These products are so bad, they belong in the high-tech hall of shame.
At PC World, 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.