2014 was quite a newsmaker, wasn't it?
The last 12 months have yielded a tapestry of highs and lows that have set the tone for 2015, changed the landscape of the technology business, and — in some cases — fundamentally altered the way news is made and reported. Take catastrophic hacks like Sony and Celebgate, for example, that have forced hard conversations about the ethics of hack coverage. Deadly police encounters across the United States have opened deep wounds and brought race relations to the forefront. Or look at Gamergate, which sparked a heated (and sometimes dangerous) dialogue about the way women are represented in gaming.
It wasn't all doom and gloom, though: 2014 brought us the most focused and fascinating push for wearable computing in history, and an unstoppable Taylor Swift released the most explosively popular album in ages.
As another year draws to a close, let's have a look back at what's brought us here.
Eric Garner; John Crawford; Michael Brown; Ezell Ford; Tamir Rice.
These are just a few of the names of black people killed by police on American streets — most of them unarmed, some of them teenagers as young as 12 years old, some of them left face-down in the middle of the street for hours. And they are on the minds of many Americans who have stood up across the country in sadness and outrage over a long history of brutal police tactics that have wrongly claimed the lives of many before them. Their deaths have sparked nationwide protests by people of all political and social stripes who are demanding police reform and telling the world that black lives matter. With the power of Twitter, Instagram, and other platforms, people across the United States are still organizing and marching for change.
In the wake of Michael Brown’s shooting at the hands of a Missouri police officer, Americans also witnessed another dark side of the growing police state: the rapid militarization of local police across the country. In Ferguson, the world watched as heavily armed police in battle dress and body armor used tear gas and sound weapons to suppress largely peaceful demonstrations. In response, some changes may be rapidly approaching; President Obama announced funding for 50,000 police body cameras, and will conduct a review of military gear flowing to America’s police departments.
Legal weed makes big strides
On January 1st, Colorado made history by becoming the first state in the US to allow for the sale of marijuana for recreational use, and in just four months, pot sales exceeded more than $200 million. Washington followed suit in July, and just last month, citizens in Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, DC voted in favor of joining them.
It’s been a landmark year for marijuana law reform; more than half of US states now provide some sort of protection for marijuana use through decriminalization or legal medical use — and that number is expected to grow in the years to come. And though it’s still a Schedule I substance under Federal law, Congress has made strides in protecting state-level cannabis programs.
A majority of Americans continue to support pot legalization, and even those who don’t agree that legal weed is inevitable. Think about it: we now live in a world where someone can offer a sitting US President a toke.
Somewhere, Afroman is smiling.
No story in 2014 represented a more violent collision between technology and pop culture than "Celebgate." Hundreds of private, often nude photos of celebrities including Jennifer Lawrence, Kirsten Dunst, and Kate Upton were stolen and leaked onto the internet, with users on Reddit, 4chan, and other sites rapidly redistributing and republishing them.
The series of leaks were shocking in their scale, but the real reason Celebgate dominated mainstream conversation in September was because it touched on several major topical issues facing the internet and the world: the frequently reprehensible attitude toward women online (see also: Gamergate), data and security risks in the age of the cloud, and the right to privacy, to name but three.
If there was a bright side to what was an all-around ugly story, it came in the robust responses of stars like Lawrence, the general outpouring of sympathy rather than the widespread victim-blaming we’d come to expect, and companies like Apple making belated efforts to shore up their security under a harsh, revealing spotlight. Celebgate exposed the dank corners of the internet to a wider audience — an audience that may now take more serious steps to protect themselves from such appalling invasions of privacy in the future.
It took many months for the Western world to take notice of the devastation caused by the Ebola virus in West Africa. As a result, more than 6,000 people died, and this year’s outbreak became the largest ever recorded. Yet, even as Ebola remained concentrated in three West African countries — Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone — many in the US reacted in fear.
This year’s outbreak became the largest ever recorded
For instance, when a man traveling from Liberia, Thomas Duncan, became the first person to be diagnosed with Ebola in the US, people of African descent were faced with immense discrimination. Later, when Duncan died and an American doctor returning from Africa was diagnosed in New York, politicians fought over the implementation of flight restrictions that, had they been stricter, would have made it harder for healthcare workers to travel abroad, and would have lead to more infections worldwide.
