ALTOM: Blessed are the tech-sector risk-takers who make the leap

This is the last column before Christmas, and in keeping with long tradition, I’m writing a year-end column about screw-ups and techno-pratfalls that should make you glad you’re not in the hottest of hot seats.

This year I’m focusing on big failures that occurred not because of stupidity or incompetence, but because they were bets on new things that didn’t work out.

The federal government is often what springs to mind when we think about big failures, and sometimes it’s true. NASA is one of the prime examples. NASA has dared to do the near-impossible for 54 years as of last October. It’s put a man on the moon, discovered hundreds of planets far from our solar system, created a flying truck for missions into space, and explored most of the major bodies in our back yard.

NASA’s technology spinoffs number nearly 2,000. But NASA is also accident-prone. In its early days, the rush to equal the Russian launch of Sputnik resulted in a spectacular and humiliating crash. The first satellite launch ended with a massive fireball without even clearing the pad, a disaster promptly dubbed “Kaputnik.”

NASA has lost 15 astronauts, 12 of which were in flight at the time. The other three were in astronaut training. That doesn’t count another five that have died in training-jet crashes.

The Hubble Space Telescope, which is a NASA triumph, started out as a NASA failure of epic proportions. Hubble was put on the drawing board as early as 1970 to be launched in 1983, but it wasn’t until 1990 that it got off the ground.

Then it was found that the hugely expensive mirror had been ground incorrectly and images were therefore fuzzier than they should be. Subsequent fixes soaked up millions of dollars.

Elsewhere, NASA’s Genesis spacecraft was sent into space to collect material from the solar wind and was supposed to waft down to earth and be snatched mid-drop, but instead slammed into the ground.

The Mars Polar Lander, which actually reached Mars, quit communicating with Earth almost immediately upon arrival. The Mars probe Deep Space 2 fared no better. Nor did the Mars Climate Orbiter. Later rovers, however, have exceeded expectations many times over.

NASA, of course, is a long way from being alone in turning valiant attempts into massive fiascos. Google has had successes beyond the dreams of the most optimistic of us, yet has also laid some gargantuan goose eggs as well as a horde of smaller ones.

Lost against the background noise of cheering have been the squeaks of squashed projects. Google Accelerator, Google Answers, Google Coupons, Google Voice Search, Google Viewer, Google Checkout and Google Orkut are just some of the Google releases that cratered, either gently or dramatically.

Google Wave was one of the most ambitious efforts—and one of the most public failures. Wave was billed as a real-time messaging platform, combining Twitter, e-mail and instant messaging into a single means of involving multiple stakeholders in vital conversations. To say that it didn’t take off is an understatement. After a heady introduction in 2009, it staggered along until April of this year, when it was finally axed.

Apple has had its embarrassments, like Newton, Lisa and Cube. Microsoft has whiffed many times, including the Zune, WebTV, Vista, Bob and Clippy. Motorola was heavily invested in Iridium, a company that was to provide planet-wide mobile phone service through a series of satellites. The failed company consumed billions before ending up in bankruptcy. Entire dot-com companies, such as the notorious, have gone down in flames.

The man now hailed as Apple’s savior, Steve Jobs, once headed the failed and expensive startup NeXT. IBM has had its share, too, with the PCjr and OS/2, among others. NewsCorp’s MySpace started out with great promise, but became a pathetic also-ran. The final tally for these failures is easily in the high tens of billions of dollars.

I don’t list all of these with any trace of Schadenfreude. I’m not exulting over these catastrophes.

Indeed, I don’t come to bury these enterprises, but to praise them. I’m glad they happened. I’m delighted that the spirit of adventure in business is still so strong that major companies remain willing to jump off the cliff to see if their untried wings will carry them.

Much of the time, those wings fold and the parachute must be deployed.

When you dare great things, you go splat regularly and dramatically, but you have marvelous success stories, too. We now know what doesn’t work, which helps us devise things that will.

In business, you can keep doing the same things every day if they pay enough, or you can take a calculated leap. I understand those who stick with the former strategy, but I stand in awe of those who do the latter.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, and may all your failures be good ones.•


Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at

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