Just when it seems like consumer tech has reached the pinnacle of advancement, something else comes along to blow us away once again.
There were some really huge moments for tech in 2016. Of course, many of them were great moments, including the launch of the Pixel XL and Apple’s long-overdue refresh of the MacBook Pro line. On the other hand, not all the biggest moments of the year were positive. Since we’re officially starting a brand new year and CES 2017 is right around the corner, now’s a great time to look back at the top 10 biggest moments in tech for 2016.
Google killed the Nexus line to launch Pixel and Pixel XL
When we look back on 2016 in the future, we might consider it the ‘Year of Google’. Or, alternatively, the ‘Year of Constant Leaks’.
Google’s Nexus line was beloved by virtually all Android users. Of course, some of the Samsung, LG, and Sony fans might have considered Nexus phones to be a little bland, but the diehard Android fans among us appreciated the Nexus line for its simplicity, the unadulterated Nexus experience, and because Nexus devices were always first in line for updates.
As Android fans began to brace themselves for new Nexus phones, a number of leaks suggested that Google wouldn’t be releasing any Nexus phones in 2016. Sure enough, Google launched the new Pixel line of devices, effectively killing the Nexus line while uniting all hardware under the Pixel moniker.
It was quite the controversial move, especially considering the price hike that came along with the new Nexus line; previously, Google’s official hardware was known for offering premium devices at a very budget-friendly cost, but the Pixel and Pixel XL were the same prices as Apple’s iPhone 7 and 7 Plus. Fortunately for Google, this didn’t stop the Pixel phones from being huge sellers.
For the first month or so after their release, it was extremely hard to get your hands on a Pixel. The Google Store, Best Buy, and Verizon all but sold out, leaving the desperate with no choice but to buy Pixel phones off eBay for almost twice their normal price. Even today, there are usually several models of Pixel that show as being “out of stock”, which is a testament to how well-received these pricey Google phones have been.
Even though we saw the Pixels coming months before launch, and even though they ended up being much more expensive than their Nexus predecessors, Google’s aggressive bid for a chunk of the smartphone hardware market will surely go down as one of the most defining moments of 2016.
Since 2016 was the ‘Year of Constant Leaks’, we knew this was coming long before it actually happened, at least in the case of the iPhone 7. However, knowing it was coming ahead of time didn’t make it any less painful when it finally happened.
First, there was Apple’s removal of the 3.5mm headphone jack from 2016’s iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus. While the latest iPhones featured the much-appreciated new dual-speaker setup and water resistance, the lack of a headphone jack has been a source of contention.
On the one hand, it’s quite obvious that wireless is the future; however, for those of us who have not yet gone fully wireless, the lack of a headphone jack is a major inconvenience. If you choose to continue used wired headphones, you’ll never be able to charge your phone and listen to music at the same time without using a dongle to expand the iPhone’s single lightning port into two.
Not only was this a controversial move on the iPhone 7, it was even more controversial when Apple revealed that the new MacBook Pro line would be losing all legacy ports. Instead of having any USB A ports, HDMI ports, built-in memory card readers, and other ports that we use today, the 2016 MacBook Pros would come with either two or four Thunderbolt 3 ports, which is physically the same as USB C. Ever since Apple’s new products lost all their ports, #DongleLife has intermittently trended on social media as users have struggled with the many dongles required to restore legacy ports.
Again, it’s obvious that wireless is the future, but the shock of losing all the ports that we currently use in one fell swoop means that we’re forced into an abrupt transition. And it’s an expensive transition, requiring various dongles that are easy to lose and become even more expensive when they need to be replaced. Thus, it should come as no surprise that 2016 might be referred to as the year we all began living the #DongleLife.
The budget flagship revolution
After the ‘Year of Google’, ‘Year of Constant Leaks’, and the ‘Year of #DongleLife’, we could very well look back on 2016 as the ‘Year of the Budget Flagship’.
Historically, if you wanted a great phone, it was going to cost ya. Only the high-cost devices had great cameras, premium designs and build quality, and received regular software updates. While there have been more reasonably-priced devices to be exceptions in one way or another in the past, it was during 2016 that we finally got budget phones that could go toe-to-toe with the most expensive flagships.
Surely, the most well-known and beloved “budget flagship” of 2016 was the OnePlus 3 (and the OnePlus 3T with its incrimental updates released later in the year). In fact, the OnePlus 3/3T has been high on many best-of-the-year lists in spite of being priced at nearly half what the competition costs. With its 6GB of RAM, buttery-smooth performance, and gorgeous design and build, the $399 cost of the phone was more than worth it. Even with the updated OnePlus 3T costing a bit more — $439 for the 64GB version and $479 for the 128GB version — the device still offers performance that’s much more in line with the Galaxy S7, LG G5, and many other premium flagships released in 2016.