Thankfully, not everyone took part in the panic. Healthcare workers and researchers the world over worked tirelessly to treat Ebola patients. Despite the dangers of their job, they provided patients with fluids and reassurance, all while trying to develop vaccines, drugs, and enhanced testing protocols that could help reduce the number of deaths. Now, as the year draws to an end, an Ebola vaccine is still a long way off, and many believe that the outbreak will continue well into 2015.
The smartwatch wars
Smartwatches weren’t a new thing in 2014, but this was the year when the big players threw their hats into the ring.
This summer, Google launched Android Wear, a version of its mobile operating system designed specifically for watches. Android Wear is very powerful — it lets you do a lot of things just from your wrist — but like the first versions of Android for smartphones, it has a number of usability and reliability issues. Many of Google’s smartphone partners launched their first Android Wear watches this year, including Motorola, Samsung, LG, and Asus, but none have yet taken off in the same way that smartphones have.
In the fall, Apple announced its long-awaited smartwatch, the Apple Watch. It acts as a companion to the iPhone and has many of the same features and concepts as Google’s efforts, but it’s wrapped in a more elegant shell. It’ll also have much of the iOS developer community behind it, which is a major advantage. Apple isn’t actually selling the Watch until next year — and there are still many unknowns — but just the fact that it exists has put smartwatches on the minds of many more people.
The last seven years have seen Apple and Google go to war on smartphones and tablets, but if 2014 is any indication, the next fight will be on your wrist.
High drama for cord-cutters
Some dreams were shattered, other dreams were made. 2014 was a rocky, high-stakes year for everyone hoping to watch all of their TV online, but it looks like cord-cutters may ultimately be coming out the winners.
The decisive internet TV story of 2014 was the fall of Aereo. Aereo used what appeared to be a legal loophole to offer online streams of broadcast TV, and it very much felt like the future. That’s why, for cord-cutters, it was a dramatic moment when the Supreme Court ruled that Aereo violated copyright law, instantly dealing a fatal blow to the company. But while it seemed to be a decision that might only stifle innovation, it turned out that broadcasters were listening.
Cord-cutters’ dreams are starting to come true
Now, cord-cutters’ dreams really are starting to come true: in October, CBS launched an internet TV service, becoming the first major broadcaster to do so; HBO has announced plans to offer an online service beginning next year; and Showtime is supposed to move online in the near future, too. There’s also a chance that internet TV providers could also have a big year in 2015, thanks to a potential FCC rule change giving them a major jump start. So yes, Aereo may be dead. But going into 2015, things are actually looking up.
Microsoft gets a new boss — and a new game plan
When we look back at Microsoft’s future successes or failures, 2014 will be a defining year in the company’s history. Satya Nadella — a 22-year-veteran server and enterprise guy at Microsoft — was appointed to replace Steve Ballmer as CEO in February, and he didn’t take long to make his mark. With a focus on cloud and mobile computing, Nadella has transformed Microsoft’s strategy in an attempt to rival the modern tactics of its competitors. It all started in March when Office for iPad finally debuted, and throughout the year Microsoft hasn’t been scared to make big bets.
Nadella made Windows and Windows Phone free of charge for devices with screens smaller than 9 inches, a sign that he was going after Android. Smartphone and tablet makers haven’t flocked to the platform as a result, but it’s the first time Microsoft has made Windows free at such a large scale. That was quickly followed by a decision to cancel the launch of a small Surface Mini; Microsoft chose to launch the Surface Pro 3 by itself, aligning its efforts around a productivity-focused tablet. The company’s latest earnings show that Nadella’s move might have been a wise one, as Surface revenue is starting to rise.
2014 will be a defining year in Microsoft's history
2014 also saw Microsoft morph from a software giant into a hardware giant. A $7.2 billion acquisition of Nokia’s phone business means Microsoft now controls over 90 percent of all Windows Phone devices in a continued struggle for mobile. The company also surprised many with the launch of the Microsoft Band, a wearable fitness device that tracks a variety of health data from your wrist. While health and fitness emerged as a focus area for Microsoft, it also gave up on bundling its Kinect accessory with the Xbox One. Aggressive prices are also helping close the gap against Sony’s impressive PlayStation 4 sales.
