From on-demand video services that were overly demanding, to underwhelming operating-system updates, 2007 was full of disappointments. We surveyed the landscape and polled some old friends to come up with the 15 products, companies, and industries that left the most sour taste in our mouths. From last to first, here's our list of the year's biggest losers. Read 'em and weep.
#15. Box Unpopuli: Amazon Unbox
Yes, entertainment on demand is the new black. But Amazon's video delivery service left us mostly blue. The interface is cluttered and ugly--lacking both the simplicity and sophistication of the Apple iTunes Store or NetFlix's Watch Instantly. The selection is weird, and searching is cumbersome. For example, you can rent (US$3.99) or buy ($14.99) a digital copy of Ocean's 13, but a search for "Ocean's 11" turns up an ancient concert video from the old prog-rock group Yes. You can send Unbox movies to your TiVo, but you have to wait for them to fully download before you can watch them--or 2 to 4 hours for a standard-length movie over a cable modem connection. Not exactly what we'd call 'on demand'.
When Unbox debuted in late 2006, we were willing to cut it some slack. After all, we're talking about Amazon, the guys who put the e in e-commerce. We thought by now they'd have figured out how on-demand video is supposed to work. We were wrong.
#14. Screwed up to the Max: Municipal WiMax
It sounded like a great idea: big cities would offer wide-area wireless Internet access as part of their infrastructure, the same as roads, traffic lights, and sewers. A cheap, fast Net connection anywhere within city limits, 24/7. What's not to love?
Then public and private WiMax ventures started dropping like flies. Sprint and Clearwire called off their plans to build a nationwide WiMax network, after Sprint CEO Gary "bet the company on WiMax" Forsee got canned last October. Earlier this year EarthLink bailed on its offer to foot the bill for a Wi-Fi network in San Francisco. Similar city-funded projects have bought the farm in Chicago; Milwaukee; and Anchorage, Alaska. Even Silicon Valley--arguably the most Net-centric community this side of Mars--has had a hard time getting its WiMax plans off the ground. The big reason? Cost. Unwiring the whole valley would cost an estimated $200 million, or $133K a square mile. SV geeks can always park their cars near the Googleplex in Mountain View, whose wireless network covers 12 square miles. As for the rest of us, well, we can hope and pray that the search titans win the FCC auction for the 700-MHz wireless spectrum next January, and then decide to open their network to the world. Does Google have to do everything?
#13. Web 2 Woe: Social Networks
Memo to Badoo, Bebo, Catster, Dogster, Facebook, Faceparty, Flickr, Flixster, Hi5, Hyves, Imbee, Imeem, MySpace, Mixi, Pizco, Pownce, Takkle, Twitter, Virb, Vox, Xanga, Xing, Zoomr ... and the 3,245,687 other social networks clamoring for our limited attention spans: We got it. Making connections between friends is cool. Sharing photos and videos, even cooler. But it's all so... 2006. Haven't you got anything new to show us?
Here's a safe bet: Two years from now, 90 percent of these networks will be gone and their founders will be back working at Starbucks. I'll have a double mocha frappucino, please.
#12. Just Another Oxymoron: Internet Security
In 2007, the words "Internet security" joined the ever-growing list of self-canceling phrases, alongside "business intelligence," "Congressional ethics," and "Microsoft Works." This year, bot herders proved they could harness enough zombie PCs to take down an entire country's infrastructure for a month. Estonia eventually recovered, but our notion of Net invulnerability hasn't.
According to McAfee's Virtual Criminology Report, some 120 governments are actively engaged in Web espionage and cyber assaults. Meanwhile, private criminals used the Storm worm to created a botnet for hire containing millions of zombies--enough to take down a major network. And while the FBI's Operation Bot Roast nailed a handful of domestic bot herders, that leaves several thousand more to go, most of them living beyond the Feds' reach. Three-quarters of cyber attacks in 2007 originated outside the U.S., according to Symantec's most recent Internet Security Threat Report.
As with global warming, there's plenty of blame to go around--for everybody from developers of insecure software to home users who blithely log on without inoculating their PCs. Let's hope they get more of a clue in 2008.
#11. Singing an Old Familiar Zune: Microsoft Zune
Microsoft got a chance to do things right with its "iPod Killer" in 2007. And Zune 2.0 was certainly an improvement--offering 80GB of storage instead of 30GB, wireless syncing, improved touch controls, and a choice of Nano-like 8GB players in a variety of bright colors (Pepto-Bismol pink, anyone?). But Microsoft failed to lose the Zune's proprietary DRM scheme or remove all its restrictions on wireless music sharing (you can share songs with other nearby Zune users, but they can only listen to them three times before the songs go poof).
We're not the only ones disappointed in the Zune. According to the NPD Group, Microsoft still lags behind Sandisk and Creative Labs in market share for portable media players. And for every Zune Microsoft sells, Apple sells 30 iPods. Remember: You can't kill an iPod if you can't get close to it.