After the OnePlus 3, many people would consider the ZTE Axon 7 to be an extremely successful budget flagship. While the OnePlus 3/3T offered a 1080p display, the Axon 7 actually boasted a 1440p QHD display and dual front-facing speakers with Dolby Atmos. When you consider that it also contained the year’s most popular Snapdragon 820 processor and other top specs, the Axon 7’s $399 price tag made it a really great value.
There were other budget flagships that were successful, too, such as the Honor 8 and the Huawei P9. If there’s anything we can learn from these mid-range flagships, it’s that you don’t necessarily have to spend a lot to get a premium smartphone. That’s a lesson that will inform our purchases moving forward.
Samsung’s Inferno: The Note7 Story
Once upon a time, Samsung released what many agreed was the company’s best mobile device ever: the Galaxy Note7.
Samsung’s Note line began as an experiment with larger display sizes for smartphones. Within just a few generations, Samsung was the king of the “phablet” and contributed to a major shift in how we use our smartphones. With larger screens, smartphones became better suited for media consumption.
With larger screens, smartphones became better suited for media consumption. And as Android became a more demanding operating system, Samsung began including top-tier specs in the Note line, transitioning it from experimental to the power user’s preferred smartphone. From the Note 3 through the Note4 and Note5, Samsung was clearly on a roll. But it was the highly-anticipated Note7 that solidified Samsung as the kind of plus-sized smartphones.
The Note7 was a gorgeous piece of technology: Both the glass back and the QHD display on the front had curved edges, which curved to meet at the metal rim in perfect symmetry. From a design perspective, the Note7 was truly a sight to behold.
In the hand, the Note7 just felt right. It was appropriately weighted and the smooth, symmetrical sides made it very comfortable to hold. Plus, the Note7 was the first Note device to include IP67 water resistance. It was also the first mobile device to support enhanced video content comparable to HDR on 4K televisions. Oh, and let’s not forget the iris scanner; call it gimmicky, but it worked great and would’ve made unlocking your phone with gloves or wet fingers a breeze.
Unfortunately, tragedy struck in the form of reports stating that Note7 devices were exploding. Of course, there have been many other smartphones to have similar issues in the past, but the Note7’s spontaneous combustion began to occur more and more frequently. Suddenly, there were reports of users getting burned when their Note7 units exploded in their pockets or in their hands. We also heard reports of exploding Note7s causing vehicles and homes to go up in flames.
Hoping to head off the situation, Samsung quickly cobbled together an exchange program. Users could put the IMEI numbers of their Note7 devices into a search bar on Samsung’s website and it would tell them whether or not their devices needed to be exchanged. At this early stage, we were told that this problem was occurring due to the batteries from one of Samsung’s suppliers being faulty, so only devices with batteries from that supplier were recalled.
It seemed like this would do the trick, but reports of exploding Note7 devices continued, and even Note7s that had been replaced were exploding. With seemingly no other choice, Samsung implemented a full-scale recall of the Note7. Anyone with a Note7 was instructed to call a special helpline so that they could either exchange their Note7s for another Samsung phone or request a full refund.
The entire situation has been a nightmare for Samsung and Note7 users alike. Many Note7 owners have sent back their devices — in a rather elaborate box — and are still waiting on their refunds, myself included. It’s a really unfortunate situation for a number of reason, not the least of which is the fact that the Note7 would’ve been at the top of many best-of-2016 lists if it weren’t for the (presumably) battery issues. But it’s also possible that those who don’t follow tech as closely as the rest of us may mistakenly assume that all Samsung phones are unsafe.
It would be a shame to see the much-beloved Note line get the axe over this situation. Either way, many people will look back on 2016 as the year that Samsung’s best phone started randomly exploding.
Pokémon Go was a mobile-gaming sensation for a minute
It wouldn’t be unreasonable to call 2016 the ‘Year of the Pokémon’ as those weird little monster came back in a big way after a hiatus of more than a decade.
If you don’t remember, Pokémon first became big in the United States in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Mostly, it was a playing-card game accompanied by an aggressive merchandise push and a televised cartoon. Although there were surely some fans of the franchise in the interim, its popularity began to wane and most of us forget about Pokémon.
Then suddenly, it was back.