But Microsoft certainly hasn’t given up on software. Android and iOS apps have been flowing steadily from Redmond, and Microsoft’s biggest surprise of the year was making Office for mobile free to use on both platforms. Coupled with a Dropbox and Office partnership, Microsoft appears to be embracing rival platforms, services, and even open source software to improve its own offerings.
Big phones are in
From their very beginning, smartphones have adhered to the maxim that bigger is better. Screen sizes grow as quickly as the underlying technology is able to move, and every year adds another few millimeters to the average smartphone’s width and height. 2014 marks the apogee of this trend with almost every flagship Android phone having a 5-inch screen or above and even Apple’s iPhone growing significantly. Apple was the last remaining holdout with its 4-inch iPhone 5S, but in 2014 it embraced the "bigger than bigger" tagline and introduced 4.7-inch and 5.5-inch iPhone 6 models that conclusively sealed the fate of smaller handsets as secondary or budget options.
If you’re buying the best phone today, you’ll have to buy one of the biggest. Large phones are now a fact of life rather than a niche extreme for the most enthusiastic. This change has been fueled partly by the advantages the bigger size provides: neat extras like higher-resolution screens, larger batteries, and optical stabilization for the camera can be built in more easily when there’s more room, and a lot of consumers have opted for them over the compactness of a smaller device. But just as important is the rising tide of wearable smart devices that act as companions and occasional replacements for the smartphone. Android Wear smartwatches handle notifications and a few basic tasks without requiring you to pull your phone out of your pocket, and Apple’s Watch promises to do the same for iPhone owners.
The idea of using a large smartphone on a daily basis has never been as widely accepted as it is today. Better software and smart hardware accessories are offsetting the ergonomic sacrifice of the big size and people continue to respond positively to the "more everything" mantra. There is a logical limit to all this expansion, however, and 2015 looks set to be the year when smartphones finally stop growing and start evolving in subtler ways.
The fight for net neutrality
2014 was the year that net neutrality died… and lived… and ended up in limbo. At the start of the year, the 2010 Open Internet Order — a rule that prevented ISPs from blocking or discriminating against sites and services — was struck down in court. Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler scrambled to replace it, but his new plan was met with suspicion. Net neutrality’s opponents wouldn’t have supported any rule, and others worried that a loophole would let ISPs offer "fast lanes" to companies that paid more. Exacerbating the matter, Comcast announced a bid to acquire Time Warner Cable, potentially putting over than half the US broadband market in the hands of one company.
Net neutrality caught the public eye in a way it never had before, drawing protests and a record-breaking 3.7 million comments to the FCC. Even President Barack Obama weighed in, coming out in favor of reclassifying broadband under stricter laws. But while the FCC was supposed to vote on new rules by the end of the year, the issue turned out to be too complicated; we’re now hoping for a final decision early in 2015.
The meteoric, controversial rise of Uber
There are many ways you could chronicle Uber’s controversial, seemingly unstoppable rise in 2014, but here’s the one that might matter most: since it launched its ride-sharing platform in San Francisco, the number of taxi rides taken there has plunged 65 percent. That’s how fast, cheap, easy, and (usually) safe the service is — most of us would rather use the app than wave a hand at a passing car. If Uber has proven one thing this year, it’s that convenience is king — and its explosive growth continues unabated, despite an endless series of management issues that would leave less useful companies in a ditch.
You can like it, or you can learn to live with it — Uber looks to become the most valuable company of its generation
A partial recap of Uber in 2014: moves that seemingly encouraged surge pricing to customers’ detriment; coldly pledging to replace its drivers with autonomous vehicles at the earliest opportunity; arming street teams with credit cards and burner phones to recruit its competitors’ drivers, resulting in more than 5,000 canceled Lyft rides; regularly misleading drivers about the amount of pay they can expect to take home; casually threatening an anti-Uber journalist with a smear campaign; tracking another journalist using a feature called "God View"; promising to become a "more humble company," then opening in Portland without permission a day later; and getting sued by two California cities over charges that it misleads customers about driver background checks.
And yet few of us have stopped using Uber, because we’ve already forgotten what it was like to live in a world without quick, cheap transportation to wherever we wanted to go. The company is now in 52 countries, and was recently valued at $40 billion. You can like it, or you can learn to live with it — Uber looks to become the most valuable company of its generation.
"Actually, it’s about ethics in games journalism."
