Tech is overflowing with creative and hypermotivated people who do a lot of pretty incredible things. But they can be counted on to do some pretty silly things, too–which is lucky for us, since high-profile pratfalls are part of what makes this industry fun to watch.
Certainly 2008 had no shortage of silly goings-on. Caught up in the Christmas spirit (and spirits), I’ll toast 11 of my favorite flights of industry foolishness from the past year, and match each with a fresh Brandy and Egg Nog. So this list is sure to get more insightful and coherent as we go along.
Microsoft Advertising: Down the Rabbit Hole
I think Microsoft’s marketing and advertising people took a vow last New Year’s Eve to spend all of 2008 on acid. First the “Mojave” campaign, in which the company introduced people to the coolest parts of Vista under a different name (“Mojave”) and recorded the results (people liked the Mojave demo).
Then the publicity trust enlisted Jerry Seinfeld to star in a series of truly strange commercials that had almost nothing to do with computers or anything else. I admit to enjoying them (exactly for their weirdness), but Microsoft clipped short its arrangement with Seinfeld after making only two spots. (Seinfeld earned $10 million for his efforts.)
The company’s next big thing was the “I’m a PC” campaign, whose main message seems to be “See, really hip, creative people who do wacky things for a living use PCs, too, not just Apples.” Campaign cost: $300 million.
All of these ads are defenses against Apple’s gains toward winning the hearts and minds of the computer-buying public, though Microsoft still controls a huge share of the consumer OS market, and an even greater share of the business market. Hey Microsoft: Spend 2009 sober; take your massive advertising budget and use it to hire the software design people you need to bring your OS back to the top of the heap.
Rumors of Steve’s Death…
On October 3, some genius started a bogus rumor on the micro-blogging site Twitter that Apple’s Steve Jobs had suffered a severe heart attack and had been rushed to a hospital. The “news” spread like wildfire on Twitter and elsewhere, bringing panic to many in the tech industry, and causing Apple stock to take a dive before quickly recovering. All in all, it was a bad day for “citizen journalism.”
‘New Facebook’ Angers Many, No ‘Facebook Classic’ in Sight
Social networking site Facebook got many of its members’ undies in a twist earlier this year when it revamped the design of its front page. Numerous groups with cheery names like “New Facebook Blows” sprang up almost overnight, and the biggest of these, “Petition Against the ‘New Facebook’,” attracted more than a million members.
With the new design, users have to click a couple of times to get to their beloved Facebook apps. The old design had all of the apps listed in a prominent vertical menu on the home page. For a while Facebookers could choose the design they preferred, but the service eventually deactivated the old version.
“The new design is different, and we understand that some people will be uncomfortable with the changes,” Facebook’s Mark Slee announced in the site’s official blog. “But over time, we think people will appreciate the advantages of the new design and the new features it offers.”
Truth be told, the new Facebook looks cleaner and more usable now than it did before. Clearly Facebook intends to be more about communication between members, and not so much about accessorizing a personal profile page with messy and browser crashing trinkets à la MySpace.
A Wikipedia Love Story
In a classic case of mixing business with displeasure, Wikipedia cofounder Jimmy Wales dumped his girlfriend, ex-Fox commentator babe Rachel Marsden, and posted the news on Wikipedia.
In retaliation, Marsden put some of Wales’s clothing (left at her apartment in New York) up for auction on eBay and said some snarky things about Wales in the process. Anyway, Valleywag, the tech industry’s equivalent of the National Enquirer —-broke the whole story and even unearthed some of the steamy IM conversations between Wales and Marsden.
Here’s our favorite line from the Valleywag coverage: “Marsden subsequently told friends that Wales gave her feedback on her website design – is that what kids are calling it these days? – for 24 hours straight in a D.C. hotel.” It took me about an hour to figure out what actually happened in the tragicomic affair, and I felt about 10 IQ points lighter afterward.
Another Year, Another “Google Killer”
One of the most widely anticipated new products of 2008, a search engine called Cuil, developed by four ex-Google people, was hyped (not surprisingly) as a “Google killer.” The new search engine debuted, kinda sucked, and then sorta disappeared.
The first mystery was how to pronounce the product’s weird name (like “cool,” not “quill” or “kewl” or “cue-ill”); the second puzzle was what the name meant (allegedly an old Irish term for both “knowledge” and “hazel”), and the third and biggest stumper was why Cuil’s search results had such a weak relevance quotient, to the point of being bizarre.
Some first-time users reported that Cuil even had trouble yielding relevant results when searching its own name. That’s just nuts.
Microsoft and Yahoo: Will They or Won’t They?
Will Microsoft buy Yahoo? The behemoth of Redmond launched an unsolicited $44.6 billion takeover attempt of the venerable Web portal this year, an effort highlighted by a personal love note from Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer to the Yahoo board. Then Yahoo, which could really use a date, played hard to get for so long that Microsoft gave up, never to return. Well, not in 2008, anyway.
The failed courtship generated no small measure of frustration among Yahoo investors. Here’s billionaire investor Carl Icahn in a letter to the Yahoo board of directors:
“Until now I naively believed that self-destructive doomsday machines were fictional devices found only in James Bond movies. I never believed that anyone would actually create and activate one in real life. I guess I never knew about [Jerry] Yang and the Yahoo Board.”