In early July 2016, Niantic, Inc. — formerly Niantic Labs, an internal startup within Google — released Pokémon Go, an augmented-reality game in which you become a Pokémon trainer catching Pokémon that live right in your own environment.
Seemingly overnight, Pokémon Go became a huge sensation. No matter where you went, you’d see people with their smartphones in front of their faces, flicking and swiping furiously as they tried to catch an elusive Meowth or begrudgingly added yet another Pidgey to their collections. But like all other major trends, Pokémon Go came with some drawbacks.
Due to the nature of the game, there were some issues with players trespassing on others’ properties. If a Pokémon appeared within one’s reach, many people didn’t care if they had to break the rules in order to catch it. And in addition to the trespassing issue, there were numerous reports of people getting into car accidents due to playing the game while driving.
Over time, Niantic implemented some safety features that made it virtually impossible to play the game if it detects that you’re moving too fast (which indicates that you’re in a moving vehicle). The game also provides a prompt anytime you begin to play, warning users against trespassing.
Not only did Pokémon Go quickly jump to the top of the Google Play Store and Apple App Store charts, but it also raked in some serious cash. In its first two weeks, the app brought in $35 million dollars. Every day, approximately $1.6 million was made from iPhone users alone.
However, like any craze, the Pokémon Go frenzy eventually died down. Within a few months of its release, the game slowly dropped from the top of the charts. Although there are surely some players who remain dedicated to collecting them all, there’s nowhere near the level of excitement for Pokémon Go as there was in its first month. But for that period of time, the game was popular enough to be one of the defining features of 2016.
Self-driving cars were both close and far away
That there are several big companies developing self-driving cars isn’t exactly news. In fact, we’ve known about Google’s program for the development of self-driving cars — which was recently split off Google and into its own separate business called Waymo — for some time now. However, the prospect of being driven by an autonomous, self-driving vehicle has never been closer than it was in 2016.
Several different companies made headlines for their self-driving car programs over the course of the year. For instance, Uber now has a fleet of self-driving Ford Fusions (see picture above) that were tested in San Francisco and Philadelphia. Expectedly, getting cars to reliably and safely drive themselves around bicyclists, pedestrians, and other vehicles (which are being driven by people) has proven to be quite difficult. Just a few hours after launching the self-driving pilot run in San Francisco, one of the self-driving Uber cars was spotted running a red light, which didn’t go over well with the state of California.
Meanwhile, Tesla is betting big on a self-driving future, too. It’s been reported that all Tesla vehicles that are currently being sold will come with the hardware needed for the vehicles to be completely self-driving. There are already, at least to an extent, self-driving vehicles, but the reliability is still questionable since a Tesla driver was killed when his car’s autopilot failed to recognize that a tractor-trailer had drifted into his lane, resulting in the rig hitting the man head-on.
In the fall of 2016, China-based tech company LeEco hosted a product launch event for new smartphones and some other devices. For the event, LeEco had built a ramp and runway so that the company could have one of its self-driving cars drive onto the stage. However, of the two cars that were supposed to be in attendance, one was held up due to an appearance in the upcoming Transformers film (which was being filmed at the time) and the other apparently got into a traffic accident on the way to the event. Obviously, this doesn’t bode well for self-driving cars, but growing pains are to be expected in a tech category that’s still in its infancy.
Historically, the auto and tech industries have been considered separate entities, but the race to vehicular autonomy has resulted in a very exciting collaboration between automotive and tech companies as well as a number of innovative, promising startups. Obviously, we’re far from ready to put our lives in the hands of self-driving vehicles, but 2016 will surely be known as the year when the development of reliable, safe self-driving vehicles kicked into high gear and began to show some serious progress.
Virtual reality finally went mainstream
Virtual reality isn’t exactly new. Google Cardboard has been around for more than two years at this point and Samsung’s Gear VR headset (made in partnership with Oculus) debuted in 2015. Plus, there’s been other attempts made in addition to those. However, it wasn’t until 2016 that mobile VR was developed to such a point that it gained mainstream appeal.
The first big VR release in 2016 was the HTC Vive, which was developed in partnership with Valve Corporation. Vive is surely the most sophisticated — and the most expensive at $799 — virtual reality solution, incorporating sensors that account for the room and space around a user. It’s been extremely well-received and has earned a number of accolades, but its high cost meant the Vive wasn’t really able to push virtual reality into the mainstream.
With the release of the ill-fated Galaxy Note7, Samsung released an updated version of the Gear VR while discounting the previous version, but this didn’t put mobile VR in the spotlight, either. It was actually Google that made virtual reality appealing on a mainstream level.
