In 2016, the algorithms, networks and slabs of glass and metal that make up today’s digital tools had a direct impact on our lives in some very unexpected ways.
From Facebook’s fake news problem to the Galaxy Note7 literally exploding, that impact wasn’t always for the good, but there were also signs of hope thanks to the promise of virtual reality and driverless cars.
Here are the biggest tech stories of 2016:
1. The headphone jack
Apple’s annual iPhone launch always hits the mobile world like a shiny glass meteor, but the new iPhone 7 had an aftershock that will be felt for years: the removal of the headphone jack.
Despite being a near-universal standard used in devices worldwide, the eminently functional 3.5mm jack couldn’t survive Apple’s determination to shape the future — one where audio is wireless. In the present, however, cords still rule, and Apple’s big move has given us all dongles to lose, essentially mainstreaming inconvenience. (It’s also forcing grown adults to say the word “dongle.”)
Whether you call that courage or hubris, Apple has put a stake in the ground, one other smartphone makers will navigate around, or perhaps trip over, for years to come. —Pete Pachal
2. Fake news infects Facebook
No, Hillary Clinton did not conduct Satanic rituals, but you might have read that if you spent much time on Facebook this year.
The spread of fake news emerged as a serious problem during and after the election, as skilled trolls learned they could make gobs of cash by writing up whatever conspiracies would be shared by those parts of the American public that had lost faith in the mainstream media.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg claimed it wasn’t a problem. Various pieces of data showed otherwise. —Jason Abbruzzese
3. The explosive Samsung Galaxy Note7
After years of living in Apple’s shadow as second best, Samsung was poised to race past the iPhone with the Galaxy Note7.
The Note7 had everything going for it — a beautiful curved glass design, a high-res screen, a huge battery, the best cameras, water resistance, a memory-card slot, a headphone jack, etc. — until disaster struck.
Shortly after launching to critical acclaim, Note7’s started inexplicably exploding, and Samsung issued a global recall. Replacements with “safe” batteries were supposed to fix things, but they, too, started catching fire and eventually forced Samsung to discontinue the phone entirely.
It’s no laughing matter when devices, especially those as personal as smartphones, put users at risk. Samsung’s unfortunate nightmare, however, is a lesson every phone maker will hopefully remember: safety should the No. 1 priority, not features. —Raymond Wong
4. Self-driving cars rev their engines
This was the year development of driverless cars shifted into high gear. Tesla pledged to include an enhanced, completely self-driving Autopilot in all models, and Uber was the first ride-sharing company to put driverless cars on the road, starting in Pittsburgh.
Traditional auto manufacturers got in on the action, too. Audi showed off how advanced its driverless tech was, and GM partnered up with Lyft — moves that might put Detroit into pole position in the self-driving race.
But it wasn’t all easy riding: Apple made some noise early with its rumored “Project Titan,”but reportedly ran out of gas by the year’s end. Google’s autonomous program had its first (extremely minor) accident, and a tragic crash killed the driver of a Tesla, reportedly in Autopilot mode.
2016 was a year of major progress, but a world where self-driving vehicles take over the streets is still a little bit further down the road. —Brett Williams
5. Snapchat sets the bar for digital cool
Evan Spiegel showed the world Snapchat was a force to be reckoned with in 2016.
As the company made some of its biggest advances — photo saving (!!!) in Memories, a rebrand (hello, Snap), hardware launch and (rumored) IPO — Facebook, naturally, panicked. The social network doubled and tripled down on its efforts to push Snapchat aside, cramming filters, animations and disappearing messages into all corners of its apps.
The fact that most of these efforts have been met with little more than a yawn and an eye roll (Instagram Stories perhaps being an exception) says less about Facebook and more about the sheer dominance of Snapchat, which has cemented its place as the hippest social app around.
The company even made wearables cool with Spectacles — finally proving tech-laden glasses are for more than just nerds. —Karissa Bell
6. Hacking gets even worse
Large-scale hacks have unfortunately become relatively common in recent years, but 2016 managed to make them even more worrisome.
Various organizations (including WikiLeaks) were able to “weaponize” email breaches of political candidates with deliberate, precise leaks timed to maximize media coverage. The beleaguered Yahoo squandered whatever trust its users still had when it was revealed the company didn’t publicly disclose a large-scale hack from 2014 until months after it found out.
And perhaps worst of all, the emergence of the Mirai botnet exposed the security nightmare that is the Internet of Things, with massive DDoS attacks like the one on Dyn endangering the internet itself.
If 2016 is any indication, the future of cybersecurity looks bleak. —PP
7. The rise of Facebook Live
Facebook’s push into live video streaming was inevitable. Though a little late to the party, Facebook Live has quickly proven to be a hit, not just for serendipitous viral content (hi Chewbacca lady), but as a powerful tool for real-time reporting, capturing everything from sports to insurgencies as they unfold.
Compared to traditional live broadcasts, Facebook Live provides a more authentic look through a person’s eyes, completely unfiltered and unedited, and allows viewers from anywhere in the world to tune in and engage with comments and reactions in a more direct way.
Meerkat (RIP) and Periscope proved live video could work (and work at scale), and with its “lives,” Facebook took things to a new level. —RW
8. Hyperloop One melts down
All companies have their ups and downs — especially young ones — but the battles are usually waged against external forces. Hyperloop One, though, bit its own tail.
In the space of two months, the nascent company went from a successful and public demonstration of the propulsion tech for its tube-based transportation system to an equally public falling out between founder and CEO Shervin Pishevar and its then CTO and cofounder Brogan BamBrogan.
