRAM products certainly thought so. Unfortunately, that's not what they got.

4. Microsoft Windows Millennium (2000)
This might be the worst version of Windows ever released--or, at least, since the dark days of Windows 2.0. Windows Millennium Edition (a.k.a. Me, or the Mistake Edition) was Microsoft's follow-up to Windows 98 SE for home users. Shortly after Me appeared in late 2000, users reported problems installing it, getting it to run, getting it to work with other hardware or software and getting it to stop running. Aside from that, Me worked great.

To its credit, Me introduced features later made popular by Windows XP, such as system restore. Unfortunately, it could also restore files you never wanted to see again, like viruses that you'd just deleted. Forget Y2K; this was the real millennium bug.

5. Sony BMG Music CDs (2005)
When you stick a music CD into your computer, you shouldn't have to worry that it will turn your PC into a hacker's plaything. But that's exactly what Sony BMG Music Entertainment's music discs did in 2005. The discs' harebrained copy protection software installed a rootkit that made it invisible even to antispyware or antivirus software. Any moderately clever cyber attacker could then use the same rootkit to hide, say, a keylogger to capture your bank account information, or a remote-access Trojan to turn your PC into a zombie.

6. Disney The Lion King CD-ROM (1994)
Few products get accused of killing Christmas for thousands of kids, but that fate befell Disney's first CD-ROM for Windows. The problem: the game relied on Microsoft's new WinG graphics engine, and video card drivers had to be hand-tuned to work with it, says Alex St. John. He's currently CEO of game publisher WildTangent, but in the early 1990s he was Microsoft's first "game evangelist".

In late 1994, Compaq released a Presario whose video drivers hadn't been tested with WinG. When parents loaded the Lion King disc into their new Presarios on Christmas morning, many children got their first glimpse of the Blue Screen of Death. But this sad story has a happy ending. The WinG debacle led Microsoft to develop a more stable and powerful graphics engine called DirectX. And the team behind DirectX went on to build the Xbox--restoring holiday joy for a new generation of kids.

7. Microsoft Bob (1995)
No list of the worst of the worst would be complete without Windows'a idiot cousin, Bob. Designed as a "social" interface for Windows 3.1, Bob featured a living room filled with clickable objects, and a series of cartoon "helpers", like Chaos the Cat and Scuzz the Rat, that walked you through a small suite of applications. Fortunately, Bob was soon buried in the avalanche of hype surrounding Windows 95, though some of the cartoons lived on to annoy users of Microsoft Office and Windows XP (Clippy the animated paper clip, anyone?).

8. Microsoft Internet Explorer 6 (2001)
Full of features, easy to use and a virtual engraved invitation to hackers and other digital delinquents, Internet Explorer 6.x might be the least secure software on the planet. How insecure? In June 2004, the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team (CERT) took the unusual step of urging PC users to use a browser--any browser--other than IE. Their reason: IE users who visited the wrong website could end up infected with the Scob or Download.Ject keylogger, which could be used to steal their passwords and other personal information. Microsoft patched that hole, and the next one, and the one after that, and so on, ad infinitum.

9. Pressplay and MusicNet (2002)
Digital music is such a great idea that even record companies, finally, begrudgingly accepted it after years of implacable opposition. In 2002, two online services backed by music industry giants proposed giving consumers a legitimate alternative to illegal file sharing. But, the services' stunningly brain-dead features showed that the record companies still didn't get it.

10. Ashton-Tate dBASE IV (1988)
In the early days of the PC, dBASE was synonymous with database. By the late 1980s, Ashton-Tate's flagship product owned nearly 70 percent of the PC database market. But, dBASE IV changed all that. Impossibly slow and filled with more bugs than a rain forest, the $795 program was an unmitigated disaster.

