The Best of the Worst
For many, 2017 has been a year to forget, and we're betting a lot of companies who made this year's list of tech fails similarly hope you'll forgive and forget these duds. We're not talking just about products that flopped or had serious bugs, but rather the worst data breach of all time, a cartoon avatar's tour of a hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico (seriously) and Uber being, well, Uber.
When it comes to gadgets, though, Google has the not-so-distinctive honor of making our list three times, with its new earbuds, mini smart speaker and flagship phone. Actually, it's four items if you count the YouTube Kids fiasco. Next year would be a great time to focus on quality control.
Without further ado, these are the biggest tech fails of the year.
Equifax: The mother of all breaches
Where to start with this one? How about the fact that the names, addresses, dates of birth and Social Security numbers exposed in the Equifax breach are exactly what you'd need to steal the identities of the 145 million people affected? Or that many of those people had never consented to Equifax holding their vital details in the first place? Or that Equifax left its websites unpatched for months after a serious flaw in its software had been publicly disclosed?
Or that company executives sold nearly $2 million in Equifax stock after learning of the breach? Or that the CEO blamed the breach on a single employee and not on a demonstrably lax corporate security culture? Or that the website Equifax set up so people could see whether they were affected didn't work? Try as we might, it's hard to find anything but grim humor in this story. Equifax deserves to be sued out of existence. — Paul Wagenseil
Credit: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty
Mark Zuckerberg's Tone-Deaf VR Tour
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is still pushing the possibilities of virtual reality — after all, he's gotta make something good come from that Oculus purchase. But in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, the company's VR tie-in was decidedly out of touch.
Zuckerberg used Facebook's live video feature to stream footage of a cartoon avatar of himself against a backdrop of video of the devastation in Puerto Rico. Why? The use of VR was ostensibly to share an update about Facebook's hurricane-relief efforts in a way that showed the magnitude of the storm's effects. But the video fell flat with viewers, who wondered why Zuckerberg was talking about what a big week it was for virtual reality against a backdrop of suffering.
"When you're in VR yourself, the surroundings feel quite real," Zuckerberg said in a post apologizing for the video. "But that sense of empathy doesn't extend well to people watching you as a virtual character on a 2D screen. That's something we'll need to work on over time."
To say the least. — Caitlin McGarry
Google Tango: It takes more than two
Google Tango is a fail because it was overly ambitious. While the rear-mounted tri-cam system was indeed a big step forward for phone-powered augmented reality, the technology launched on only two midtier phones: the Lenovo Phab 2 Pro and the Asus Zenfone AR.
Before Google could push the technology any further, Apple announced its ARKit technology, which essentially turned most iPhones into AR machines without the fancy three-camera system.
Not surprisingly, Google scrapped Tango in favor of the company's own ARCore. This technology will bring augmented reality apps to a wider range of phones, including the Google Pixel, Pixel 2 Devices and the Galaxy S8. — Sherri L. Smith
Credit: Google ATAP/YouTube
Snapchat Spectacles: Nothing to see here
For a hot minute — less time than it takes to figure out Snapchat — the company's brightly colored Spectacles were the hottest thing on the block. Sold exclusively from a roving pop-up booth that looked like one of the Minions, the circular video-recording specs were impossible to find.
The hype around the glasses — which sold on eBay for more than seven times their retail price (marked up to $1,000 from $129) — evaporated once the specs became widely available.
Now, the big question has become what Snapchat will do with hundreds of thousands of unsold pairs of glasses, which have even popped up in the most basic of retailers: college supply stores. Why did this product fail? Probably because you can't post directly from the glasses (which send video clips to your phone) and because they can't apply the app's popular face filters. — Henry T. Casey
Credit: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg/Getty
GameStopped: A false start for Power Pass
This was yet another year in which GameStop struggled to maintain relevance as digital games become more and more popular. In October, the company launched Power Pass, a rental service for used games, which seemed like a forward-thinking idea and even a good deal.
For $60, you'd get to check out used games from your local stores one at a time for six months, and, when time was up, you'd get to keep one of those titles. In November, the company shelved the Power Pass because of "program limitations."
A report on Kotaku suggested that the company's computers weren't set up to handle the program. We don't know if or when Power Pass will resume, pushing any chance for GameStop to become relevant again even further back. — Andrew E. Freedman
Credit: Richard Levine/Corbis/Getty
These Buds Are Not for You
Google promised a lot of machine-learning-powered smarts for its Pixel Buds wireless headphones. But the company should have applied some intelligence to the hardware and design, too.
