Ten… top tech cock-ups of 2012
Twelve months of corporate clods, government bumblers, and half-arsed hackers
The past year provided us with some wonderful tales of innovation and expertise, but we all like to see a car crash as much as success story, right? So here's a roundup of the most colossal cock-ups of the last 12 months, including face-plants by Google, Facebook, Apple, and others who succumbed to that most universal of human attributes: stupidity.
10. The HP-Autonomy follies
OK, we're being a bit sneaky starting off with this one, seeing as how HP's takeover of this global business-information wrangler was announced in 2011, but HP's very public admission that it had overpaid massively for the software house is relatively recent and had to be included.
When Meg Whitman announced last month that HP was taking an $8.8bn write-down on a company that it bought for just over $10bn last year, everyone in the industry was gobsmacked – not least being Autonomy's directors. In HP's financial statement, the Autonomy board was accused of "serious accounting improprieties, disclosure failures and outright misrepresentations" over the deal.
There then followed a war of words between the Autonomy board, auditors KPMG and Deloitte, and the SEC over the validity of HP's claims, a war that is still raging as we speak. Former HP boss Leo Apotheker has defended his role in the purchase, and points out that the HP board, including Whitman, was fully onside at the time.
It's going to take months if not years to sort this out, and the lawsuits are already flying. Whether HP just overpaid or mismanaged the company badly in the last year, or if Autonomy cooked its books, may never be properly decided. In the meantime, HP's shareholders will likely foot the bill.
9. Trust Lulzsec's Sabu? Wrong...
Just before the turn of the millennium, former Intel boss Andy Grove wrote a very nice book called "Only the paranoid survive" – a message several members of the hacking community learned to their cost this year.
In 2012, Sabu – the putative head of the LulzSec hacking group – officially turned stool pigeon and ratted out several members of the cracking community. Sabu, aka Hector Xavier Monsegur, stayed undercover until March before coming out after the US authorities arrested five people in the UK, Ireland, and the US based on information he'd provided.
LulzSec had claimed major hacking scalps, starting initially with soft targets like PBS after it showed a less than flattering documentary about Julian Assange. But the group moved onto bigger targets, hitting the FBI, CIA, and even Rupert Murdoch's News International. The group's crowning moment came when they broadcast a supposedly secure conversation between the FBI and Scotland Yard.
But unknown to the hacking collective, its ringleader had been turned by the FBI way back in 2011. Faced with the prospect of 124 years and six months in a "don't drop the soap" prison, Sabu had decided to play ball and rat out everyone he knew.
Evidence provided by Sabu has now been used to take down other members of the hacking community, and he'll no doubt play a part in many more trials to come.
8. Google's financial info-slip
There were more than a few reasons to add Google onto this year's list, but this was the sweetest: the internet wünderkind brought down by a dead-tree publisher.
When you're trying to cushion the impact of bad news, it's traditional to do some extensive forward planning. Google had some tricky financial results to announce this fall, but its PR moves were thrown into disarray after the firm responsible for handling its non-digital publishing made the mistake of releasing a draft copy of the search giant's financial results ahead of schedule, complete with the line "PENDING LARRY QUOTE".
The results weren't good, at least to the growth-obsessed Wall Street types who press the buttons on the world's stock exchanges these days. Profits were down by a fifth on the quarter, even though revenues rose by 45 per cent. While Google is still very profitable, and is better than most at long-term thinking and investing in research and development, the company lost 10 per cent of its value in a single day's trading.
Larry Page made only his second public speech in half a year on the afternoon of the cock-up (he's dealing with a persistent throat illness), aiming to reassure the markets and it all turned out OK in the end. Google's stock hasn't been the industry's best performer of the year, but it's done better than many since.
Of course, Google's value wasn't that badly hurt in the long term, a fact that well illustrates some of the idiocies of the stock market. Its staff didn't get 10 per cent more stupid by the affair, its holdings held their value, but a single slip by an print operation made one of the most memorable screw-ups of the year.
That said, Google did put in some other strong contenders to the list. Who can forget Eric Schmidt's Gangnam-style dancing, a video he'll regret having video taken for many years to come?
7. NASA's premature organics pimping
It's been a very good year for NASA, in a lot of regards.
The agency managed to land the one-ton nuclear-powered Curiosity rover on the Martian surface at a time when the Russian Phobos-Grunt mission, which was intended to bring back samples from Mars' moon was DOA. Curiosity is now trundling across the Red Planet's surface, and all the indications are that we'll be getting data from it for years.
El Reg was there at the landing, an historic night of enormous excitement and some memorable moments for all concerned. But in November an NPR journalist chatting with John Grotzinger, principal investigator for Curiosity, reported he had let slip that NASA had found something "historic" in the Red Planet's soil.
Imaginations promptly ran wild – and for (almost) good reasons. One of Curiosity's primary goals is to investigate the possibilities of organic life on Mars. No one expects complex life forms, but if organic life can be found on the Red Planet, and it's either close to or (more excitingly) independent of life on Earth, then the implications could be huge.
If organic life had been found on Mars, and it closely resembled that which is on Earth, it could help answer one of the basic questions of human existence: where did we come from? Mars matter hits Earth over the centuries, sent not by "intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, [who] regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us," to quote HG Wells, but by ejecta from asteroid and comet impacts.
If life existed on Mars, it could conceivably have spread to our own planet. On the other hand, if Mars life is very different to life on Earth, this suggests a huge variety of possibilities for life to bloom throughout the universe.
For the press, the case was also very curious. NASA is famous for firing off a press release about just about anything that comes its way, be it a pretty Hubble image, yet another report on Voyager leaving the Solar System, or just what tunes the ISS crew are waking up to. If they were holding something back it must be huge!
Speculation grew to such an extent that NASA was forced to release a press statement denying that organic matter had been discovered and pouring cold water on hopes that life had been found. When Grotzinger finally released Curiosity's results, he noted that in future he'd be watching what he said around the press.
While the actual news – that there might be organic material found but that NASA is still checking – came as a massive anti-climax, it's still pretty exciting stuff. People just have to get used to the fact that what NASA and its science team find exciting and historic doesn't always translate well – or immediately.