Top 10 technology mistakes

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Top 10 technology mistakes

Cock-ups of a technical bent, old and new.

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It was a week of mistakes, kicking off with the news of an Apple prototype iPhone being left in a Bay Area bar, and ending with McAfee admitting to a major mistake.

Mistakes are part and parcel of human nature. It's a story as old as time. But this is not something to be scorned. There have been many glorious mistakes that have advanced human knowledge immensely.

Research into one topic has led to accidental discoveries that have changed history. Penicillin, X-Rays, the electron and the Bakewell Pudding were all discoveries that came about through mistakes.

But the mistakes we're dealing with on this list aren't so much the glorious mistakes of times past, but more recent errors that had a concrete result. We've kept this as technical as possible, but business, as ever, intrudes. Have a look and see what you think.

Honourable Mention: Mars Climate Orbiter

Shaun Nichols: As any computer programmer will tell you, some of the most confusing and complex issues can stem from the simplest of errors.

If you're writing any kind of code for a game or application, this can be quite annoying. If you're writing the code for a NASA space probe, it can be a catastrophe that costs hundreds of millions of dollars. This was the case with the Mars Climate Orbiter.

A simple error in the development process caused the destruction of a US$327m space system. It turned out that, while most of the programming and mission planning had been done in units of measurement from the Imperial system used in the US, the software to control the orbiter's thrusters had been written with units from the metric system.

The result was the space equivalent to jumping off of a 100ft bridge with a 50m long bungee cord. The orbiter went far too deep into the Martian atmosphere and was promptly torn apart by the atmospheric forces.

Iain Thomson: The Mars Climate Orbiter failed due to a simple engineering error, converting Imperial measurements into metric. Imperial measurements are a curious thing for a British person to consider. We invented the damn things and it keeps coming back to bite us on the backside.

Despite efforts to keep Imperial measurements in the UK, the far more rational metric system has prevailed, as it has pretty much everywhere else in the world.

To complicate matters the US still keeps to the Imperial measurements that were in place when the original colonies were founded, meaning that I have to drink more pints over here to consume the same amount of alcohol as I would with fewer pints in London. That's my excuse and I'm sticking to it.

The Mars Climate Orbiter, and the Mars Polar Lander it contained, would have advanced our knowledge of the Red Planet immensely. The two probes would have monitored the Martian climate and the composition of its soil to determine the presence of usable water for possible manned missions. The timing was also less than ideal, pre-millennial angst being what it was.

Honourable Mention: CIA pipeline bug

Iain Thomson: OK, this one has never been officially confirmed but it's an interesting tale that has some relevance today.

In the early 1980s French intelligence persuaded a disaffected Soviet colonel to hand over something called the Farewell Dossier. In it were the names of Soviet spies who had infiltrated Western companies with the aim of stealing technology.

This was shared with the Americans and it was discovered that the Soviets had infiltrated a Canadian company to steal control software for gas pipelines, something that was needed if the Siberian gas pipeline intended to supply western European markets was to be completed.

According to National Security Council staffer Thomas C. Reed, the CIA, keen to disrupt trade between Europe and the Soviet Union, introduced malware into the software before it was stolen. Once activated the software would have catastrophic results, beyond what had been originally envisaged.

"The pipeline software that was to run the pumps, turbines and valves was programmed to go haywire, to reset pump speeds and valve settings to produce pressures far beyond those acceptable to the pipeline joints and welds," Reed recounted.

"The result was the most monumental non-nuclear explosion and fire ever seen from space."

Commercial spying has always been with us, I suspect right back to some distant ancestor being tortured to reveal the secret of fire. But it has never been more rampant than it is today. Technology has aided this process immensely.

When Mossad stole the blueprints for the Mirage 5 they needed to transport nearly three tons of blueprints. The same information would now fit on a couple of hard drives, and there are plenty of countries, and companies, that are actively seeking to steal such data.

Shaun Nichols: Whether real or not, it behoves the CIA to remain silent on the issue. By not confirming, they avoid the ire of the US public and world community, and by not denying they keep other governments thinking that they just might be able to make pipelines explode with the push of a button.

Iain brings up a very good point in relating the alleged incident to current events. We all know that securing power and fuel infrastructure has become a major worry for all governments, and if something like this could have been done in the early 1980s, imagine what sort of havoc could be wreaked these days.

It just underlies the importance of securing infrastructure. The code that would have caused such an explosion is likely to have been small and simple, yet capable of causing absolute chaos when properly deployed.

10. Windows Millennium Edition

Shaun Nichols: Windows Millennium Edition (ME) has been a favourite punch bag of Top 10 lists past, so we decided to go easy on Microsoft's 'Mistake Edition' this time around.

Windows XP received a very warm reception when it first came out, due in no small part to the fact that it allowed many people to dump Windows ME. The final member of the Windows 9x family suffered from so many bugs and limitations that many people opted to downgrade to earlier versions.

Of the many bugs in Windows ME, my favourite was with the software restore feature. Often users who had experienced severe malware infections would clean up the infection and then restore damaged system components. Unfortunately, Windows ME had a slightly bothersome tendency to restore the malware as well.

Many will argue that this was because it was so hard to tell the difference between Windows ME and an actual computer virus.

Iain Thomson: There are so many things to hate about ME one hardly knows where to start. That said, the last time we savaged the operating system several readers wrote in to tell us we were mistaken, so I took a look. Yes, there were happy ME users, but they are few and far between.

ME suits a very particular niche market: the conservative small business. If you were running a small business of, let's say 100 people, and you had a fairly static set of applications to maintain, then life wasn't too bad.

A monoculture Microsoft network would give you few problems, provided you didn't let users do anything stupid, and a lot of the major security bugs in Windows had been worked out by the ME version.

But for everyone else the system was a dog. Consumers hated the frequent crashes that came as a result of downloading material from the internet, and corporations didn't like the software conflicts and dodgy recovery software. XKCD has it right: ME is best left as a warning in history.

9. Brain virus

Iain Thomson: The Brain virus is recognised as the first malware for the MS-DOS operating system, but if you believe its creators the whole thing was a case of copyright protection gone wrong.

The virus is thought to have been developed in 1986 by two brothers in Pakistan named Basit and Amjad Farooq Alvi, who were looking to protect some medical software they had written from disc copying.

They had found some suitable code on an internet bulletin board site, and adapted it so that, if someone used the software, the malware would be installed. Someone else adapted this for MS-DOS and the stage was set.

Once installed, the code wrote itself to the boot sector of the computer's hard drive and displayed a message warning that the PC was infected, and giving a number to call to sort out the problem.

Unfortunately every time that disc was used in a new machine the virus would spread. The brothers soon found themselves deluged with angry callers and eventually had their phone lines cut off, but the damage was done. A classic example of why a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Shaun Nichols: The original case of digital rights management run amok, Brain underscores the fine line that companies can often find themselves walking when looking to secure their products.

Too often companies become so enamoured with securing their software that they lose sight of what they are doing to their legitimate customers. Brain wasn't originally designed with malicious intent; the idea was to notify users when a pirated copy of the software was run.

Unfortunately, the Alvi brothers didn't consider that the mechanism they used could be easily modified and adapted for malicious use. By employing viral techniques to manage their products, they soon found themselves connected to a virus outbreak.

I would like to say that vendors learned from this and were more responsible with their anti-piracy approaches in later years but, as we will see later on, that was not the case.

Read on to page two to continue the countdown.

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