There had been rumors that Google was developing a virtual reality platform and headset even before the company announced it in May 2016. When Google hosted its Pixel/Pixel XL launch event in early October, the company officially announced that the Daydream View headset would be available, too. Although it was released only a month before the end of the year, Google’s Daydream platform — currently usable only with the Daydream View headset and one of the few Daydream-ready smartphones currently available — was the push that virtual reality needed to be a real success.
Daydream launched with only a handful of games and key apps like YouTube, but the feedback has been extremely positive. While the Daydream platform is very smooth and user-friendly as a whole, one of the biggest improvements compared to past attempts was how much more immersive and interactive Google’s virtual reality platform is.
The Daydream View headset comes with a wireless remote that allows you to actually interact with the virtual environment rather than being a mere observer. Previous VR attempts were the type where you’d try it out once and feel like you’d experienced all that mobile VR had to offer; however, Google’s platform is much more refined. And as great as it is now, you can’t help but imagine what kinds of things the platform will offer in the future as VR matures and more third parties develop for Daydream.
But Google hasn’t stolen all the glory. In 2016, Sony released a Pro edition of the PS4 as well as the PlayStation VR. The latter is, as you probably guessed, a virtual reality headset that can be used for a number of new PS4 VR games that are being released. The unit is somewhat pricey at $400, which is the same cost as a PS4 Pro, but critical responses have been extremely positive to games like Batman Arkham VR and Robinson: The Journey.
Social media reminded us that it’s a powerful, unstoppable force
Rather than having Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat take up half this list, I’m condensing all social media-related stories from 2016 into one. But it was quite a year for social media, so you may want to grab a snack before we get started.
In 2016, Facebook solidified itself as the commander of out digital attentions. Various fraudulent news stories and election-related propaganda were posted on Facebook and, due to the network’s algorithms previously having little to no way to verify news coverage, were quickly plastered across the globe. This caused some serious panic and turmoil before the fraudulent news situation on Facebook eventually came to light. This is something people are still talking about today although Facebook has said that steps have been taken to ensure this won’t be a continuing problem.
For those who have been a fan of Periscope and other live streaming services, Facebook made its own push into live video streaming via Facebook Live. Expectedly, the service really took off and has seen use by both general users as well as by professionals. Rather than shooting and editing video footage, Facebook live gives a more candid look through another person’s eyes, which was particularly interesting when used for election coverage and other types of live news reporting.
As well, Facebook’s Aquila drone flew for the first time in 2016. If you’re unfamiliar, Facebook has publicized its intent to fly satellite internet-connected drones over third-world countries so that wireless Facebook-controlled internet connection can be beamed down onto remote populations who have never had internet access before.
Meanwhile, Twitter busied itself with trying to find a buyer. It’s no secret that Twitter has been unable to turn a profit for some time now in spite of any ad revenue that the social network has been making. For a minute, Disney seemed to be interested in acquiring Twitter but eventually passed. Twitter remains on the market as we head into 2017.
Although many people gravitate toward Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, Snapchat’s profile was raised significantly via a number of big headlines, which reminded us that Snapchat is every bit as relevant as the other guys. In fact, Snapchat is arguably the “coolest” social network right now.
Earlier in 2016, Snapchat released Memories, which offered a way for users to save and share old photos for the first time since Snapchat’s inception. While this has been a welcome feature for many, there are others who don’t agree with the shift from the ephemerality that had always been a hallmark of Snapchat.
Memories may not work exactly the way you think it would; after opting in, the Snapchat app will import any snaps you have stored in your device, saving them as “memories”. However, the ability to post photos taken from outside the Snapchat app is something that users have long been asking for. Photos more than 24 hours old can be posted, but they’ll have a frame to indicate their age.
As well, Snapchat (the company) has been rebranded as Snap, Inc., which got tons of press for released its first hardware: the Snapchat Spectacles. The Specs were first made available via a vending machine that appeared (without warning) in November on the boardwalk of Venice Beach, California. The vending machine has since popped in a number of other cities, including some you may not have expected like Big Sur, California, and Catoosa, Oklahoma. Thus far, the Specs haven’t been given a wide release, so as you would expect, those who haven’t found themselves near one to one of the vending machines will have to either wait with their fingers crossed or buy a pair on eBay for double to triple their $129 cost.
Cyanogen breathes its last breath
I’ve talked about Cyanogen, Inc. quite a bit over on Android Authority, including somewhat recently. Typically, I was either trying to figure out where the company was headed or trying to differentiate between the company’s popular open-source firmware and the clone they created in the hope of monetizing it. As well, I made mention of some colorful comments that the company’s founders made, such as when former-CEO Kirt McMaster said he intended to “put a bullet through Google’s head.” Call it karmic retribution or whatever you will, but it seems that Cyanogen has effectively put a bullet through its own head.
