They couldn't have done that! IT urban legends exposed

They couldn't have done that! IT urban legends exposed

Urban legends have been with us since human beings started sharing stories. The best urban legends are dramatic, unbelievable and told with such frequency that recipients assume they have to be true. There are the historic "URGENT AND CONFIDENTIAL" lucrative business proposals from deposed Nigerian leaders, the horrifying heroin-contaminated hypodermic needle in the McDonald's ball play area and the albino alligators terrorizing New York City sewers.

Of course, these outlandish stories are totally false. The world of information technology is not immune from the reaches of the urban legend. Here are some of the most notable IT urban legends that have propagated over the years.

iPods are lightning rods

In July 2007, online publications blurted that "iPods Attract Lightning" and "Using Portable Music Players Attracts Lightning."

The headlines weren't true. The stories referred to doctors' findings in The New England Journal of Medicine that described the cases of men in Canada and Colorado being struck by lightning while wearing iPods. Their injuries--ruptured eardrums, hearing loss and burns--matched the pathway of the headphone cord.

The doctors did not say that the iPod acted as a lightning rod, though, and another letter to the Journal noted: "Eardrum perforation is the norm in lightning-related injury, not a sign of any special effect due to an iPod."

SAP's Hasso Plattner moons Oracle's Larry Ellison on the high seas

Yes, Hasso Plattner directed a classic insulting gesture at Larry Ellison's yacht-racing team. But he didn't actually flash his backside at the Oracle chairman personally.

To counter stories of the alleged incident in The Wall Street Journal and elsewhere, Plattner bared all on the legendary "pants dropping" affair to Sailing World.

Plattner says he did not moon Ellison or his Sayonara crew during the 1996 Kenwood Cup off Hawaii. As Plattner's wounded yacht Morning Glory tumbled on rough seas with a broken mast and bloodied crew member, it was Ellison's tender (a boat that supports the racing yachts) that circled Plattner's vessel and did not help. (The Sayonara was past Plattner's yacht at this time.) So, Plattner says, "I lowered my pants." A video of the event is rumored to exist.

Microsoft's Wired portable potty

In early May 2003, the news broke: Microsoft's portable toilet iLoo (using the more elegant British term) was in the works, complete with internal wireless keyboard, plasma screen and external MSN "Hotmail station" (for those waiting in line). According to urban legend site, several news outlets including the Associated Press and The Wall Street Journal ran with the story. It turned out it was all a PR gimmick, emanating from Microsoft's British offices.

Saddam Hussein purchases 4,000 PlayStation 2s for his WMD program blasted this gem on Dec. 19, 2000: "Why Iraq's buying up Sony PlayStation 2s: Intelligence experts fear games bundled for military applications." Anonymous military sources cited the 128-bit CPU power and graphics capabilities of the PS2, and said that Iraqis could build a "crude super-computer." Bundling 12 to 15 PlayStations could enable an unmanned aerial attack vehicle, the report suggested.

At the time, United Nations sanctions against Iraq did not cover PS2s. But Saddam's alleged massive purchase supposedly led to a PS2 Christmas shortage.

In 2004, PC World learned the Defense Intelligence Agency had looked into the matter, but the agency wouldn't release any specifics.

Thomas Watson's poor prediction

In 1943, IBM patriarch Thomas Watson was supposed to have quipped: "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers." As a salesman, Watson's prowess was legendary. As a visionary, he was less adept, so the story goes. A 1997 CIO article, in addition to dozens of websites:,, perpetuated his prognostication.

However, no one has ever been able to definitively link the infamous quote to Watson. It stands as one of the biggest misquotes in IT history.

The virus-laden "Budweiser Frogs" screensaver

The e-mail starts off innocently enough: "Someone is sending out a very cute screensaver of the Budweiser Frogs." (You remember the "Bud," "Weis" and "Er" ads, right?) But then the tone changes dramatically: "If you download it, you will lose everything! Your hard drive will crash and someone from the Internet will get your screen name and password! DO NOT DOWNLOAD IT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES!"

Doing the supposed damage was the BUDSAVE.exe screensaver. It turns out this was one big hoax. (Of course, you should never open random executable files.) According to, a website that seeks to slow down the flood of junk e-mail, this "FW:" has been filling up inboxes since 1997 and still is today, "making it one of the longest-running e-mail hoaxes out there."

The Y2K bug will destroy life as we know it

The media frenzy leading up to 12:01 a.m. on Jan. 1, 2000, was more intense than the public interest in a combined Paris Hilton DWI, Britney Spears meltdown and Lindsay Lohan rehab stint. What was supposed to have been the end of the computer-networked civilization (which would surely have led to an all-out assault on IT departments everywhere--"Why, oh why couldn't you just have used FOUR digits in the year field?!") turned into one of the biggest non-events in history. Did we really buy into all of that hype? Yup.

IT doesn't matter

Nicholas Carr's controversial Harvard Business Review article in 2003 and a subsequent book (Does IT Matter?) touched a third rail when it came to IT people. While Carr's fame took off, the rest of us aren't buying it. But it did generate years of discussion: Even to this day, CIOs such as HP's Randy Mott take exception to Carr's premise. "What he totally missed was the competitive advantage in the development of applications," Mott said in 2007. "It's really about what applications you develop to beat all comers in your industry." We're sticking with Mott on this one.

Cryptography is the be-all, end-all for computer security

This is a legend because of the stature of the person making the original argument. In 1994, cryptography expert Bruce Schneier published Applied Cryptography, showing how programmers could use the technique of enciphering and deciphering messages to protect computer data. Anyone, from a cheap computer owner to a big government, could do it, he argued.

Schneier later reversed course, debunking the illusion that cryptography is a kind of "magic security dust." The problem: the computers and people who use them. "Mathematics is logical; people are erratic, capricious, and barely comprehensible. The error of Applied Cryptography is that I didn't talk at all about the context."

The Home computer in 2004, courtesy of the Rand Corp. in 1954

A photo featuring a massive computer, complete with a ship's wheel and floor-model television, dwarfing a man in a suit was supposed to have appeared in a 1954 edition of Popular Mechanics. The photo's caption read: "Scientists from the RAND Corporation have created this model to illustrate how a 'home computer' could look like in the year 2004. However, the needed technology will not be economically feasible for the average home. Also the scientists readily admit that the computer will require not yet invented technology to actually work, but 50 years from now scientific progress is expected to solve these problems. With teletype interface and the Fortran language, the computer will be easy to use."

E-mails with the photo's purported mock-up started making the rounds in 2004. The image is doctored more times than Michael Jackson's nose. It's actually that of a nuclear submarine that was altered as part of a competition. The man in the suit remains unidentified.

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