If you love technology, it may be time for a group hug: This year has been rough for consumer technology.
From exploding smartphones and hoverboards to the proliferation of fake news on social media, many of our tech hardware, software and web products suffered embarrassing failures. Behemoths like Google, Facebook and Samsung Electronics were on the firing line as a result.
Yet the year was not entirely bleak. There were major strides in several areas of consumer tech, including Wi-Fi, virtual reality and encryption.
What follows is a year in review on the tech that needed the most fixing, and the tech that was actually fixed in 2016.
Tech That Needed Fixing
Lithium ion has been the go-to technology for batteries powering consumer electronics for decades. But faulty lithium-ion battery cells were blamed for two high-profile product safety hazards this year: exploding hoverboards and Samsung Galaxy Note smartphones. The defects led schools to ban the use of hoverboards on campus and Samsung to recall more than 2.5 million Note 7 smartphones.
Lithium ion has stuck around for so long because it is cheap and easy to reproduce. Yet this year’s explosive episodes — combined with the persistent complaint that smartphone batteries don’t last very long — raise questions about whether the industry should shift toward advanced battery technologies that have been in development for years.
SAMSUNG’S SAFETY RECORD
Samsung’s safety record took a black eye from more than just those combustible cellphones. The company also recalled 2.8 million defective washing machines in the United States that were prone to abnormal vibrations that could cause injury.
In addition, Samsung’s Galaxy Note recall was so poorly handled that the company had to issue a second recall, then kill the product, after it failed to diagnose and fix the problem both times.
The two major product defects made one thing clear: The tech giant needs to fix its quality assurance protocols to ensure that consumer safety is a priority — and not just crank out big, bright screens on phones or fast spin cycles on washers.
FAKE NEWS AND ABUSE ON SOCIAL MEDIA
During the presidential campaign, Facebook, Twitter and Google faced mounting criticism for letting fake news propagate on their platforms, potentially influencing Americans to cast their votes based on misinformation. Twitter was also separately criticized for its taciturn approach to dealing with abusive tweets, including racist attacks and threats of violence.
All the internet companies took steps toward combating fake news and hateful speech. But the polarized election underscored the costs of internet freedom: When the web resembles the Wild, Wild West, the consequences can be dire.
Google put artificial intelligence in the spotlight this year when it introduced Home, a smart speaker that is its response to Amazon’s Echo; Allo, a messaging service that leverages A.I.; and Pixel, a smartphone that heavily relies on a virtual assistant.
Despite all the hype, all virtual assistants, including Google’s Assistant, Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, continued to be subpar this year. In rigorous testing, they all failed at obvious tasks — for example, Alexa initially couldn’t say who was playing in the Super Bowl (even though she was featured in a Super Bowl commercial), Google Assistant couldn’t book a dinner table or order delivery food, and Siri was unreliable at giving map directions.
Virtual assistants are poised to get smarter as we use them more. But consumers shouldn’t let virtual assistants be a major factor in what they buy just yet, because the assistants are all pretty dumb.
Tech That Was Fixed
On the bright side, a ubiquitous technology that has been the source of much consumer anguish saw great improvement over the last year: Wi-Fi.
Newer, well-reviewed routers, like products from TP-Link, Asus and Netgear, feature smarter and faster wireless technologies that do a better job of assembling signals and beam energy more accurately at mobile devices.
In addition, Google and the start-up Eero made Wi-Fi networks easier to set up for those with little technical know-how. With Eero’s Wi-Fi system and Google Wifi, the companies introduced well-designed apps that help people set up multiple Wi-Fi stations in the home. The multiple access points create a so-called mesh network that enables mobile devices to seamlessly switch to the strongest Wi-Fi signal as consumers move around their homes with smartphones, laptops and tablets.
Virtual reality still has a long way to go before it becomes mainstream. The devices released this year by HTC, Facebook’s Oculus, Sony PlayStation and Google largely revolve around gaming, limiting their audience. In addition, most of the devices are expensive.
But the technology has made significant strides. It works smoothly, and the experiences are immersive and stunning. Apps released this year — like Tilt Brush, a 3-D painting tool for HTC’s Vive, or SuperHyberCube, which is like Tetris with a virtual-reality twist for PlayStation VR — demonstrated virtual reality’s tremendous potential.
Tensions between tech companies and the government reached a fever pitch during Apple’s face-off with the F.B.I. early this year over privacy and security. The F.B.I. had demanded that Apple weaken its iPhone encryption so that it could gain access to the contents of a phone belonging to a gunman in the San Bernardino, Calif., mass shooting. Apple refused, arguing that weakening its software system for a single investigation would create vulnerabilities that might put all customers at risk. The F.B.I. eventually withdrew its demand after figuring out how to break into the iPhone without Apple’s help.
Amid Apple’s feud with the F.B.I., many big tech companies expanded encryption in their products. Facebook, WhatsApp and Google put the encryption protocol from Signal, a widely lauded secure messaging service, in their messaging services. Though none of the encrypted messaging services are perfect, this year marked significant progress toward offering tools that strengthened consumer privacy.
STREAMING LIVE VIDEO
Mobile video broadcasting was once a novelty because live streams had a tendency to be spotty, unreliable and impractical to produce. But in the last year, Twitter’s Periscope and Facebook Live have made mobile live video streams simple to shoot and extremely popular.
Periscope reported that as of March, 110 years’ worth of live video was consumed daily on its mobile apps, up from 40 years’ worth a day last year. Facebook said videos are viewed eight billion times a day on the social network, up from one billion a year ago, and live videos get 10 times as many comments as other videos.
The popularity of live video streaming is making online video a prominent medium. Just scroll down your Facebook News Feed and witness how often people are posting videos instead of photos and text. Video has become unavoidable.
(The New York Times)