Throughout the year, Cyanogen made quite a few headlines, but never for anything good. It seemed that every other week a new report would detail a new string of layouts happening within the very misguided company. Later in the year, I was tasked with a semi-investigative piece where I had to track down someone to speak to at Cyanogen about where the company planned to go in the future. I got an initial response that made mention of so-called “OS modularity”, and it seemed to be something they were really excited about. I was asked if I wanted to schedule a time for a phone interview, but never heard back after I responded in the affirmative. I can only assume that it was because the proverbial feces was hitting the fan.
As we headed into the holiday season, there were reports of Cyanogen shutting down its Seattle offices followed by additional reports that the company would be shutting down a number of its services by the end of the year. It seemed that every few days there would be a new headline, and none of them were good.
Then news broke that the company’s other founder, Steve Kondik, had made a statement to Cyanogen community of developers. In the statement, Kondik talked about how the company was mismanaged, how McMaster’s statements and behavior cause major turmoil within the company and all but giving his public resignation while suggesting that CyanogenMod would remain an open-source venture.
Two days after Christmas, Cyanogen officially ended service and support for CyanogenMod and Cyanogen OS by taking their servers offline. Although we knew this was coming, the whole thing felt very abrupt. Fortunately, a small team of developers took the open-source CyanogenMod code and, after stating that the CyanogenMod legacy would continue, re-posted it as Lineage OS. The developers assured fans of CyanogenMod that Lineage OS would be the spiritual successor to the original ROM while also signifying the return to its grassroots start.
Apparently, the name change was unavoidable since the CyanogenMod name was technically a property of Cyanogen, Inc. While it seems the future is getting brighter for CyanogenMod/Lineage OS, it goes without saying that 2016 will be remembered as the year that Cyanogen, Inc. finally put the fatal bullet through its own head.
Wireless providers AT&T and Verizon made some big purchases
It’s become somewhat common for wireless providers to buy other companies. After all, it was less than two years ago when AT&T acquired DirecTV. But 2016 was the year when both Verizon and AT&T made some pretty large purchases.
First, there was Verizon’s decision to buy Yahoo.
Years ago, Yahoo was worth $100 billion. Even today, Yahoo remains the most highly-trafficked website on the worldwide web, but Google currently accounts for more than two-thirds of all search engine queries. But Google isn’t the only reason for Yahoo’s downfall since the company has been floundering due to some business missteps over the past sixteen years. Finally, it looked like the cosmos was going to through Yahoo a bone when Verizon agreed to purchase it for $4.8 billion (the company had previously, and stupidly, rejected a bid from Microsoft for $44 billion in 2008).
However, you may recall how in September of 2016, Yahoo revealed that the website was hacked in 2014, resulting in 500 million Yahoo accounts being compromised. Well, that wasn’t the only incident. Shortly after the 2014 hack was announced, Yahoo revealed another hack from 2013, which compromised an estimated one billion Yahoo accounts in what’s considered the biggest data breach in history.
In a statement, Yahoo claims that the hacker was a state-sponsored actor who infiltrated the company from within; in other words, Yahoo is claiming that the hacks — which the company insists were related — were cases of government espionage. With this information coming on the heels of Verizon’s agreement to acquire Yahoo, some are wondering whether Verizon might try to back out on the deal. Currently, Yahoo insists that the deal is still on, but we could very well still learn that it’s not as we move forward.
Meanwhile, it was announced in the fall of 2016 that AT&T would be acquiring Time Warner for $109 billion. This is surely a more significant deal than the Verizon-Yahoo acquisition because it means that AT&T would not only own DirecTV, but also the Time Warner cable television company, a number of television channels (including CNN, TNT, and HBO), and Warner Brothers (yes, the movie production company).
Prior to being officially elected, Donald Trump announced that he intended to intervene in the AT&T-Time Warner deal. Whether or not Trump is able to stop it, this is quite an interesting situation and could make AT&T quite a powerful company. AT&T has already invested quite a bit into content delivery, so acquiring Time Warner would mean that AT&T could easily begin to make original content. And if there’s anything we learned in 2016, it’s that content is king.
That wraps up my top ten biggest moments in tech for 2016. What were your most memorable moments for tech in 2016? Do you agree or disagree with mine? I’d love to hear your thoughts and views in the comment section below.