The lawsuit was bizarre by any standard, with BamBrogam claiming that Pishevar’s brother had placed a noose on his office chair. By November, the suit was settled, but the damage was done. The company has reorganized, but the promised first in-tube test that was supposed to happen in 2016 is pretty much out of reach.
To make the future of technology happen, Hyperloop One needs to show a working Hyperloop pod to race away from 2016 as fast as humanly possible. —Lance Ulanoff
9. Apple versus the FBI
Arguably the most impactful thing Apple did this year wasn’t a product launch — it was drawing a line in the sand when it comes to iPhone privacy.
When the FBI publicly sued Apple to hack an iPhone owned by a former terrorist, Tim Cook’s refusal was swift and clear, declaring any attempt to do so would be akin to opening a “Pandora’s box” — the first step towards a future where digital security is illusory.
In the end, the FBI backed down — it apparently found another method for cracking the iPhone in question — but not before the debate had CEOs, law enforcement, privacy advocates and even presidential candidates taking sides.
While this specific case has faded away, the debate over digital privacy and “warrant-proof” data still rages today. —PP
10. No one wants to buy Twitter
Thanks to President-elect Donald Trump, it seemed like Twitter had perhaps never been so important as during the 2016 election. And yet Twitter as a company had a tumultuous year.
Two-time CEO and cofounder Jack Dorsey has only added 10 million active users to the platform since he returned in Oct. 2015, advertisers are becoming more and more disinterested, and top executives, including COO Adam Bain, have left.
While acquisition rumors are commonplace for Twitter, it seemed like it would become a reality with Disney, Google and Salesforce apparently circling. No dice, and that may in part be because of the trolling and harassment that continues to plague the site.
A silver lining: Twitter inked video deals with major sports leagues NFL, MLB, NHL and NBA, news shows from Bloomberg News and Cheddar, and even the Star Wars franchise.
Meanwhile, Twitter has cut costs by laying off hundreds of employees and shutting down Vine in hopes of, finally, becoming profitable. —Kerry Flynn
11. Facebook becomes a global power
Facebook climbed to impressive and sometimes troubling new heights in 2016.
Its power to transform how we consume information enabled the spread of propaganda at a pivotal moment in United States history, creating political echo chambers where misinformation thrived. Its solar-powered Aquila drone flew for the first time — demonstrating a technology that will bring Facebook-controlled internet to remote parts of the world.
Messenger, Facebook’s standalone messaging app, expanded beyond 1 billion users. The company threw its weight behind live video, allowing Facebook’s mobile app users to broadcast their lives through their smartphone cameras, and showed its vision for virtual reality. And it debuted artificial intelligence technology that can describe photographs to the blind.
Facebook can no longer be shrugged off as a frivolous place to share status updates. It is perhaps the single most important distributor of information for its 1.79 billion monthly users. —Damon Beres
If ever there was an app that epitomized the internet’s ability to catapult creative teens into overnight celebrities, it was Vine.
Founded in 2012 and acquired by Twitter soon after, the app for six-second videos was hugely influential, and not just for the superstars it helped create. That’s why, when Vine announced in October it would be shutting down the app for good, it sent shockwaves through social media. Even though Vine had lost most of its influential users and much of its cultural capital in recent years, it helped democratize video sharing in a world before Snapchat.
Everyone from the app’s founders to its biggest stars used the #RIPVine hashtag to eulogize the community that once was — they just didn’t do it on Vine. —KB
13. VR is everywhere and nowhere
This was supposed to be the year virtual reality took off in a big way, but we have yet to see the viral VR hit that takes the medium mainstream.
Facebook’s Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive and Sony’s PlayStation VR all made their official debuts, but it turns out that the content doesn’t yet have the impact of the hardware. Meanwhile, Apple and Microsoft are betting on augmented reality, while the mysterious Magic Leap continues to plot and refine its mixed-reality vision in the background.
Nevertheless, VR has the lead right now, and this is just the first chapter in VR’s story. 2016 was VR getting its bearings and establishing the ecosystem for future success. That success, however, depends on developers and consumers meeting in the same place — something that always feels just slightly out of reach. —Adario Strange
14. Uber’s quiet domination
In 2016, Uber became more than a ride-sharing company.
The $60 billion company made its self-driving cars a reality in Pittsburgh and unveiled a planto control on-demand air travel, too. The Silicon Valley giant raised an unprecedented $3.5 billion in one funding round on its continued quest for world domination.
But it also fought legal battles in London and France, not to mention its ongoing fight in the United States over whether its drivers deserve full worker protections as employees, not contractors. Not to mention, Uber gave up on China almost entirely.
Next up in 2017: becoming a “robotics company.” —Emma Hinchliffe
15. The year in acquisitions
Big companies looked to keep getting bigger in 2016, motivated by a still-changing media and tech environment, as well as increasing power among some of the biggest players (Facebook and Google, namely).
Big moves mean big risks, and each of the year’s major deals had plenty of critics. Heck, even Donald Trump weighed in saying AT&T shouldn’t be allowed to buy Time Warner. —JA
16. Theranos comes tumbling down
A visionary CEO, big-name funders, a sky-high valuation, deals with other major players: Theranos had it all — except the core technology it boasted would revolutionize blood testing.
A series of investigative pieces by the Wall Street Journal revealed the healthcare startup was mostly a house of cards. Its “Edison” machine, which the company claimed would be able to perform hundreds of tests on just a couple drops of blood, turned out not to work very well. Now, Theranos is the subject of a variety of lawsuits and investigations.
It was a stunning fall in just a matter of months for what had been one of the brightest startups around. —JA