Top 10 IT villains

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Top 10 IT villains

Every industry has its share of villains, and the computing world is no different. Here's the top ten people we love to hate.

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This reputation is sometimes earned, sometimes not. The term villain stems from Roman times and was used to describe someone who worked the land but was without honour.

In latter years it evolved into many forms, ranging from the man in a black hat and twisted moustache tying a young maiden to railroad tracks to Keyser Söze.

You'd be hard pressed to find such villains in the lists below. None have killed anyone (that we know of) and their actions have not been criminal in the most part, with one or two exceptions. Instead they are people who we feel have either harmed the industry in some way, or just really annoyed us.

Some are shrewd businessmen whose tactics have garnered them a long list of enemies.

Others are well-meaning individuals whose mistakes earned them the ire of the public, while still others are moral crusaders who don't mind being seen as a heel by the unwashed masses.

In the spirit of Newton's third law we'll be doing an IT heroes piece next week. Let us know if there's anyone you think should be included on the list.

Honourable mention- Deidre LaCarte

Shaun Nichols: In the late 90s as the internet was carving out its place in mainstream culture, a student named Deidre LaCarte created a web page as a tribute to her pet hamster. The result was, you guessed it, Hampsterdance. One of the earliest and most annoying internet memes ever recorded.

The page combined a long collection of dancing cartoon hamsters with an infectious, high-pitched jingle that was, ironically, a bit like having an actual rodent gnawing at one's brain.

However, the site was also a hit with the burgeoning crowd of web "newbies." The page became the first of many pointless internet phenomena and likely drove hundreds of high school computer teachers to seek psychiatric help.

Iain Thomson: I have to say I'm gobsmacked at Shaun's restraint on this one. When we were coming up with the list LaCarte was one of his top picks, and certainly the one that inspired the most bile. It's not often we discuss a list and the phrase “impaled on a rusty spike” is heard.

Hampsterdance was annoying certainly. It spawned cheesy singles that made it into the charts in a number of countries and I personally blame it for the Dancing Baby syndrome that took off later, and made it onto the egregious 'Ally McBeal'.

As memes go it was everywhere for a while but its influence has faded. It seems the pain, for some, has not.

Honourable mention: Ted Stevens

Iain Thomson: Stevens, the former Senator from Alaska, earned ridicule for his 2006 speech against net neutrality, where he described the internet as a 'series of tubes' and managed to confuse the internet and email. What made this worse was that he had a major role in regulating internet commerce.

It's a bit like your doctor showing a complete lack of knowledge by prescribing a course of leeches for a bad back. Here was a chap who showed cavalier disregard for the industry he was regulating and his words sent shivers down the spine of people in the business of building ecommerce.

In actual fact the series of tubes analogy from a technical standpoint could have been justified by someone who knew what they were talking about. But Stevens patently didn't, and it sounded like he was reading a poorly formed briefing paper from a lobbyist rather than expressing a viewpoint.

Net neutrality is too important an issue to be left to people who don't know what they are talking about. Following his conviction on seven corruption charges Stevens is now thankfully out of the loop on internet regulation and may be spending some time in prison, where one hopes he won't spend time finding out another wrong use of a series of tubes.

Shaun Nichols: Stevens may have made it into the top ten had his error not been so laughable. The scary thought is that it came in the context of such an important debate.

At the time he made his infamous quote, Stevens was likely the best-informed person in the room on the subject of net neutrality. Think about that for a moment; these men are debating what essentially amounts to the future of ecommerce and communications in the US, and the most knowledgeable person in this group thinks that the internet functions much in the same way as the pneumatic deposit system at a drive-through bank branch.

As disliked as he may be in the computing world, Stevens is perhaps even more of a villain amongst his constituents in Alaska. The former senator now faces a considerable prison term for corruption.

10. Sony BMG

Shaun Nichols: In the years following the rise and fall of Napster and peer-to-peer internet sharing, music labels launched an all-out war on music piracy. Their weapons included both lawsuits and a class of copy-protection software known as "digital rights management" or DRM.