That’s the rallying cry of Gamergate, variously described as a "consumer revolt," a misogynist hate group, or a loose but incredibly vocal aggregation of people upset about progressive politics and close ties between game developers and journalists.
The roots of Gamergate reach back to August, when the ex-boyfriend of game developer Zoe Quinn accused her of infidelity. Some of Quinn’s detractors, who already hated her non-traditional text game Depression Quest, speculated that she’d started affairs to get good press, and that this was only one of many conflicts of interest in games journalism. There wasn’t any meat to that particular claim, but it came at the same time as a backlash to feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian, creator of a video series about women in games. The situation quickly turned into a full-blown online culture war, with self-described "gamers" fighting social progressives and news outlets with boycott campaigns and deluges of angry messages.
If this sounds like any number of insular, convoluted internet fights, it is. But Gamergate has been astonishing in its longevity and vitriol, especially towards a handful of women (including Quinn) who left home after receiving violent, targeted threats. It’s reached beyond gaming to become a battle over the future of feminism and online communities, and while it’s calmed down significantly, the movement shows no signs of disappearing any time soon.
ISIS' campaign of terror
ISIS wasn’t terrifying only because of its brutality. It was the fact that the brutality was seemingly everywhere: on TV, and on Twitter, and on YouTube. What’s worse, it was all orchestrated to happen exactly that way.
This year, the militant group’s propaganda arm churned out high-quality recruitment videos to grow its ranks. Members used a dedicated app to automatically post violent images to social media, artificially inflating their numbers before strikes to give themselves an edge against the Iraqi army. A Photoshopped image of a militant next to the phrase "Baghdad, we are coming" spread across social media. The tactics seemed to work: soldiers fled their posts as ISIS continued its planned takeover of the Middle East.
And the violence only escalated from there. After the group beheaded journalist James Foley, its members uploaded the footage online. Although companies worked to take down the gruesome video, it had its effect: stills from the footage quickly appeared on news sites and papers across the world.
The campaign, months later, is seemingly without end. Facebook groups have organized been organized to continue recruitment. More beheadings, dutifully recorded, have appeared.
A banner year for security, or lack thereof
Everything seemed to be breaking this year. In the early months, a nasty bug called Backoff started stealing credentials from register-side card readers, hitting Target, Home Depot and PF Chang’s along with half dozen other major retailers. By the time the dust settled, the damage was into the hundreds of millions — and that was just the beginning. Researchers found major holes in the basic protocols that keep the web secure: first Heartbleed, then Shellshock, then Poodle. Then, in November, the attack on Sony Pictures gave us the messiest and meanest corporate leak in living memory. Taken together, it’s been an important and painful wakeup call — we need to get past passwords, and get smarter about storing data.
Apple buys Beats
A company spending $3 billion to acquire a startup these days doesn’t seem like the type of news that would send shockwaves throughout multiple industries, but when Apple is dropping that type of cash, all bets are off.
Back in May, news broke that Apple was on the verge of acquiring Beats Electronics — the company co-founded by legendary producer Dr. Dre that turned headphones into a fashion staple and created a music streaming service with an artist-first mentality. The price was intriguing — before Beats, Apple had never exceeded the $1 billion mark while acquiring another company — but it wasn’t the cause of the stunned reaction.
Apple’s iTunes had saved the music industry nearly 15 years ago after it was brought to its knees by rampant pirating. The company essentially announced another shift was coming with the acquisition of Beats, and more importantly its streaming service Beats Music. The deal signified Apple had finally realized iTunes was no longer enough, and the age of the iPod was over. Streaming is here to stay, and bringing in longtime industry veterans like Dr. Dre, former Interscope CEO Jimmy Iovine and Trent Reznor would help ease that transition.
With music sales on the decline and reports indicating Apple may integrate Beats Music with iTunes next year, the question is: can Apple save the music industry once again?
The push for commercial drones intensifies
It was exactly one year ago this month that Amazon announced it was hard at work on its own fleet of delivery drones, elevating an idea that had been techno-fantasy to an R&D project backed by Jeff Bezos’ billions and a friendly promotional video. This past summer, Google announced it was pursuing the same goal, and had been actively testing delivery drones in the Australian Outback. With two of tech’s biggest names pushing forward, and the FAA expected to unveil its rules for commercial drone flight over the US in 2015, it seemed the stage was set for the birth of a fascinating new industry.
