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The PC WORLD - 25 Worst Tech Products of All Time


The Highlander

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At PC World, we spend most of our time talking about products that make your life easier or your work more productive. But it's the lousy ones that linger in our memory long after their shrinkwrap has shriveled, and that make tech editors cry out, "What have I done to deserve this?"

Still, even the worst products deserve recognition (or deprecation). So as we put together our list of World Class winners for 2006, we decided also to spotlight the 25 worst tech products that have been released since PC World began publishing nearly a quarter-century ago.

 

Picking our list wasn't exactly rocket science; it was more like group therapy. PC World staffers and contributors nominated their candidates and then gave each one the sniff test. We sought the worst of the worst--operating systems that operated badly, hardware that never should have left the factory, applications that spied on us and fed our data to shifty marketers, and products that left a legacy of poor performance and bad behavior.

 

And because one person's dog can be another's dish, we also devised a (Dis)Honorable Mention list for products that didn't quite achieve universal opprobrium.

 

Of course, most truly awful ideas never make it out of somebody's garage. Our bottom 25 designees are all relatively well-known items, and many had multimillion-dollar marketing campaigns behind them. In other words, they were made by people who should have known better. In fact, three of the ten worst were made by Microsoft. Coincidence? We think not.

 

The first entry in our Hall of Shame: The ISP that everyone loves to hate...

 

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.

 

AOL succeeded initially by targeting newbies, using brute-force marketing techniques. In the 90s you couldn't open a magazine (PC World included) or your mailbox without an AOL disk falling out of it. This carpet-bombing technique yielded big numbers: At its peak, AOL claimed 34 million subscribers worldwide, though it never revealed how many were just using up their free hours.

Once AOL had you in its clutches, escaping was notoriously difficult. Several states sued the service, claiming that it continued to bill customers after they had requested cancellation of their subscriptions. In August 2005, AOL paid a $1.25 million fine to the state of New York and agreed to change its cancellation policies--but the agreement covered only people in New York.

 

Ultimately the Net itself--which AOL subscribers were finally able to access in 1995-- made the service's shortcomings painfully obvious. Prior to that, though AOL offered plenty of its own online content, it walled off the greater Internet. Once people realized what content was available elsewhere on the Net, they started wondering why they were paying AOL. And as America moved to broadband, many left their sluggish AOL accounts behind. AOL is now busy rebranding itself as a content provider, not an access service.

 

Though America Online has shown some improvement lately--with better browsers and e-mail tools, fewer obnoxious ads, scads of broadband content, and innovative features such as parental controls--it has never overcome the stigma of being the online service for people who don't know any better.

 

2. RealNetworks RealPlayer (1999)

 

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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.

 

And some of RealNetworks' habits were even more troubling. For example, shortly after RealJukeBox appeared in 1999, security researcher Richard M. Smith discovered that the software was assigning a unique ID to each user and phoning home with the titles of media files played on it--while failing to disclose any of this in its privacy policy. Turns out that RealPlayer G2, which had been out since the previous year, also broadcast unique IDs. After a tsunami of bad publicity and a handful of lawsuits, Real issued a patch to prevent the software from tracking users' listening habits. But less than a year later, Real was in hot water again for tracking the habits of its RealDownload download-management software customers.

 

To be fair, RealNetworks deserves credit for offering a free media player and for hanging in there against Microsoft's relentless onslaught. We appreciate the fact that there's an alternative to Windows Media Player; we just wish it were a better one.

 

 

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.

 

It turns out that all SoftRAM really did was expand the size of Windows' hard disk cache--something a moderately savvy user could do without any extra software in about a minute. And even then, the performance boost was negligible. The FTC dubbed Syncronys's claims "false and misleading," and the company was eventually forced to pull the product from the market and issue refunds. After releasing a handful of other bad Windows utilities, the company filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 1999. It will not be missed.

 

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 (aka 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.

