2007’s Five Most Embarrassing Technology Moments

Everybody has good years and bad years, and for most of us, each year brings a mix of the two. Vendors are no different. Every year sees embarrassing gaffs, such as Sony’s incredible exploding batteries in 2006 and its CD rootkit in 2005.

Just as the wider world is fascinated with the goings-on of Britney Spears, the technology industry follows its own achievements and train wrecks with a fascination expressed in blogs, emails to the editors, and attempts to duplicate the latest and greatest of the industry’s odd news. After the recent post on YouTube, how many of us were tempted to try to charge our cell phones with an onion and 2 cups of Gatorade? (Blog posts disagree as to whether or not this works). Since there is no such thing as People for the technology industry, I’m taking this opportunity to offer up my own Top Five for 2007.

For some reason, the year started out slowly with the first big event reported in July. Likewise, Sony failed to measure up this year—not a single showing among the Top Five. Nevertheless, the technology market did not disappoint, as Cisco, Apple, and Microsoft all delivered. As always, the market entertained us with the momentary diversions that keep our industry so interesting. My five favorites are highlighted below:

Cisco, Duke, and Apple: iPhone takes down Duke Wi-Fi, July – In July, network administrators at Duke University reported that the Wi-Fi connection on the iPhone was periodically knocking out cross-campus Cisco Wireless LAN (WLAN) access points. Apparently, the access points were being flooded with up to 30,000 address resolution protocol (ARP) messages per second. In the process of troubleshooting the problem, network administrators traced it to the 150+ iPhones registered on-campus.

The flood of messages produced results similar to those of a hacker’s denial of service (DOS) attack, in which DOS requests monopolize and finally crash a router. In Duke’s case, the access points would be kicked offline for 10-to-15 minutes, reporting as being “out of service.” This debacle sparked a flood of debate in the geek nation as speculation ran rampant regarding who and/or what was to blame. Was it Cisco, Duke, or Apple?

Days after the problem was first described, Duke’s CIO announced that a specific set of conditions on the Duke wireless network caused the outages, in conjunction with Cisco equipment. In a follow-up advisory, Cisco stated that the problem was due to “vulnerabilities in the handling of ARP packets.”

Cisco issued a fix for the problem, and it has not recurred. Although this was a case of temporary embarrassment for all concerned, Cisco stepped up to solve the problem and a happy resolution was enjoyed by all, including industry watchers.

Apple: Teen unlocks iPhone, August – In January 2007, Apple introduced the iPhone, a leading-edge device that incorporates three popular technologies: a mobile phone, a touch screen iPod and wireless Internet. According to Steve Jobs, “iPhone is a revolutionary and magical product that is literally five years ahead of any other mobile phone.” The iPhone began shipping in June, and immediately became the darling of the technologically well-heeled.

In introducing the iPhone, Apple inked an exclusive contract with AT&T as the only carrier approved to provide wireless iPhone service. According to AT&T, “Working together ensures seamless integration between network and device.” This exclusive contract also gave Apple some breathing room to work out any kinks with a single carrier, before broadening iPhone distribution to the wider mobile world.

Imagine our surprise when, in August of 2007, New Jersey teenager George Hotz, 17, announced that he had broken the blocking mechanism and opened up the iPhone to multiple carriers besides AT&T. By substituting a new SIM card for the one included with the iPhone, users could break the 2-year “required” AT&T contract in favor of virtually any GSM carrier. Hotz indicated that the hack was complicated and required hardware as well as software changes. Similar announcements followed from other hackers, but George’s “can-do,” “first-to-market” attitude paid off. He was offered a new 350Z and a job for his efforts.

So, what is the lesson learned from this series of events? Even for products that are “five years ahead” of the competition, apparently security is still an afterthought.

Apple and AT&T: YouTube iPhone 300 page phone bill, August – The 300 page iPhone bill—mailed in a box—gave all of us a respite from the record heat of August, and a good belly laugh. Those of us who saw the story on YouTube thought it was a joke—turned out it wasn’t after all. Check the video out at: .

A week later, AT&T explained the 300 page phone bill phenomenon as a “default” setting gone awry. If subscribers did nothing, their entire bill would be itemized and mailed to them in a box. If they chose, they could opt to receive a summary that was, presumably, somewhat shorter. Say, 30 pages instead of 300? That explanation still left industry watchers scratching their heads. If T-Mobile can manage to condense my BlackBerry bill to the point where it can be sent in a normal mailing envelope, why can’t AT&T do the same thing with an iPhone bill?

Cisco Brazil: October – Reports that the Brazilian government had arrested Cisco’s senior executives in that country were greeted by disbelief in the U.S. We were spoon-fed on Cisco’s squeaky-clean persona, and in Cisco World, there is no room for such unsavory high jinx. In fact, the internal name the Brazilian police used for the round-up was “Operation Persona.” They stated that a group of over 40 individuals, including Cisco Brazil’s top executives, had allegedly evaded taxes on imported Cisco equipment. Cisco was initially non-committal, but fired Carlos Carnevali, a former VP for Latin America, on Thanksgiving day.

Microsoft: Santa is a Dirty Old Man, December – For my final choice, there wasn’t even a real contest. A report that Windows XP tested nearly twice as fast as Vista was definitely a contender, but we had to go with the foul-mouthed Santa.

Apparently, Microsoft added an automated Santa Claus agent to Windows Live Messenger, and users soon found a way to trip up the old guy and make him talk dirty. Santa’s actual words are unquotable in mixed company, but well-worthy of being among the Top Five in the embarrassing category. Needless to say, once the word leaked out, users flocked to the site to trip the old man up and see for themselves what a dirty Santa sounds like.

There was, of course, endless blog speculation about Santa bots and bug fixes, and questions about why Microsoft wasn’t putting R&D into bug fixing instead of bots. Microsoft initially attempted to fix the problem by rendering Santa mute, but eventually yanked him from its site and sent him back to the North Pole to chill out.

Happy Holidays!

Julie Craig is a senior analyst with Boulder, Colo.-based Enterprise Management Associates, an industry research firm focused on IT management. Julie can reached at [email protected] .