There's no denying that these $159 wireless earbuds boast some impressive skills. Tap on the right earbud, and you can summon the Google Assistant. Say, "Help me speak German," or any one of the 40 other languages supported by the Pixel Buds, and the Assistant will tap into the Google Translate app on your Pixel phone. Then, Google Assistant will offer real-time translation, so you can carry on conversations in different languages.
The trouble is, the Pixel Buds aren't all that comfortable to wear, and they can be a hassle. Just placing them in your ear can inadvertently activate the Assistant. And then there's that cable connecting the two earbuds, which either drapes down on your neck or dangles under your chin, depending on which direction you like your superfluous cords to hang. Sound quality is so-so — not a thing you want to hear if you've just shelled out $159 for an audio accessory. — Philip Michaels
Credit: Paul Morris/Bloomberg/Getty
LeEco: Here today, gone today
In late 2016, LeEco looked poised to take on the biggest names in tech. The company was China's answer to Netflix and was making smartphones and TVs, developing an electric car to compete with Tesla, and working to acquire Vizio. LeEco even announced plans to set up a new global headquarters in Silicon Valley with more employees than Facebook.
Boy, did things change in 2017.
In the last 12 months, the company's bid for Vizio fell through, CEO Jia Yueting was ejected from the company and had his assets frozen, and one competitor publicly accused LeEco of being a Ponzi scheme. By July of 2017, LeEco was cutting its workforce and shutting down most operations. The few remaining businesses that were spun off from the main company have been desperately trying to rebrand to distance themselves from the LeEco name.
What went wrong? Taking on the biggest names in tech, with your own competitors to Netflix, Apple and Tesla, is an ambitious goal, but doing all three at once stretched the company mighty thin. — Brian Westover
Credit: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg/Getty
Not So Essential
The Essential Phone seemingly had everything going for it leading up to launch: a healthy amount of startup hype, a distinctive design in a sea of identical handsets and the backing of the "Father of Android" himself, Andy Rubin. And yet, it all unraveled pretty quickly.
A series of delays, including one bizarre incident in which the company accidentally distributed the personal information of about 70 customers in an email list, provided early warning signs.
In spite of the hype, early adopters eventually got a mostly decent Sprint exclusive with an unapologetically bad camera and a promised ecosystem of products that doesn't exist yet.
The dual-lens shooter was so awful, in fact, that Essential needed to push out several updates to improve the camera's laggy performance and lackluster low-light exposure. The startup was targeting modest sales, but couldn't even reach those figures, forcing it to slash the phone's price from $699 to $499 after less than two months on the market. — Adam Ismail
Credit: Tom’s Guide
Twitter's Nazi Problem
Twitter is one of the most popular social media platforms in the world — and also one of the easiest to exploit. Neo-Nazis, original-flavor Nazis, white supremacists, "scientific" racists, regular old racists and bigots of every stripe have made themselves a comfortable home on Twitter, but the powers that be don't really seem to care.
Jack Dorsey, the company's CEO, has repeatedly offered mealymouthed half measures, all while continuing to grant coveted verifications to some of Twitter's most hateful users. While there's a legitimate discussion to be had about how far a private platform should go to offer unmitigated free speech, Nazis and Nazi sympathizers on Twitter continue to harass, doxx, and threaten women and minority users, often without any significant consequence. — Marshall Honorof
Credit: Emily Molli/NurPhoto/Getty
Hey, Siri, Where's the HomePod?
Apple could have been the first to introduce a smart speaker; the company had reportedly been working on such a product for two years when Amazon announced its Echo in 2014. Three years later, Amazon now has six smart speakers, Google has three, and even Microsoft came out with one.
So where's the HomePod? After Apple announced its $349 smart speaker in June — promising a December delivery — the company pushed back the release date of the HomePod to early 2018. And, based on what is known thus far, this speaker won't be able to do nearly as much as Alexa. Talk about the sound of silence. — Mike Prospero
Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty
Discrimination on Facebook Continues
After ProPublica caught Facebook allowing advertisers to racially discriminate in their housing ads back in 2016, the social media company issued an apology and promised to do better. But a year later, ProPublica caught Facebook letting housing advertisers purchase ads that purposely excluded minorities.
If that weren't enough, the publication uncovered internal documents from the social networking juggernaut that revealed a convoluted censoring process that protects white men from cyberbullying over certain subsets of minority groups. It turns out that in the process of trying to weed out slurs and attacks on protected categories such as sex, race, gender identity and religion, other identifiers such as age, appearance and political affiliation remained unprotected.
