In the battle for the title of Most Inept Tech Company, the competition is fierce. There's of course Yahoo, which has been a contender since the mid-2000s when then-CEO Terry Semel tried to turn it into an online Hollywood studio before draining it of $300-plus million in salary. The soap opera there shows no sign of abating, with Résumégate still in full throttle as I write this.
There's MySpace, the one-time market-defining social network that got bought by Rupert Murdoch for $580 million and sold by him six years later for $35 million. The new owners just settled with the FTC this week after its Fox forebears lied about sharing its users' personal information with advertisers. (A Rupert Murdoch company caught in a lie? Who'd have thunk it?) It's a strong contender too.
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Microsoft deserves a nod here for its many failed attempts to convince the world that Windows really is the most bestest operating system of all time. The trouble with the honor is that Microsoft is just too big of a moneymaking monolith. It's like a millipede; every time it shoots itself in the foot, it grows another one.
I think for pure wacky off-the-wall high-tech hijinks, though, the winner has to be AOL. Time and time again, AOL has astounded all of us by proving how brain-dead a multi-billion-dollar company can be. Take its $850 million purchase of U.K. social network Bebo, later sold for less than $10 million and a lifetime supply of Jujubes. Or the time one of its engineers decided to dump the "anonymized" search histories for 650,000 users online, just for fun -- only to find out they weren't as anonymous as they thought. Remember Seed, the "open content submission platform" that was going to revolutionize online journalism? Neither does anyone else. Or even just the name and logo changes through the years -- from America Online to AOL to Aol. -- as if people would somehow forget this was the same company that tried to stuff the world's landfills with 10 trillion free CDs.
AOL is still going strong, and by that I mean it is just as laughable as ever. The example du jour: According to a report in Pando Daily, AOL is now looking for a buyer for TechCrunch and Engadget, two of the big tech blogs it purchased in one of its many pathetic attempts to be relevant to the people who don't still use dial-up modems to reach the InterWebs. (Also: Suck on that, MG Siegler.)
The asking price for the combined AOL tech package? Allegedly a cool $70 million, or $10 million more than the original purchase price. But I bet they'd settle for $70 and a personally autographed copy of the Steve Jobs biography. That's what I'm planning to offer.
There's even a rumor that -- lord help us -- Michael Arrington might swoop back in to purchase the company back from AOL and save the day, à la Steve Jobs. Only in Arrington's case, it would be more like Steve Case. Or maybe Steve Carell.
Of course Pando Daily is one of the mushrooms that sprouted from the spores of the old TechCrunch. Considering its pedigree, I wouldn't put a whole lot of stock in any of its anonymous unconfirmed reports. We've been down that road before.
Still, it sure does sound like the old AOL. Nice to think how despite the tech world is changing at a dizzying pace, some things always remain the same.
Update: After this item posted, AOL CEO Tim Armstrong told Ad Age that TechCrunch et al. are not for sale. TechCrunch's own Alexis Tsotsis and Eric Eldon chided their former colleagues at Pando Daily thusly: "We heard the rumors, but didn’t publish them. It’s actually amazing how much b******t information/spin is out there (so be careful what you believe)."
TechCrunch not publishing a BS rumor? My, times have changed.
Who do you think is the most inept tech company of all time? Nominate your candidates below or email me: email@example.com.
This article, "Behold! The once and future most inept tech company of all time," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter.