Top ten unlucky IT incidents

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Top ten unlucky IT incidents

No matter how much we tell ourselves that we are rational, scientific human beings a Friday 13th still sends a tremor up some spines. But unluckiness happens no matter what the date.

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The following examples of bad luck in the IT industry show that it's not the date that does you in, it's the luck.

Even Christmas Day would be unlucky for some of the people and companies below, who seem to have had not just a black cat cross their path, but a pride of pumas locked in their living rooms.

10. Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory (SSL)

Iain Thomson: Back in the middle of the 1950s SSL began the first research into silicon semiconductor technology in Silicon Valley.

Back then most chips were made of Germanium but a company called Texas Instruments had had some luck with silicon so SSL set up in California to check out the idea, and met with great success.

But unfortunately the company ran into problems. The boss, William Shockley, had a management style that was described as so hands-on as verging on the paranoid, including lie detector tests for staff.

It didn't help that Shockley was going through something of a turbulent patch that would challenge most men. 1954: Divorce. 1955: Remarriage and set up SSL. Publish 'Electrons and holes in semiconductors, with applications to transistor electronics '. 1956: Receive Nobel prize for Physics. 1957: Get stabbed in the back.

While not unlucky in some respects nevertheless life threw him something of a curve ball and things got worse. In 1957 a group of research staff felt they'd had enough and the so-called 'Traitorous Eight' left and started Fairchild Semiconductors, and began the computer industry as we know it.

Shaun Nichols: This is a pretty good example of a common 'curse' in the IT world. As with so many brilliant scientists and engineers, Shockley lacked the communication and managerial skills to be an effective manager. In the end, it cost him not only his own projects, but it also sealed the fate of his company.

Think about the names that left in that "traitorous eight" episode, people like Gordon Moore, Robert Noyce and Eugene Kleiner, then think about what the industry would be like right now had Shockley not driven those three off. SSL could have built an empire to rival IBM or Microsoft had Shockley just done a better job of managing his employees.

9. George Keyworth

Shaun Nichols: In 2006, George Keyworth was ousted from his 20-year term as a director with HP. The circumstances surrounding his exit would later become one of the most infamous corporate dramas in Silicon Valley history.

Keyworth had for years been leaking stories to the press. This was something executives and directors throughout the industry did on a regular basis. Keyworth, however, was unlucky enough to be on the wrong end of heavy infighting and politicking in the board room lead by chairs Carly Fiorina and Patricia Dunn.

Dunn and Fiorina determined to root out the source of the leaks, and the result was the disastrous that lead several executives and private investigators to be brought up on criminal charges, but also rooted out Keyworth as the source of the leaks. It was only when fellow board member Tom Perkins came forward on the investigation that the full scope of the operation came to light.

Iain Thomson: Everybody leaks. As G. Gordon Liddy pointed out the only conspiracy theory that works is when three people know the secret and two of them are dead.

Keyworth seems to have fallen prey to political in-fighting, and it is only through Tom Perkins' bravery, or his having enough money not to care, that the whole pretexting scandal came to light. It was a sad end to an executive who had done nothing really wrong, just been unfortunate at best and unlucky at worst.

8. Kevin Mitnick

Shaun Nichols: Yes, the man was a criminal, but Kevin Mitnick was also without a doubt in the wrong place at the wrong time.

At a time when the Internet was just coming into its own, hacking and its implications were not fully understood. Hollywood loved to paint a picture of renegade geeks who could take down the entire planet with a laptop, and some in the government seemed to agree.

Mitnick had already been a convicted computer criminal when his infamous saga began. After violating terms of his probation, a nationwide manhunt was launched for Mitnick and he was eventually captured in North Carolina.

Though his crimes were much hyped and romanticised, what Mitnick did essentially qualifies him as a technically proficient con man. The overwhelming majority of the data he used to access systems was gained not through a nefarious virus or ingenious cracking tool, but from calling people on the phone and pretending to be an administrator.

Total estimates from Mitnick's spree are damages of well under US$250,000, less than the average car thief. Regardless, he was held for four years without a trial, prompting one of the first large-scale Web campaigns. When Mitnick finally did go to Court, he was given less than a year in prison and three years of supervised release.

The story of Mitnick's spree and ordeal netted him far more money and fame than his hacking ever could have. He has written two books and now runs a security consulting business.

Iain Thomson: I Mitnick by a tortuous phone conversation years back and he comes across as a bit of a git.

He wasn't a hacker in the current sense of the word but was one of the most gifted social engineers of his generation. The authorities however didn't know the difference and treated him as public enemy number one, leading to some shocking abuses of power.

In a time when people honestly believed that you could launch World War Three with a laptop Mitnick was the perfect symbol to fear and he got the short end of the stick. That he then played on that reputation isn't his fault, you just have to play the hand that you are dealt.

7. Gil Amelio

Shaun Nichols: Amelio is best known by many as the guy who had Apple circling the drain shortly before Steve Jobs came in and saved the day. The reality, however, is that Amelio made some very good decisions that helped pave the way for its later triumph.

Amelio saw that the company was short on cash and orchestrated a series of deals that some say helped keep Apple afloat in its darkest days. He also saw and attempted to change the lack of focus and diluted lineup that Jobs later culled relentlessly.

Perhaps Amelio's best move, however, was the realisation that the Macintosh Operating System was due for a complete teardown. He cancelled the "Copland" project and instead looked to acquire an established system for the new MacOS.

After talks to acquire the BeOS fell through, Amelio turned to Steve Jobs and NeXT. The Apple co-founder agreed to a sale, orchestrated a Machiavellian ousting of Amelio, and the rest is computing history.

Iain Thomson: Gil's a smart bloke – the IEEE doesn't exactly hand out fellowships after all, but he wasn't in the best of positions at Apple.

The disastrous reign of Spindler, who just seemed to be looking for someone who'd pay him enough to sell, was replaced by Amelio. He didn't know really what he had on his hands and had Steve jobs sharpening an axe in the background.

That he didn't make it was a personal tragedy and unfortunate timing.

6. Sendo

Iain Thomson: In 2001 things looked good for British firm Sendo.

The company was doing development on mobile platforms and signed a contract with Microsoft to build the first handset for Microsoft's upcoming smartphone operating system. This looked to be a cash cow.

Microsoft bought a stake in the company and a seat on the board and the two worked on the development of the Stinger' Z100 smartphone, which was eagerly awaited by press and public. But then deadlines got missed, then missed again and the company the deal was off.

Shortly afterwards HTC announced it would produce the first Microsoft smartphones and Windows Mobile was born, albeit with some major revisions along the way.

Microsoft and Sendo got into a over the ins and outs of the situation and signed a deal ending the affair in 2004 and the Brummie boys and girls were shortly swallowed by Motorola.

A friend of mine still has one of only two Z100 Stringers that ever made it into private hands. It worked perfectly for many years and was a favourite phone of his before being superseded.

I just can't help feeling that Sendo's staff might have wanted to bolt the doors when Microsoft came calling.

Shaun Nichols: We could probably build a top ten list just from the names of companies that have been done in by Microsoft. This one is also an example of just how unforgiving the IT industry can be, particularly a fast-growing market such as smartphones.

Sendo is also an example of how some of the coolest products can often be sent to the scrap heap through no fault of their own. Sometimes politics, bean-counting or just plain bad luck can do an otherwise promising technology in.

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