At the end of each year, eWEEK Labs turns its gaze not only upon the products we tested that most impressed us by their quality, innovation or overall importance, but on the technology gaffes that left us scratching our heads. With that, we present our Stupid Tech Tricks of 2010.
More IP Follies
In eWEEK Labs’ 2006 Stupid Tech Tricks, I cited the patent madness that had marked the year, with the NTP versus RIM showdown that shook the smartphone world and the Novell/Microsoft patent deal that cast a shadow over the open-source software market. At the same time, I looked ahead optimistically toward potential clarifications of future Supreme Court rulings.
Jump ahead to 2010, and the software patent picture looks much the same: Smartphone vendors and adjacent players remain locked in a web of lawsuits; Paul Allen’s Interval Licensing laid claim to fundamental Web ideas in a series of suits targeting popular Internet sites; and the Supreme Court passed on an opportunity to prune the patent thickets when it handed down a very narrow ruling in Bilski vs. Kappos.
Looking ahead to 2011, we’re likely in for more of the same patent uncertainty. In particular, I’m waiting to hear what becomes of the 800+ patents that Novell just sold to a Microsoft-led consortium.
This summer, when Google announced its plans to kill off its newfangled collaboration service Google Wave by the end of the year, plenty of Web watchers applauded the move. The service, which was billed in part as a replacement for e-mail and instant messaging, lacked a clear e-mail-to-Wave migration or integration path. If the service was to supplant e-mail, it was never quite clear how it was supposed to work.
While I was never completely satisfied with the way Google implemented the service, I maintain that it was silly for the Internet giant to pull the plug on the promising effort less than a year after unleashing it. I wasn’t a heavy user of Wave, but the Labs team did try a few things with the service. For example, we used Wave for a couple of event live blogs and for planning eWEEK’s 2011 editorial calendar.
AT&T 3G Network: Nothing to Undo, Cancel?
In 2009, we lambasted AT&T 3G service for the Apple iPhone. 2010 has been more of the same. Rumors of a Verizon iPhone popped up throughout 2010-not from a love of Verizon, but from a hope for improved service in San Francisco and New York City.
Whether standing on a crowded BART platform or desperately running around the perimeter of a downtown office tower looking for a signal, we found AT&T cellular service on the iPhone to be a continuing source of frustration. In congested areas, many an iPhone user was reduced to glumly sorting stored e-mails while others using anything-but-an-iPhone happily communicated to their heart’s content.
It’s a testament to the iPhone’s allure that some subscribers continue to tolerate elusive signals and on-again-off-again call and text messaging capabilities. In 2010, two eWEEK Labs staffers left AT&T and the iPhone: One individual moved to a BlackBerry on T-Mobile, and the other one switched to-gasp-MetroPCS.
Invasion of the Body Scanners; You Got Xserved; BGP Gets Hijacked;
TSA Invasion of the Body Scanners
When you’re trying to get millions of people to buy into a security program, you usually talk about it first. Not so with the Nov. 1 introduction of invasive imaging and physical searches of U.S. airline passengers. The efficacy of the new search procedures isn’t at issue here.
What qualifies the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) for a special technology callout is the idea that the element of surprise offers any meaningful protection in a high-volume system such as air travel. The health and civil liberty questions raised by the use of these technologies and techniques are fair game for discussion in an open society. Springing these changes as a fait accompli is a classic illustration of how to get a new security policy started on the wrong foot.
You Got Xserved
When the Xserve debuted in 2002 as Apple’s first 1U rack mount server, the company was still groping for a mission. iPhone and iPad were far off in the future, and even long-time Apple fans were wondering if the iPod was going to succeed or be another flop for the company. At the time, it seemed like a well-hedged bet: The Xserve found a loyal following among academics and in Hollywood, but it failed to capture the hearts of IT.
But earlier this year, Apple chose to pass up the opportunity to upgrade Xserve to the latest Intel Westmere processors-the implementation of which would have required minimal effort from Apple’s engineering team. Instead, it decided to terminate the Xserve with less than three months’ notice to its customers. The company’s loyal big-iron accounts received, as an early lump of coal in their stockings, Apple’s advice to either make do with the Mac Mini Server or to make room in their server cabinets for the bulky (13U) Mac Pro.
