RETURN ON TECHNOLOGY Tim Altom: Here is list of the worst tech foibles of 2005

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Well, happy holidays again, my brethren! It’s once more time for my holiday gift to you, a compendium of technological disasters that test the assertion that we’re happiest when we read about those who have been more humiliated than we were. As military pilots used to say about their own missteps, “Man, that’ll leave a crater.”

The most recent example in this hall of horrors is Mizuho Securities, as reported by CNN Dec. 9. Massive, Tokyo-based Mizuho switched two numbers and lost more than $220 million. A staffer was supposed to enter a sell order for one share of stock in a new offering, at a price of 610,000 yen. Somehow the two numbers were swapped, and he wound up offering 610,000 shares for one yen each. One of the great things about technology is how it lets you make costly mistakes very, very quickly.

New York-based Computer Associates International Inc. lost $7 million in Indiana alone in 2005, according to The Indianapolis Star, when it failed to provide software that would tie together some 400 civil and criminal courts throughout the state. The part that must have been galling for Computer Associates was that it had to reimburse the state $1 million more than the state paid the company in the first place. The idea was to make it possible to search the whole state’s court records from a single computer. Looking back, it would seem as if $6 million was wildly optimistic, considering that some little counties don’t have computers at all.

In many respects, colleges and universities are no different from corporations. They have records and manpower scattered around in departments, too. The lure of enterprise resource planning (ERP) software is just as strong for higher education as for anyone else. The risks are just as big, too, as the University of Massachusetts-Amherst found out.

According to a May article in CIO magazine, the university’s brand new ERP system, which would let students register, locate classes, manage insurance and other things from one screen, choked and died the first day of school, leaving 24,000 students without online support. Long lines queued up at offices as students scrambled to figure out where to go, what to do, and-very important-how to pay for it all.

The new ERP managed financial aid, which students depended on for food and lodging, as well as tuition. The same problem plagued Indiana University, where its faulty ERP system recently left 3,000 students virtually penniless after they had already qualified for loans. The university had to extend short-term loans so students wouldn’t starve.

From the same issue of CIO comes a story about Comair, an airline that was stumbling along with old legacy software to do its crew management. In 2004, the old system finally gasped its last during the holidays, when air traffic is at its peak. The consequent chaos canceled or delayed 3,900 flights and stranded some 200,000 passengers. The financial tally to both Comair and its parent company, Delta Air Lines, was $20 million, not counting the cost of actually replacing the system.

Network World magazine reported on a cell phone from Siemens that plays a disconnection tune when the battery is about to run out. The problem is that the tune plays so loudly the user can be deafened from it. Siemens responded by saying, “It could only happen if the user is holding the device directly to the ear when the tone is playing.” It’s a cell phone. Go figure.

Even one of the world’s biggest companies overlooks things. A few years ago, Microsoft forgot to re-register its domain name “,” when a sympathetic customer thoughtfully did it for them. Last year, it was revealed that Microsoft had finally gotten around to registering the word “Excel” as a trademark, and then only when it became embroiled in a trademark dispute with the company SavvySoft, which made a product named “TurboExcel.”

My vote for Biggest Boneheaded Decision of the Year goes to Sony, for its release of hacker software packaged as music CDs. I wrote on this a while back. Sony’s CDs surreptitiously loaded a “rootkit” onto customers’ computers, which is a software package that conceals whatever skullduggery is being done by even more damaging software.

Then it turned out Sony might have misused open-source software to do it. Given the PR problems this caused, as well as numerous lawsuits and boycotts throughout the world, the true costs might never be accurately known. But you’d think a world leader in technology would be a teensy bit more prescient about what might happen if it hijacks customers’ computers.

I could go on indefinitely, but my editor won’t let me, the Grinch. Have a happy holiday season, and stay out of the newspapers. I’m watching.

Altom is a senior business consultant for Perficient Consulting. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at

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