In 2005, however, Sony BMG took things way too far. In an attempt to thwart piracy of its music, the label equipped a collection of 52 album releases with a type of software known as a rootkit. The rootkit installed itself below the normal operating system level, making the protections extremely difficult to spot and remove.

Unfortunately, the rootkit also contained an exploitable flaw which put users at risk for a catastrophic malware attack. Sony was now faced with explaining why it had left so many of its users exposed to attack without their knowledge or consent.

Fallout from the incident left Sony BMG as the poster child for the paranoia and panic amongst record labels and galvanised an anti-DRM movement that eventually led many of the largest music retailers to strip DRM software from their offerings.

Iain Thomson: What really stuck in my throat wasn't so much that Sony put the rootkit in, disgusting though that was. It was that they didn't seem to care about it.

As proof of this here's a quote from Thomas Hesse, Sony BMG's global digital business president, "Most people, I think, don't even know what a rootkit is, so why should they care about it?" One major security vendor had that printed up on tshirts and I and others took great delight in wearing it to Sony press conferences.

Shaun has this right to a degree; that a music company thought it had the right to introduce a security vulnerability onto your computer was the beginning of the end for DRM technology. It struck at the heart of the music company's sense of entitlement and doomed the process in the long run.

9. Steve Jobs

Iain Thomson: To some Jobs is a hero, to others he's a manchild who threw his toys out of the pram because he couldn't do things his way.

Jobs had a great opportunity to shape the way the computing revolution evolved, and he has had a dramatic effect. But it could have been so much more and if he hadn't been so childish about the whole thing we could all be using better computers.

Jobs is a visionary, he saw how things could be. But when he didn't get to personally direct it he threw his hands up and walked away. Many Apple staff felt personally betrayed when he sold his stock and walked away from the company and they had a point.

He also sounds like a complete nightmare to work with; fostering paranoia among some staff and encouraging the building up of little cliques and empires, so long as they all report to him. A senior Apple employee told us that no advert, press statement or product idea gets the go-ahead unless Jobs has approved it personally. This is the work of a perfectionist, but also someone with an ego the size of Mars that needs regular stroking.

Shaun Nichols: Nobody in the computing world is more polarizing than Jobs.

He has garnered a cult-like collection of zealots for his role as Apple's chief. But his unpredictable actions and abrasive style have also garnered plenty of enemies. Many in the Valley tell stories of Jobs routinely belittling employees and at times being so irate that he would fire whoever was unlucky enough to be standing next to him in the lift at the time.

And it is not only within Apple that Jobs has built a considerable reputation for being less than hospitable. His dealings with the press have been rare and often contentious. Last year, a New York Times reporter answered his phone and was greeted with the following: "This is Steve Jobs. You think I'm an arrogant [expletive] who thinks he's above the law, and I think you're a slime bucket who gets most of his facts wrong."

Like Bill Gates, however, Jobs also got results. His penchant for picking out successful technologies is legendary, and his list of projects includes the Macintosh, OS X and the iPhone.

8. Mark Zuckerberg

Shaun Nichols: Zuckerberg is quickly establishing himself as the next generation of internet villain. At the tender age of 24, what has Zuckerberg done so wrong as to earn him a spot on our list?

Yes, there are still some who say that he more or less stole the idea for Facebook from his Harvard classmates, but Silicon Valley has a short memory when it comes to those sort of things. Zuckerberg didn't really win the ire of the computing public until long after, when Facebook became the most-popular social networking site on the planet.

First, there was the infamous Beacon program. Intended as a way to bump ad revenues, the Beacon tool proved just a bit too nosey and sparked a user uproar over privacy concerns.

Then, there was the disastrous attempt to update the terms and conditions of the site. Again, Zuckerberg's image took a hit when users against the plan and demand that the terms be re-written.

Most recently, there was a redesign the site undertook earlier this month. When users overwhelmingly voted against the of the site, Zuckerberg once again found himself forced to admit that his company made a mistake.