 

Security researcher Dan Kaminsky estimated that more than half a million machines were infected by the rootkit. After first downplaying the problem and then issuing a "fix" that made things worse, Sony BMG offered to refund users' money and replace the faulty discs. Since then, the record company has been sued up the wazoo; a federal court judge recently approved a settlement in the national class action suit. Making your machine totally vulnerable to attacks--isn't that Microsoft's job?

 

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' 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?).

 

Mostly, Bob raised more questions than it answered. Like, had anyone at Microsoft actually used Bob? Did they think anyone else would? And did they deliberately make Bob's smiley face logo look like Bill Gates, or was that just an accident?

 

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 Web site 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.

 

To be fair, its ubiquity paints a big red target on it--less popular apps don't draw nearly as much fire from hackers and the like. But here's hoping that Internet Explorer 7 springs fewer leaks than its predecessor.

 

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.

 

PressPlay charged $15 per month for the right to listen to 500 low-quality audio streams, download 50 audio tracks, and burn 10 tracks to CD. It didn't sound like an awful deal, until you found out that not every song could be downloaded, and that you couldn't burn more than two tracks from the same artist. MusicNet cost $10 per month for 100 streamed songs and 100 downloads, but each downloaded audio file expired after only 30 days, and every time you renewed the song it counted against your allotment.

 

Neither service's paltry music selections could compete against the virtual feast available through illicit means. Several billion illegal downloads later, an outside company--Apple, with its iTunes Music Service--showed the record companies the right way to market digital music.

 

 

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.

 

Within a year of its release, Ashton-Tate's market share had plummeted to the low 40s. A patched-up version, dBASE IV 1.1, appeared two years later, but by then it was too late. In July 1991 the company merged with Borland, which eventually discontinued dBASE in favor of its own database products and sold the rights in 1999 to a new company, dataBased Intelligence, Inc.

 

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.

 

Fuel customers had to pay for petrol online, wait for a Priceline gas card to arrive in the mail, and then find a local station that would honor it--a lot of hassle to save a few pennies per gallon. In less than a year, WebHouse Club, the Priceline affiliate that ran both programs, ran out of gas--and cash--and was forced to shut down.

 

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.

 

In addition, PointCast's proprietary screensaver/browser had a nasty habit of commandeering your computer and not giving it back. Companies began to ban the application from offices and cubicles, and push got shoved out the door. Ironically, the idea of push has made a comeback of sorts via low-bandwidth RSS feeds. But too late for PointCast, which sent out its last broadcast in early 2000.

 

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.

 

Iomega largely ignored the problem until angry customers filed a class action suit in 1998, which the company settled three years later by offering rebates on future products. And the Zip disk, once the floppy's heir apparent, has largely been eclipsed by thumb drives and cheaper, faster, more capacious rewritable CDs and DVDs.

 

Well im not going to post the rest but you get my drift... if you like this so far then click on the link below and read the rest of the artical

 

The Complete List of Losers

1. America Online (1989-2006)

2. RealNetworks RealPlayer (1999)

3. Syncronys SoftRAM (1995)

4. Microsoft Windows Millennium (2000)

5. Sony BMG Music CDs (2005)

6. Disney The Lion King CD-ROM (1994)

7. Microsoft Bob (1995)

8. Microsoft Internet Explorer 6 (2001)

9. Pressplay and Musicnet (2002)

10. dBASE IV (1988)

11. Priceline Groceries and Gas (2000)

12. PointCast (1996)

13. IBM PCjr. (1984)

14. Gateway 2000 10th Anniversary PC (1995)

15. Iomega Zip Drive (1998)

16. Comet Cursor (1997)

17. Apple Macintosh Portable (1989)

18. IBM Deskstar 75GXP (2000)

19. OQO Model 1 (2004)

20. CueCat (2000)

21. Eyetop Wearable DVD Player (2004)

22. Apple Pippin @World (1996)

23. Free PCs (1999)

24. DigiScents iSmell (2001)

25. Sharp RD3D Notebook (2004)

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