#10. Is Anyone Listening?: Wireless Carriers
Today's cell phone hardware is wildly innovative--and we don't mean just the Apple iPhone. Other companies--LG, Samsung, HTC, and Nokia--have all come out with handsets that are really more like hip pocket computers.
But innovative wireless service providers? Few and far between. Voice call quality still sucks, high-speed data networks are still scarce, and the companies still want too big a chunk of our wallets ($2.50 for a 20-second ring tone--exsqueeze me?). Worse, the inability to easily switch U.S. carriers but keep your phone is grating.
"The wireless industry has been a huge disappointment," says Brad Grimes, a former PC World executive editor, now editor in chief for Hanley Wood's Digital Home. "Innovation in devices has been exciting, but the fact that most of them are tied to certain service providers is absurd. Hopefully recent steps toward opening wireless platforms will gain traction. I'd be surprised if the day doesn't come soon when we can buy any mobile device to work with any carrier, and when we're not locked into contracts and ridiculous early termination charges."
Maybe Verizon's move to open up its network will pay off next year. But for now, all of them disappoint.
#9. Sorry, We Already Gave: Office 2007
Many of us spent a decade learning how to use Microsoft Office. So now that we finally have it all down, Microsoft changes almost everything about the interface in 2007, and not for the better. Instead of simple-if-prosaic toolbars, Office 2007 serves up a jumble of confusing icons known as the 'Ribbon.'
Longtime PC World contributor Robert Luhn, now editor in chief of DrBicuspid.com, says the new version was a stumble backwards. "Scrambled interface, incompatibility with old macros, but hey, I do get in-context spell checking," he says. "Is that worth the $239 upgrade? Me thinks not."
Overall, we liked the added support for XML and online collaboration tools when we reviewed Office 2007 late last year. But Ribbon schmibbon. We'll take the classic menus, please--even if we have to spend $30 for an add-in program to get them back.
#8. Needs To Change Its Spots: Apple "Leopard" OS 10.5
Maybe we just got spoiled by the iPod and iPhone, but the glow came off Steve Job's halo after this feline fleabag debuted. Within days of its release last October, Mac users reported dozens of problems with the new OS, some more serious than others.
Among the many: Wireless connections that slowly petered away, administrative logins that mysteriously disappeared, and a disturbing tendency to nuke data when moving it between two drives if the connection is interrupted.
Worse, a security bug that was fixed in OS 10.4 in March 2006 resurfaced in Leopard, according to Symantec. The Apple Mail vulnerability allows malicious attachments to execute code. German security researchers discovered that Leopard came with its firewall turned off, leaving users vulnerable to attack. Adding insult to injury, some upgraders even reported a Windows-like Blue Screen of Death when upgrading from previous Mac OSs.
In mid-November, Apple released an update to Leopard that fixed some of the bugs, including the firewall glitch. Repairing Apple's reputation, however, may take slightly longer.
#7. Cannot be Completed as Dialed: Voice Over IP
Here's a recipe for disaster: Have the market leader in your industry sued by three of the biggest telecom companies on the planet. Have second-tier players go belly up overnight, leaving thousands of business customers without any phone service. Add in a healthy dose of security vulnerabilities, and bake at 450 degrees until crispy.
Any way you slice it, 2007 was a crappy year for VoIP. Vonage spent most of the year fighting off patent infringement suits from Verizon, Sprint Nextel, and AT&T. (It has tentatively settled with all three, but not before agreeing to fork out payments of $39 million to $120 million apiece.) SunRocket simply disappeared last summer, leaving thousands of customers in the lurch.
Oh and by the way, your VoIP line may be bugged.
In November a UK-based security researcher released SIPtap, a proof-of-concept exploit that allows remote users to tap into and record voice streams across the Net.
Please contact your regional phone monopoly for service, and dial again.
#6. Un-Neutral: The Broadband Industry
Remember those halycon days when you paid $40 to $60 a month for "unlimited" broadband service and it actually was unlimited? Kiss those days goodbye. In 2007 we learned that some of the largest ISPs in the country--Comcast, Cox, Qwest, Cablevision, and Charter among them--throttle or otherwise interfere with BitTorrent traffic on the sly. Comcast denied it at first, then admitted to "traffic shaping" to discourage bandwidth-sucking peer-to-peer users. Now it's being sued by angry customers. Suddenly the whole Net Neutrality argument doesn't seem like such a bad idea.
Meanwhile, all the major telecom providers who blithely handed their bitstreams over to the NSA without a subpoena are now demanding retroactive immunity for the deed. Whose bits are they, anyway?
#5. The Great, The Bad, The Ugly: Apple iPhone
Yes, we know. Sliced bread only wishes it were as great as the iPhone. And aside from minor flaws like a tiny touch keyboard and lack of Flash support, the phone itself is pretty terrific. But AT&T's broadband service? Definitely second-rate. And if you want to switch to a more reliable or faster carrier, you have to take your chances with the hackers.
