The 25 worst tech products of all time

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 behaviour.

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 re-branding itself as a content provider, not an access service.

Though America Online has shown some improvement lately–with better browsers and email 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)

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’s 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’s 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. In the U.S., the Federal Trade Commission 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 (a.k.a. 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 co

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