Goodbye 2010, Year Of The #Fail

2010 was a year of faux pas and foul-ups, when we learned that some of the biggest beasts on the digital block are all too fallible.

The crude shorthand with which Twitter users instantly fillet underperforming companies, using their #fail hashtag, has wielded brutal effect on a daily basis, as the likes of CNN and Amazon can attest.

In the year when UK prime minister Gordon Brown screwed up by not-so-secretly calling a little old lady a “bigot”, Facebook, too, unpopularly shared its users’ private comments with outsiders, prompting Mark Zuckerberg’s admission: “We just missed the mark … we’ve made a bunch of mistakes.”

Google (NSDQ: GOOG) also made its privacy mess-ups, inadvertently capturing user data from WiFi routers whilst harvesting controversial Street View images. But the Big G has also made product strategy missteps, launching and closing social communication products that were met with shoulder shrugs and failing with the retail, if not the technology, strategy for its Nexus One. Now it’s postponing TV and OS products that many expect to struggle.

It was the year when Eric Schmidt’s biggest fear – that Google would fail to retain its innovative streak – began to be realised. Schmidt sought to reconfigure Google teams more as startups. But Google remains a company which, lately, has grown mostly through acquisition and, at the end of 2010, one of the biggest possible such acquisitions, that of Groupon, has evaded it. Is it now time to wonder if Google is anything more than a search ads company?

The industry’s biggest fail was committed by its most untouchable totem. Apple released a gadget with a fault. So did many other manufacturers (and iPhone 4 wasn’t Apple’s only faulty product) – but Steve Jobs’ indignant, reluctant response to Antennagate only compounded the issue for weeks.

And then there were the non-launches. Remember when Spotify was due to launch Stateside in Q3 2009, promising to multiply nationwide music subscriptions five-fold? And then in Q1 2010, and also by 2010’s end? Or when Mog promised a European expansion? We’re still waiting.

After a year when Toyota recalled lines of unsafe cars, when airplanes were grounded due to suspect Rolls-Royce engines and when BP spilled oil all over the U.S. Gulf coast, one wonders whether anyone really knew quite what they were doing.

It was a year when operators tested the relative stickiness of ideas thrown generally against a wall – no bad thing, necessarily, in the always-iterating tech world. But it’s not as if the web “start-up community”, which many blogs rave about, set the world alight with especially radical new ideas to ease the fail pain, with the exception of the emergent daily deals phenomenon.

2010 was a muted, post-recession year, when many of us in digital, often wounded, stumbled forward in the general direction of a future that felt conservative, diminished…

In media in 2010, many news publishers, in the wake of the prior year’s advertising downturn, concluded they were unable, after 15 years, to profit adequately from the open web, but can instead reset themselves on more familiar ground. That is, through paid-product sites or on tablet devices, via “editions” with pages and cover prices. This year, the digital future began to look a lot like the analogue present – the realisation, by some, though by no means all, of the failure of the web as a news business model.

Fails aplenty there may have been – yet most perpetrators were grazed, not guillotined

Facebook ends the year having occupied the most social network territory, having added a promising Foursquare imitation and with its founder identified as a movie pin-up and Time‘s Person Of The Year. With $50 billion in the bank and iPhones having seemingly become almost mandatory amongst smartphone owners, no one thinks Antennagate has mortally wounded Apple (NSDQ: AAPL). And Google continued to be the most successful online advertising business there is, whilst steering Android toward being the most effective smartphone platform.

Each is large enough to absorb specific failure and move on. But, for news publishers, post-failure digital strategy looks like optimism and regression – and there isn’t much more room on the wall left at which to throw things.