The $600 price tag--which soon dropped by $200 and then was followed by a $100 quasi-rebate--didn't help. "I think the biggest debacle of 2007 is the iPhone pricing bait and switch," says Peggy Watt, a PC World contributing editor and professor of journalism at Western Washington University. "People do expect tech prices to drop, but not as quickly as the iPhone did. Apple's response was pretty lame, too; a partial credit that couldn't be used for a lot of popular items (such as iTunes)."
Worse, those who did try to open their iPhones to other carriers or third-party applications found themselves owners of $600 iBricks when Apple tweaked the firmware to lock them out.
Memo to Apple: It's time to treat iPhones for what they really are--pocket computers with phone functions built in--and open them up the world. Just a thought.
#4. In a Sorry State: Yahoo
We can't say we really expected much out of Yahoo in 2007. Giving CEO Terry Semel the boot was probably a good thing--especially after his $230 million compensation package came to light. Installing the original Yahoo, Jerry Yang, as head honcho also seems like a smooth move, even if the company seems permanently stuck in the number two position behind Google.
Yet there's one area where Yahoo can lay claim to being number one: creating political prisoners. At least three times over the past five years, information supplied by Yahoo to the Bejiing government has led to the incarceration of Chinese dissidents.
This year, Yahoo executives admitted they'd lied to Congress when they claimed not to know why the Chinese demanded their subscriber data. Yang and general counsel Michael Callahan were forced to deliver a humbling public apology in front of a Congressional committee. Shortly thereafter, the company settled a suit brought by two of the dissidents' families.
Not so smooth.
#3. The Anti-Social Network: Facebook Beacon
We have to give props to Facebook for stealing the social networking spotlight from MySpace this year. But once it got up on stage, Facebook laid an egg. For example, opening up the Facebook platform to third-party developers was inspired. Now, six months later, those viral-to-the-point-of-influenza Facebook apps are mostly just irritating. (For the 27th time: No, I do not want to spam everyone in my network with another movie quiz, thank you. Now go away.)
The introduction of Facebook's Beacon advertising program was more than disappointing--it was disturbing. Suddenly, anything you purchased on Amazon, Overstock, Fandango or three dozen other sites would be broadcast to your Facebook friends. Worse, even when you were logged out, Facebook still gathered the information, though the company says it didn't use the data.
CEO Mark Zuckerberg apologized and offered subscribers easier ways to opt out of Beacon, but the damage was already done, says Richard Laermer, principal at RLM PR in New York and author of Punk Marketing.
"The idea behind Beacon is fascinating, but the fact that it was being done for subscribers by someone else was less than cool," he says. "It's like me fishing in your trash can for your store receipts (you haven't spotted me yet?) and then telling other people what you've bought. Not illegal, but oh so creepy."
How much damage has Beacon done to Facebook's rep? "Their PR value just went down about 40 percent," he adds.
#2. What Is It Good For: The High-Def Format War
February 2007: Sony declares its Blu-ray the winner of the hi-def format wars.
April 2007: Toshiba announces its HD DVD player is the first to sell more than 100,000 units.
July 2007: Blockbuster Video says it will carry only Blu-ray discs in more than 1400 of its retail outlets.
August 2007: Paramount and DreamWorks announce exclusive support for the HD DVD format.
September 2007: God help us, a third HD format has emerged: HD VMD (Versatile Multilayer Disc).
Did we learn nothing from VHS vs. Betamax, CD-R vs. CD-RW, DVD-A vs. SACD, and so on down the line? At least the warring DVD camps worked out a compromise in the mid-90s that allowed everyone to profit from the new movie format (though it took them a while). Not so in HD land, where a take-no-prisoners attitude on both sides has left consumers cold. It will be a snowy day in Video Hell before we'll put our money down on either format.
#1. No Wow, No How: Windows Vista
Five years in the making and this is the best Microsoft could do?
It's not that Vista is awful. The integrated security and parental controls are nice, and the Aero interface is as whizzy as it gets. Searching and wireless networking are much faster and easier than under XP.
It's just that Vista isn't all that good. Many of the innovations the operating system was supposed to bring--like more efficient file and communications systems--got tossed overboard as Microsoft struggled to get the OS out the door, some three years after it was first promised. Despite its hefty hardware requirements, Vista is slower than XP.
When it debuted last January, incompatibilities were rampant--in part because hardware and software makers didn't feel any urgency to revamp their products to work with the new OS. The user account controls that were supposed to make users feel safer just made them feel irritated. And at $399 ($299 upgrade) for Windows Ultimate, we couldn't help feeling more than a little gouged.
No wonder so many users are clinging to XP like shipwrecked sailors to a life raft, while others who made the upgrade are switching back. And when the fastest Vista notebook PC World has ever tested is an Apple MacBook Pro, there's something deeply wrong with the universe.
We have no doubt Vista will come to dominate the PC landscape, if only because it will become increasingly hard to buy a new machine that doesn't have it pre-installed. And that's disappointing in its own right.
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