BGP Gets Hijacked
Early in 2010, a substantial chunk of the world’s Internet traffic was routed through Chinese service providers-apparently through the use of false BGP (Border Gateway Protocol) routes. On April 8, network tables claiming that the best path from point A to point B ran through China caused traffic intended for Dell, IBM, Microsoft and Yahoo, as well as Uncle Sam, to be routed through the networks of China Telecom.
Although the diversion lasted only 18 minutes, the affected traffic was addressed to about 15 percent of the Internet destinations, and included the U.S. Senate; the Commerce and Defense departments; the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps; NASA; NOAA; and other branches of the federal government. When the Internet was first implemented, it ran on the honor system. Unfortunately, honor is a commodity in short supply in the real world, and an implementation of BGP that’s secured against accidental or deliberate subversion is long overdue.
What White iPhone 4?; Microsoft Devalues the Kin; SF’s SAR Flap
What White iPhone 4?
At the iPhone 4’s launch during Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference 2010 in June, CEO Steve Jobs promised customers a version of the iPhone 4 in white, but so far, it has proven to be too challenging to manufacture them for public use. After being touted for months on the Apple online store as being available at various dates in the future, the company in October officially pushed back availability of the white iPhone 4 to spring 2011. Given that the company’s release schedule for the iPhone has seen new models become available in late June, that doesn’t leave much wiggle room between the delivery of the white iPhone 4 and the presumed release of the iPhone 5.
Meanwhile, reports have surfaced of the white iPhone 4 being issued for use by Apple staff, and of bootlegged white iPhones being sold in Chinese stores at prices far beyond the phone’s stated retail price. The Apple Website has only fleeting references to the white iPhone 4, reminding us of careless airbrush artists in the Soviet Union who would leave traces of their rendering of yesterday’s heroes as today’s unpersons.
Microsoft Devalues the Kin
“Hi. Welcome to Verizon, can I interest you in our latest smartphone called the Kin? It’s from Microsoft and is designed to help you stay in touch and share with all your contacts on the go, no matter how you communicate with them.”
“Nah, I had a Windows Mobile phone for work last year and I hated it.”
“This isn’t based in Windows Mobile. Microsoft built something new for the Kin.”
“Oh, this is Windows Phone? I thought that wasn’t out until later this year.”
“No, this isn’t Windows Phone either. This is something new from Microsoft, designed to help you stay in touch and share with all your contacts on the go, no matter how you communicate with them.”
“So it will do Web, calendar, instant messaging, exchange integration, all that stuff too?”
“Let me check.” Rep goes away; then comes back. “Uh, there is not any IM or calendar at this time. I’m sure they’ll get that worked out soon though.”
“Um, then it’s cheaper, right? Since it can’t do everything that the Droid or a BlackBerry can do, the service plan will cost less each month, right?”
“It leverages the same attractive and affordable data pricing structures as our other smartphones.”
“Uh … I think I’ll pass.”
“Well then, can I interest you in our latest feature phone from Microsoft? It’s called the Kin, and it is designed to help you stay in touch and share with all your contacts on the go, no matter how you communicate with them.”
San Francisco’s SAR Flap
In June, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom signed into law a bill proposing to require cell phone merchants to display the Specific Absorption Rate (SAR) for each phone model sold within city limits, a value derived from FCC-mandated radiation emission testing conducted before the phone’s release. The theory was that customers should have easy access to this information, and that making such information public could force hardware makers to try harder to engineer products that score better on the test.
Chalk one up for informed decision making, right? Maybe not.
Soon thereafter, the CTIA, an organization that represents the wireless communications industry, sued the city, stating that all phones sold in the United States meet FCC-mandated emissions strictures (RF emissions of 1.6 Watts per kilogram or less). According to the CTIA, disseminating such comparative information gives the impression that the FCC guidelines aren’t good enough and will also impart the notion that lower scores equal safer devices. Besides, all that information is in the manual, if the consumer cares to look.
Then the CTIA petulantly took its ball and went home, immediately announcing that is would move its annual Enterprise and Applications conference from San Francisco to San Diego, starting in 2011.
The best part of the whole saga was, however, when CTIA Vice President of Public Affairs John Walls issued a statement that said, “The FCC has determined that all wireless phones legally sold in the United States are ‘safe’,” a carefully designed piece of word craft that gives the impression that “safe” may not actually equal safety.