11. Priceline Groceries and Gas (2000)
The name-your-price model worked for airline tickets, rental cars and hotels--why not groceries and gas? Unfortunately, even Priceline spokescaptain William Shatner couldn't keep these services in orbit. Grocery shoppers could find real discounts bidding for products online, but only if they weren't picky about brands and were willing to follow Byzantine rules on what they could buy and how they paid for them.

12. PointCast Network (1996)
Back in the mid-90s, so-called "push" technology was all the rage. In place of surfing the web for news and information, push apps like the PointCast Network would deliver customized information directly to your desktop--along with a healthy serving of ads. But, push quickly turned into a drag, as PointCast's endless appetite for bandwidth overwhelmed dial-up connections and clogged corporate networks.

13. IBM PCjr. (1984)
Talk about your bastard offspring. IBM's attempt to build an inexpensive computer for homes and schools was an orphan almost from the start. The infamous "Chiclet" keyboard on the PCjr. was virtually unusable for typing, and the computer couldn't run much of the software written for its hugely successful parent, the IBM PC.

A price tag nearly twice that of competing home systems from Commodore and Atari didn't improve the situation. Two years after Junior's splashy debut, IBM sent him to his room and never let him out again.

14. Gateway 2000 10th Anniversary PC (1995)
After a decade as one of the computer industry's major PC builders, the folks at Gateway 2000 wanted to celebrate--not just by popping a few corks, but by offering a specially configured system to show some customer appreciation.

But, instead of Cristal champagne, buyers got Boone's Farm--the so-called 6X CD-ROM spun at 4X or slower (a big performance hit in 1995), the video card was a crippled version of what people thought they were getting, and the surround-sound speakers weren't actually surround-capable. Perhaps Gateway was sticking to the traditional gift for a tenth anniversary: it's tin, not gold.

15. Iomega Zip Drive (1998)
Click-click-click. That was the sound of data dying on thousands of Iomega Zip drives. Though Iomega sold tens of millions of Zip and Jaz drives that worked flawlessly, thousands of the drives died mysteriously, issuing a clicking noise as the drive head became misaligned and clipped the edge of the removable media, rendering any data on that disc permanently inaccessible.

16. Comet Systems Comet Cursor (1997)
Thank CometCursor for introducing spyware to an ungrateful nation. This simple program had one purpose: to change your mouse cursor into Bart Simpson, Dilbert or one of thousands of other cutesy icons while you were visiting certain websites. But, Comet had other habits that were not so cute.

For example, it assigned your computer a unique ID and phoned home whenever you visited a Comet-friendly website. When you visited certain sites, it could install itself into Internet Explorer without your knowledge or explicit consent. And it was bundled with RealPlayer 7 (yet another reason to loathe RealPlayer). Some versions would hijack IE's search assistant or cause the browser to crash.

17. Apple Macintosh Portable (1989)
Some buildings are portable, if you have access to a Freightliner. Stonehenge is a portable sun dial, if you have enough people on hand to get things rolling. And, in 1989, Apple offered a "portable" Macintosh--a 4-inch-thick, 16-pound beast that severely strained the definition of "laptop"--and the aching backs of its porters.

Huge lead-acid batteries contributed to its weight and bulk; the batteries were especially important because Portable wouldn't run on AC power. Some computers are affordable too; the Portable met that description only if you had $6500 of extra cash on hand.

18. IBM Deskstar 75GXP (2000)
Fast, big and highly unreliable, this 75GB hard drive was quickly dubbed the "Deathstar" for its habit of suddenly failing and taking all of your data with it.

About a year after IBM released the Deskstar, users filed a class action suit, alleging that IBM had misled customers about its reliability. IBM denied all liability, but last June it agreed to pay $100 to Deskstar owners whose drives and data had departed their desks and gone on to a celestial reward. Well before that, IBM had washed its hands of the Deathstar, selling its hard drive division to Hitachi in 2002.