Those mistakes, however, seem to be piling up. Facebook appears to have become a victim of its own success as millions now base their social lives on the service, every mistake the young CEO makes gets magnified and causes yet another online mob to pick up their pitchforks and torches. Thus, young Mr. Zuckerberg finds his list of detractors growing daily.

Iain Thomson: I questioned Shaun's inclusion on this list with a comment that he wasn't that bad. After a lengthy recital of sins from my co-worker I was forced to admit he had a point.

Facebook has done many things right. It wasn't the first social networking site, nor will it be the last, but it was the best, for a while. Traditionally I've eschewed social networking sites but after getting email after email about this thing I joined up.

While there have been some positive aspects to Facebook – getting in contact with long lost friends, free poker and the ability to search for source material – on the whole the results have been negative.

I've found out about the breakup of friend's relationships online, when a call would have been preferable. I've seen photos I shouldn't, come across cheesy status updates and been bombarded with stupid virtual applications. I'm sorry, but if you want to send me a drink I expect a bottle of single malt on the desk rather than some lousy icon.

7. Zango

Iain Thomson: Advertisers fund the internet to a large extent, but when does advertising stop and privacy kick in?

Zango is determined to find out. The company has had various guises over the years - 180solutions, ePIPO and Hotbar – but the basic function remains the same, to get adverts in front of us whether we like it or not.

In the early Wild West days of the internet the company played fast and loose with the hardware of computer users. A useful application could contain one of Zango's adware applications that would have pop-ups exploding on the screen like acne on a teenager's face.

Even once laws were enforced to limit the activities of companies like Zango the company wormed its way around them as far as possible. It was fined, broke the terms of the fine and proved a of security software companies in its pursuit of profit. Zango is as persistent as herpes, without the pleasurable build-up that leads you to catch it.

Shaun Nichols: A few years ago I was able to sit down and speak with Zango founder Keith Smith. He was a nice enough person, but clearly aware that his company was more or less hated in many circles, and he was willing to accept that.

Zango constantly operates on a very fine but profitable line. Users download the software to access content such as games and movies in exchange for allowing the company to place ads onto their system. The company maintains that it clearly notifies users what the software does before anything is installed. Critics of the company maintain that Zango routinely deceives users and more or less uses covert methods to infect systems with adware.

The truth is likely somewhere in the middle, but there is no denying the company's perception within the IT world. Any administrator who has struggled with removing the software, (particularly in the early days of Zango when shady affiliates were sometimes used to distribute the software,) likely holds a less than stellar opinion of the company and its products.

6. Jack Thompson

Shaun Nichols: Former attorney and activist Jack Thompson may be the most-hated man in the gaming world, and he doesn't seem to mind that much. The Florida based moral crusader has long been campaigning against what he sees as excessive depravity and violence in video games today.

For game developers and players, however, Thompson is a wet blanket who is looking to stamp out their legal rights. Amongst his most notable campaigns were targeted at Take Two Interactive and its hugely popular franchise.

Fortunately for the gamers, Thompson hasn't been too successful. GTA continues to sit a the top of the gaming world and Thompson recently found himself disbarred in Florida for misconduct.

Iain Thomson: Thompson is a hate figure for some gamers, but personally I find him a joke.

He's been raving about the dangers of video games for years now and what has it got him? Well, disbarred for one, but more importantly the coming generation hasn't turned into homicidal manics roaming the streets raping and pillaging all and sundry.

It's an old joke that if video games had any effect on people then the generation that grew up playing Pac Man would be running around listening to music of repetitive beats gobbling little white pills. But time has shown that video games don't make people into murderers.

Yes, some violent people play violent video games, but suggesting a link is like saying coffee is a gateway drug because most heroin addicts start on caffeine. Thompson tried to make a career out of demonising computer games and the result has not been a big pay-off but humiliation and what looks to me like madness.

Read on to page two for the top five!

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