From disastrous product launches to unfathomable business decisions and nasty cases of hubris, 2011 saw a wide variety of tech industry misfires, backfires and flame-outs. Here we take a look at five of the most gobsmacking.

BlackBerry PlayBook: When it comes to failed tablets, this year has seen more than its fair share with Android devices widely flopping and the HP TouchPad turning out to be a touch embarrassing. But no tablet trainwreck has been quite as bad as RIM’s BlackBerry PlayBook.

The first of RIM’s devices to use BBX, the new QNX-based operating system, the PlayBook launched in April with very few apps and, crucially, without native support for email or calendaring. The patch that should fix the email problem still hasn’t been released and isn’t now expected until February 2012.

RIM must be wishing it could ditch the now albatross-shaped PlayBook, but as its only BBX-based device, they are stuck.Getty Images

The PlayBook has been such a disaster that RIM had to slash prices and write off the value of its remaining inventory, slashing $485 mn off its pre-tax profits. Although RIM hopes that deep discounts globally might reverse the fortunes of both the PlayBook and the company, customers haven’t forgotten the extended outage earlier in the year that disconnected millions of users worldwide.

RIM must be wishing it could ditch the now albatross-shaped PlayBook, but as its only BBX-based device, they are stuck.Question is, can RIM survive through 2012?

Kapil Sibal: A New York Times report that communications minister Kapil Sibal was demanding internet companies, including Microsoft, Facebook, Google and Yahoo, pre-screen user generated content sparked a firestorm of outrage from India’s digerati.

Initial reports said that Sibal wanted social media sites to proactively look for and delete “objectionable content”, an impossible task. Sibal himself in press interviews seemed very frustrated that Facebook and friends “raised their hands expressing inability to do anything”, but he later did a U-turn and began to deny that he had ever asked for pre-screening of content.

Sibal said that Internet giants such as Facebook and Google have ignored his demands to screen derogatory material from their sites, so the government would have to take action on its own. AP

To complete his pirouette, Sibal has now asked Google, Facebook and Twitter for suggestions on how the government can use social media to “empower government”, because, yeah, government needs more power.

Whatever Sipal’s final position on pre-screening and social media turns out to be, he has effectively undermined his own credibility as communications minister.

HP: I was originally going to put the HP TouchPad as one of this year’s biggest tech failures but, whilst it certainly was a spectacular own goal, Hewlett Packard’s wider business failures overshadow that of its products.

After the TouchPad went down the tubes, HP confused pretty much everyone by announcing that it was going to ditch its PC business to refocus on enterprise software. Given HP leads the Windows PC market and often uses its ability to provide both hardware and software to win contracts, the decision to spin off or sell the division seemed odd. Indeed, HP quickly changed its mind when stock plummeted and then sacked CEO Leo Apotheker, whose idea it was.

Hewlett Packard's wider business failures overshadow that of its products.Reuters

HP also said it was going to sell off webOS, which it acquired when it bought Palm for $1.2 bn in 2010, but no one seemed all that interested in buying. Instead, they decided to open source webOS and axed some 500 jobs in the process.

HP’s profits fell off a cliff in the fourth quarter, plunging 91 percent. New CEO Meg Whitman has a steep mountain to climb to rehabilitate HP, but the signs aren’t good. Along with RIM, HP could go the way of the dodo in 2012.

SOPA/PIPA: When it comes to era-ending stupidity, it’s hard to beat the Stop Online Piracy Act and Protect IP Act. These two acts are currently progressing through the American legislative system and are both strong candidates for destroying the internet as we know it.

SOPA would provide rightsholders with the ability to force payment providers to sever their relationships with any website ‘accused’ of copyright infringement. They would also be able to get injunctions to force ISPs to damage their own DNS records to effectively censor the site off the web. All this would be done without adequate due process or recourse, giving the notoriously feckless recording industry a bottomless pit of mud to fling around the web.

It’s no exaggeration to say that SOPA and PIPA could easily end the web as we know it. Pretty much everyone you could think of opposes the bills, from tech giants to civil liberties groups to journalists to lawemakers. But that may not be enough to counter the very well-funded lobbyists trying to frog march this legislation through.

Enjoy the web whilst you’ve got it, for tomorrow it may be gone.

Color : In comparison to our other tech failures, Color seems like such a small, innocuous and almost pitiful example of hubris. An iPhone and Android app in which users could share photos with other Color users within 100 feet. Investors ploughed $41 mn into Color, getting all over-excited about the buzzword bingo that surrounded the app.

But when it launched in March, it was an instant failure. Despite the massive hype, people didn’t seem to want to share their photos in such a scattershot way. With no privacy features, no friends lists and no filtering, it was an app for extreme extroverts only.

Color was a great example of what happens when start-ups, stuck in the rarefied bubble of Silicon Valley, fail to understand how normal people live their lives. Sharing, yes, we like to do that, but sharing indiscriminately with everyone nearby? Not so much.

In the end, Color blew its cash on an app no one wanted and had to – to continue the theme of this year’s failures – ‘pivot’ and reinvent itself as a live video broadcasting tool for Facebook. Given that it can only do 30 seconds of video at a time, it’s not clear that its new direction is going to work either.

Which tech flops had you gasping in surprise through 2011? And which companies do you see running into trouble in 2012? Let us know in the comments!

Publish date: December 19, 2011 3:17 pm| Modified date: December 19, 2011 3:17 pm

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