19. OQO Model 1 (2004)
The 14-ounce OQO Model 1 billed itself as the "world's smallest Windows XP computer"--and that was a big part of its problem. You needed a magnifying glass to read icons or text on its 5-by-3-inch screen, and the hide-away keypad was too tiny to accommodate even two adult fingers.

The Model 1 also ran hot to the touch, and at $1900+ it could easily burn a hole in your wallet. Good things often come in small packages, but not this time.

20. DigitalConvergence CueCat (2000)
Appearing at the tail end of the dot com craze, the CueCat was supposed to make it easier for magazine and newspaper readers to find advertisers' websites (because apparently it was too challenging to type www.pepsi.com into your browser).

The company behind the device, DigitalConvergence, mailed hundreds of thousands of these cat-shaped bar-code scanners to subscribers of magazines and newspapers. Readers were supposed to connect the device to a computer, install some software, scan the barcodes inside the ads and be whiskered away to advertisers' websites. Another "benefit": the company used the device to gather personally identifiable information about its users.

21. Eyetop Wearable DVD Player (2004)
Some things just aren't meant to be done while walking or driving, and one of them is watching DVDs. Unfortunately, that message was lost on Eyetop.net, makers of the Eyetop Wearable DVD Player.

This system consisted of a standard portable DVD player attached to a pair of heavy-duty shades that had a tiny 320-by-240-pixel LCD embedded in the right eyepiece. You were supposed to carry the DVD player and battery pack in an over-the shoulder sling, put on the eyeglasses, and then... squint. Or maybe wear a patch on your left eye as you walked and watched at the same time.

Up close, the LCD was supposed to simulate a 14-inch screen. Unfortunately, the only thing the Eyetop stimulated was motion sickness.

22. Apple Pippin @World (1996)
Before Xbox, before PlayStation, before DreamCast, there was Apple's Pippin. Wha-huh? That's right--Apple had an internet-capable game console that connected to your TV. But, it ran on a weak PowerPC processor and came with a puny 14.4-kbps modem, so it was stupendously slow offline and online.

Then, too, it was based on the Mac OS, so almost no games were available for it. And it cost nearly $600--nearly twice as much as other, far more powerful game consoles. Underpowered, overpriced and underutilized--that pretty much describes everything that came out of Apple in the mid-90s.

23. Free PCs (1999)
In the late 90s, companies competed to dangle free PCs in front of you: all you had to do was sign up, and a PC would eventually show up at your door. But, one way or another, there was always a catch: you had to sign up for a long-term ISP agreement, or tolerate an endless procession of web ads or surrender reams of personal information. Free-PC.com may have been the creepiest of them all. First, you filled out an extensive questionnaire on your income, interests, racial and marital status, and more. Then, you had to spend at least 10 hours a week on the PC and at least 1 hour surfing the web using Free-PC's ISP.

In return, you got a low-end Compaq Presario with roughly a third of the screen covered in ads. And, while you watched the PC (and the ads), Free-PC watched you--recording where you surfed, what software you used and who knows what else.

24. DigiScents iSmell (2001)
Few products literally stink, but this one did--or at least it would have, had it progressed beyond the prototype stage.

In 2001, DigiScents unveiled the iSmell, a shark-fin-shaped gizmo that plugged into your PC's USB port and wafted appropriate scents as you surfed smell-enabled websites--say, perfume as you were browsing Chanel.com, or cheese doodles at Frito-Lay.com. But, skeptical users turned up their noses at the idea, making the iSmell the ultimate in vapourware.

25. Sharp RD3D Notebook (2004)
As the first "autostereo" 3D notebook, Sharp's RD3D was supposed to display 3D images without requiring the use of funny glasses. But, "auto-headache" was more like it, as the RD3D was painful to look at.

When you pressed the button to enable 3D mode, the notebook's performance slowed, and the 3D effect was noticeable only within a very narrow angle-and, if you moved your head, it disappeared. Maybe the funny glasses weren't so bad after all.


*ITWorldCanada

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