Was Yahoo leader Jerry Yang the man who botched the deal? A lot of people think so. Maybe Yang did, too. He stepped down as Yahoo CEO in November.
Sprint: What If Roadies Ran the World?
It’s funny how the advertising industry has conditioned us not to expect to find any connection between the subject matter of ads and the products they promote. My favorite example this year was a Sprint commercial that imagined a world in which roadies (the guys that lift the amps and pull the wires for rock bands) run everything–in the ad, an airline.
I giggled at the 30-second spot, but it could just as well have been used to pitch fish sticks or odor eaters.
A Few Hiccups in Political Tech This Year
In tech terms, 2008 was a bad year for the Republicans. While the Obama campaign was rewriting the rules for campaigning and fund-raising on the Web, John McCain and his people made one gaffe after another.
The first came when Mr. McCain himself cemented his “out-of-touch old guy” image by admitting that he didn’t use a computer and hadn’t much need for e-mail either. Not that he wasn’t trying: “I am learning to get online myself, and I will have that down fairly soon, getting on myself,” McCain told the New York Times.
Meanwhile, the Republican nominee’s running mate, > Sarah Palin, hewed to the campaign’s Luddite theme by conducting official business via her private Yahoo Mail account–an account that an interloper hacked into. Some of her e-mail messages were published on a Web site called Wikileaks. </p
Later, in the heat of the campaign, McCain adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin credited his boss with having brought the BlackBerry into being. What McCain really had done was some work in the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation that arguably helped create market conditions in which the BlackBerry thrived. But why split hairs?
Matters grew even dicier when the GOP decided to sell off the computers and smart phones that the McCain campaign had provided to staffers for use during the campaign.
Problem was, the McCain folks forgot to wipe the data from some of the BlackBerry phones it sold, and several went out the door with sensitive information still on them, including the phone numbers of several prominent political figures who had worked with the campaign.
Obama’s campaign wasn’t perfect either. The nominee’s attempt to be the first candidate in history to announce his choice for vice president via text message, uh, failed. The announcement that Joe Biden was the guy went out in the middle of the night on August 24, but not before the news had been leaked to and reported by CNN reporter John King.
Princess Leia Reporting From Chicago for CNN
CNN claimed a breakthrough on election night by “beaming in” a 3D image of reporter Jessica Yellin to a CNN studio in New York to talk to commentator Wolf Blitzer. You know, like in Star Wars .
Yellin spent half of her air time going on about how it worked and how cool it was, explaining that she was actually inside a tent in Chicago’s Grant Park where 35 cameras spun around her taking images that were processed by 20 computers.
But it wasn’t really a hologram. Rather, Yellin’s image was simply overlaid on top of the CNN broadcast feed. When Blitzer stood in the New York studio and said “You’re a terrific hologram,” he was talking to thin air.
The Year in iPhone Apps
Apple won’t sell just any piece-of-crap iPhone app at its App Store. Still, a couple of things in 2008 left me a little confused about the vetting process used to decide which apps make it in and which don’t.
On the one hand, you can buy Cow Toss, an app for your iPhone that lets you throw cows around the device’s screen. But on the other, you can’t buy iBoobs, perhaps the best use of the iPhone’s accelerometer feature I’ve seen to date.
Never mind, though. You can still buy an app called Hold On, whose sole purpose is to time how long you can keep your fingertip pressed on a large white button on a red screen.
For a while there, the App Store was selling an application called I Am Rich, which sold for–get this–$1000. The app did basically nothing other than plant a red jewel thing on the iPhone’s menu screen, sending to all the world the message (as creator Armin Heinrich puts it) that “I can afford to buy a $1000 iPhone app” or (maybe more likely) “I am profoundly stupid.”
Yet something like eight people set aside their Neiman Marcus catalogs long enough to purchase the app–a bargain at one-third the price of a limited-edition Jay Strongwater Nutcracker Figurine. Developer Heinrich told the Los Angeles Times that he earned $5880 for his trouble, while Apple snapped up a tidy $2520, its standard 30 percent cut of app sales.
Effective Employee Relations During Difficult Times
In perhaps the e-mail dummheit of the year, the media consulting firm Carat accidentally shared with its employees both the news of impending layoffs, and the cool and calculated ways it intended to communicate them.
The e-mail message, which was intended only for senior managers, included a PowerPoint slide show with talking points (obtained by AdAge). From the talking points:
“If you would like to go home today and come back tomorrow to clean out your desk or office, you are free to do so. We would like you to meet with your manager following our meeting to transition your work. We will be communicating to your team today. Your manager will be contacting clients. We ask that you do not contact your clients to discuss this situation.”
The e-mail was sent out by Carat’s top HR exec in New York. I can only imagine the scene: panic, screaming, high heels running down a well-appointed hallway toward the IT office. The company’s IT department tried to pull back the wayward e-mail, but failed.
And On and On…Until Next Year
So that’s about all the dopey tech moments I could remember from 2008. I’m sure I’ve neglected a few good ones, so please chime in in the Comments section to relive some more special moments from 2008. At this point 2009 looks like it’s going to be a tough year in tech (and everywhere else), but here’s hoping that we can have a few laughs along the way, and that it’s not all gallows humor. Happy New Year, everybody.