Drones will be a much more common sight
Unfortunately, as so often happens with government, regulators are not prepared to keep pace with technology. Testifying before Congress, the FAA is now saying it may not be ready to allow commercial drone flight — aside from some limited tests — until 2017. It also hinted that all commercial drone operators will need to be licensed, meaning autonomous unmanned flights are unlikely anytime in the near future. It has granted permission for a handful of companies to begin outdoor testing of commercial drones, but none of them are working on home delivery.
In response, Amazon is threatening to take its tests overseas. The idea of American companies being forced to move innovation abroad got Congress in a huff, and recent comments from the FAA indicate that would like to avoid that embarrassment. 2015, in other words, is shaping up to be a year of intense debate, with the future of commercial drones still very much up in the air. But even if the FAA punts on this issue, expect drones to become a much more common sight. Cheaper, more powerful units are flooding the consumer market, just in time for your Christmas shopping.
The highs and lows of spaceflight
Commercial spaceflight looked promising for a while. It blossomed under a lax regulatory environment after Congress passed the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act in 2004. Space tourists were treated as thrill-seekers.
In August, SpaceX’s Falcon9 Dev 1 test vehicle exploded during a test launch. Then, within a week, two different private aerospace companies had serious accidents. Orbital Science’s uncrewed Antares rocket, meant to deliver supplies to the International Space Station, exploded after launch on October 28th. Three days later, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo disintegrated, killing a test pilot. Political tensions between the US and Russia have been particularly acute this year, and NASA suspended its contract with Russia because of the Ukraine crisis. That places more pressure on homegrown companies, which clearly aren’t ready for primetime.
Each crash happened for a different reason. Orbital had been using old technology — a refurbished engine built in the 1960s for the Soviet moon program. Virgin Galactic was using new technology; its crash may have been due to a mixture of pilot and mechanical error, the NTSB has said. The investigation is ongoing, but a too-aggressive timetable for putting tourists in space may also be responsible. There is some good news, though. NASA’s new Orion spacecraft, designed to go farther into space than anyone’s been in 30 years, had a test flight in December that went off beautifully. Let’s hope 2015 holds more similarly successful launches.
Taylor Swift ascendant
It was hard not to cringe at the headline: "For Taylor Swift, The Future of Music is a Love Story." It was even harder not to regard the thesis of Swift’s Wall Street Journal op-ed — that fans will continue to purchase albums from and otherwise fill the pockets of the musicians whose music hits them "like an arrow to the heart" — with a gigantic paper-airplane-shaped crystal of Himalayan pink salt. But this was all back in July, and we should have known that it would all end up being a foreshadowing of Swift’s single-handed domination of the music industry for the rest of the year.
It wasn’t enough that her fifth studio album, 1989, was the best-selling album of 2014, or that it had the biggest opening sales week since 2002, or that Swift became the first artist to have three albums in a row go platinum in the week they were released. Her self-described "first documented official pop album" became the mechanism by which Swift Industries could fully realize itself — from her canny, highly strategic relationship with the press and paparazzi, to her surprise decision to exert her economic clout by completely withdrawing her music from Spotify. Taylor Swift was already an international superstar, but in 2014 she became a vertically-integrated industry of personality.
Tim Cook comes out while gay marriage becomes the law of the land
Same-sex marriage in America made huge strides this year, both legally and socially. By November, same-sex couples in 35 states could marry. Meanwhile, support for it is trending up across the country and in all age groups, with more than 50 percent of respondents in a recent Gallup poll saying they were in favor. By now, it’s nearly inevitable that same-sex marriage will achieve widespread acceptance in the US.
This seismic shift spread to the tech world when Apple CEO Tim Cook came out in a Bloomberg Businessweek editorial in October. "So let me be clear," he said. "I’m proud to be gay, and I consider being gay among the greatest gifts God has given me." While Apple has long celebrated diversity, Cook happens to be a gay man in charge of one of the most important companies in the world. His coming out was a watershed moment for tech and culture at large, and helps show the progress we’ve made as a society.
Correction: The article originally stated that Taylor Swift was the first artist to have three albums in a row go platinum; in fact, she was the first artist to have three albums go platinum in the same week they were released. The article has been updated accordingly.