The Biggest Tech Companies' Single Biggest Failures of 2011

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Even giants stumble. None of the four biggest tech companies -- Apple, Facebook, Google and Amazon -- made it through the year without a misstep.

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Much has been written about the coming showdown among the four tech giants -- Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. As Farhad Manjoo wrote in FastCompany:

To state this as clearly as possible: The four American companies that have come to define 21st-century information technology and entertainment are on the verge of war. Over the next two years, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google will increasingly collide in the markets for mobile phones and tablets, mobile apps, social networking, and more.

This past year has seen bumbling missteps by each of these companies, some of which are the results of their efforts to step into another's turf, and some of which are the results of the natural hazards of the spaces they inhabit.

Here's a look at each company's missteps of the year now coming to a close.

1. Google's Social Networking Gambit Fails to Launch

In late June Google launched its latest attempt at building a Facebook-like social site, Google+. For a few weeks (days?), Google+ was the only thing anyone in the tech world could think about; everyone was trying to figure out what they would use it for. But since then, Google+ has sputtered along. David Sarno at The Los Angeles Times recently wrote, "a more complete set of data shows that Google+ has been fighting declines for most of its nearly five-month history." Every now and then it gets a boost of activity (such as when it became open to the public after an invitation-only opening, or the more recent roll-out of official pages for publications and companies), but in the end it seems to be having trouble catching on. In early November, Slate proclaimed the fledgling network already dead.

Joshua Gans postulated about why Google+ has floundered in the Harvard Business Review:

But critically, the Facebook default encourages you not to limit sharing. Indeed, you'll share the vast majority of information on Facebook with all of your friends. On Google, you'll likely exercise your limited sharing options, thinking about which circle to share each post with as you go.

The upshot of this is, on the whole, Google has incentives to reduce the amount of sharing going on while Facebook seeks to set defaults to maximize it. This is why sometimes people claim that Facebook "gets social" and Google does not.

This distinction has a critical impact on each company's business. The network effects by which users value a particular network increase based on the amount of sharing going on. One telephone is useless. But with many millions and a phone book, you're getting somewhere. Facebook's defaults nudge  people towards sharing while Google's do not. Indeed, Google's entire attraction is its sales pitch, "Suppose you don't want to share something with all your friends, we make that easy." So it attracts users more inclined to limit sharing.

For Google, the problems don't end with Google+. Rather, the effort to lift Google+ into the social-networking stratosphere has caused Google to make other mistakes, in particular an effort to get Google Reader users to share content on Google+, which resulted in the end of Reader's well-loved sharing features. Additionally, recent tweaks to Gmail and Google's search bars, meant to bring more of Google's products under one visual-language umbrella, have caused frustration among some users. 

2. Amazon's Kindle Fire Backfires Among Reviewers

When Amazon unveiled the Kindle Fire at a press event in September, many people were impressed with the price -- a tablet for just $199? iPads were going to look so overpriced in comparison.

But once reviews started rolling in in November, the Kindle Fire's price began to symbolize not a bargain but a piece of junk: You get what you pay for, was the resounding assessment. 

Despite the unhappy reviewers, Kindle Fires have still been selling well. Even if the Fire can't match the iPad, overall Amazon's line of hardware (the range of Kindles starting at $79) are excellent, perhaps the most successful example of the tech giants' varying efforts to play each other's games.

3. Apple's Siri Doesn't Live Up to Its Promise

Siri, Apple's personal assistant bot who lives inside the iPhone 4S, has taken Apple followers for a bit of a ride. First, she disappointed onlookers who expected Apple to release an iPhone5, then she got everyone all excited with her sassy style and overall how-cool-is-it-that-I-can-talk-to-my-phone trick. But since then, Siri's come in for a round of drubbing in the press. She didn't work because of network failures. She seemed determined to not help women find nearby abortion clinics. Then Gizmodo's Mat Honan took her to task for failing to live up to Apple's promise. He wrote:

If I wanted a half-baked voice control system, I could snag an Android phone for $49 at T-Mobile. Instead, I waited, and gladly plunked down hundreds of dollars on a new iPhone in October--because it promised to be flawless (or close enough), like everything before it.

Check out any of Apple's ads for the iPhone 4S. They're promoting Siri so hard you'd be forgiven for thinking Siri is the new CEO of Apple. And it's not just that first wave of TV ads, a recent email Apple sent out urges you to "Give the phone that everyone's talking about. And talking to." It promises "Siri: The intelligent assistant you can ask to make calls, send texts, set reminders, and more."

What those Apple ads fail to report--at all--is that Siri is very much a half-baked product. Siri is officially in beta. Go to Siri's homepage on Apple.com, and you'll even notice a little beta tag by the name.

I'm sorry. Beta? Beta is for Google

Apple is reportedly now hiring two people to help improve Siri, so maybe she will live up to her promise after all. But even that promise -- a phone that can tell the weather and send text messages all by voice command -- may seem more like a neat party trick than a useful application once the novelty wears off.

4. Facebook's Timeline Feature Trickles Out

After Facebook announced its new Timeline system in September, everyone expected it to appear on their screens within days. That's because the company trumpeted its arrival as the next generation of social networking. It was supposed to be The Next Big Thing, and yet all we've heard is that would begin appearing in New Zealand soon.

That said, a delay for Facebook's timeline may actually be an instance of a bigger disaster averted. Facebook upgrades typically result in privacy issues, resulting in a what is now routine apology from Mark Zuckerberg. When Timeline does eventually roll out in the coming months, we'll have a better idea of whether Facebook is going to do better when it comes to respecting the privacy of its users.


Image: Google/Amazon/Apple/Facebook.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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