That means slurs against "white men," a phrase comprised of keywords that are flagged under the protected categories of race and gender are banned. But when you look at the term "black children," the word black is protected under race, but children is categorized under the unprotected subclass of age. That essentially means that someone can make offensive posts about African-American children with little consequence.. — Sherri L. Smith
Credit: Dominic Lipinski/PA/Getty
Star Wars Battlefront II: EA's dark side
Egregious in-game microtransactions plagued a ton of big games this year, from Shadow of War to NBA 2K18, but Star Wars Battlefront II was arguably the worst offender. EA's much-anticipated Star Wars shooter launched with a controversial progression system. To unlock the best power-ups, you had to get lucky with in-game loot boxes, a process you could expedite with real money.
The publisher eventually removed micro-transactions from the game, but that didn't prevent the title's lukewarm reviews and underwhelming sales, nor did it stop EA from getting the most downvoted comment in Reddit history.
There's a good game to be found in Battlefront II — it's just too bad that EA buried it in business practices that even Emperor Palpatine would think twice about. — Mike Andronico
Google Home Mini: Major privacy violation
You've got the touch … or maybe not, if you're the Google Home Mini. Google's competitor to the Echo Dot was designed with touch controls on its top, which you could use to activate Google Assistant.
Problem was, the touch controls thought they were being pressed continually, which meant that Google Assistant was listening to, and recording, every word you said. Google tried to fix this problem with a firmware update, but when that didn't work, the company had to disable this feature completely. — Mike Prospero
Credit: Tom’s Guide
Uber Hails a Heap of Scandals
The ride-hailing app Uber has transformed transportation in cities around the world, but the company's recent history is a master class in how to succeed despite doing just about everything wrong.
Uber's list of foul-ups this year alone is extensive: The company been accused of fostering a culture of sexual harassment, stealing other companies' intellectual property, destroying incriminating evidence, and paying off hackers who stole the personal data of both drivers and passengers and then covering up the hack for a year. That isn't a comprehensive list.
Uber co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick was pushed out of his leadership role this spring for allowing Uber to become embroiled in a never-ending series of scandals. But the company is still in the thick of a lawsuit over whether its employees stole secrets from Google's self-driving-car spin-off, Waymo, to propel Uber's own self-driving-car initiative.
Can Uber's reputation recover from the company's self-inflicted wounds? Will people continue to use the app? Signs point to yes, but who knows what 2018 has in store. — Caitlin McGarry
Credit: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty
This Juice Was Not Worth the Squeeze
What do you get when you give a bunch of privileged, kale-munching Silicon Valley types $120 million in venture capital? Juicero, one of the biggest laughingstocks of 2017.
The Wi-Fi-enabled juicer came with proprietary packets that it squeezed into juice. It cost $400 (after an initial price cut from $700), and that was before you bought the produce.
Never mind that videos popped up showing that you could squeeze the bags with your own bare hands (rendering the Juicero device completely unnecessary). People saw the startup as a symbol of wild excess, and the company shut down after just 16 months in business. — Andrew E. Freedman
YouTube and Kids Don't Mix
If parents needed another reminder that they shouldn't give young children unfettered access to the internet, they got one in 2017. Throughout the year, amateur online sleuths found scores of YouTube videos that appeared to be child-friendly, but turned out to contain disturbing adult content.
Unsuspecting kids (and parents) have started watching innocent-looking videos of cartoon characters like Peppa Pig or Elsa from Frozen, only to see them end up in violent or sexual situations during the clip. The problems occurred not only on regular YouTube, but also on the service's child-focused YouTube Kids channel.
As if misleading kid's videos weren't bad enough, YouTube has also faced a significant pedophilia problem in 2017. Several advertisers, including the Mars candy company and Mondelez, which makes Oreos, pulled their campaigns after their ads appeared on top of videos of scantily clad children. To make matters worse, the website's algorithm would suggest more clips of underdressed kids as related content. The videos' comment sections were filled with messages from child predators.
In an attempt to clean things up, YouTube issued a new five-point policy in November. This involves faster takedowns, removing ads from inappropriate videos that target families and blocking predatory user comments. — Avram Piltch
Credit: Owl Funny TV/YouTube
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Pixel 2 XL: We're all beta testers
Here's how we'd sum up the initial quality control for the Pixel 2 XL: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
The Pixel 2 XL had so many issues shortly after launch that we really wondered whether anyone at Google used the handset before it shipped. We also dropped the rating from a spectacular 9/10 to an 8.
First came complaints related to the Pixel 2 XL's screen, including washed-out colors, narrow viewing angles and a splotchy, paper-like texture. Oh, and don't forget burn-in. Google eventually responded to some of those complaints through an update, which included a new Saturated mode.
The Pixel 2 launch was mostly smooth, but that smaller phone suffered from audio clicking and hissing noises that were also addressed in an update. Google is still relatively new at this hardware game, so here's an idea: Test your phones before you launch them. — Mark Spoonauer
Credit: Tom’s Guide