What we got wrong this year

All the stories we didn't see coming in 2015


This past week, we’ve been running a series of conversations between writers and editors about what we learned in 2015. It was a year when we watched tech companies emulate one another, with Google, Apple, and Microsoft launching rival products and services in the same categories. It was a year when everyone became very confused about what censorship means on the internet, and when we realized that streaming is making the music industry more unequal.

It was also a year of stories that took us by surprise or thwarted conventional wisdom. The Apple Watch didn't reinvent wearables and Snapchat Discover didn’t transform the media. It looked as if Twitter might finally do something to curtail harassment, but instead we lost stars for hearts. There was more talk about Nazis this year than anyone would’ve expected 12 months ago. There were some welcome surprises, too: Blue Origin and SpaceX both succeeded in landing rockets, potentially lowering the cost of spaceflight significantly, and just when we thought tech companies had given up on photo sharing, Flickr and Google launched excellent redesigns.

Here’s our list of stories that didn’t turn out the way we thought they would.

We thought the Apple Watch was going to bring wearables into the mainstream. It didn't.

This was supposed to be the year of the Apple Watch. Apple’s long awaited wearable was going to transform the market, bring smartwatches to mainstream consumers, and usher in a wave of wrist-based computing. That didn’t happen.

A "killer app" never came, and even owners of the device have trouble justifying the watch’s usefulness. The lack of enthusiasm may be more an indictment of wearables in general than a signal of Apple’s failure; industry analysts say Apple may be leading the overall smartwatch category. That suggests the majority of people just don’t want smartwatches, even from the maker of the iPhone.

The story is a bit different from a more modest wearable company. Fitbit, the 8-year-old maker of a wide array of lower-cost fitness trackers, went public in June amid concerns that Apple, Samsung, and other tech giants would push it to the side. Although its stock price has remained relatively flat, sales of Fitbit devices have increased every quarter since its IPO. Perhaps the one wearable we actually want, the fitness tracker, has been here all along.

We were surprised by two successful rocket landings.

At the beginning of the year, the spaceflight community was abuzz over SpaceX's ambitious plans to land its Falcon 9 rocket after launching it into space. Such a feat could open up the possibility of reusable rockets, potentially lowering the cost of spaceflight by millions. But after two failed attempts in January and April, and one Falcon 9 explosion later, SpaceX grounded its fleet and the excitement surrounding the landing trick waned. It looked like 2015 would pass by without any rockets returning to Earth post-launch.

Then in November, there was a major upset. Out of seemingly nowhere, private spaceflight company Blue Origin, run by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, announced that it had landed its New Shepard rocket after sending it to space. Granted, the New Shepard doesn't go as high or as fast as the Falcon 9 does, but the accomplishment was incredible all the same. The dream of reusable rockets was reignited.

Not to be outdone, SpaceX worked hard to return to flight, and on December 21st, just a week before the start of the new year, the company launched its Falcon 9 and landed it on solid ground at Cape Canaveral, Florida. When it seemed like no company would accomplish rocket reusability, suddenly two had pulled off the task within about a month's time. Now, 2015 will be remembered as the year that ushered in a new era of spaceflight — one focused on preserving rockets after launch rather than throwing them away.

We didn’t think Samsung could design a better watch than Apple.

Tech companies have experimented with the idea of creating smartwatches for years. But among the current wave of mini smartphones for the wrist, Samsung was a determined pioneer and trailblazer, starting with the Galaxy Gear in late 2013. What followed were two years of bruising lessons learned through a series of unsuccessful Android Wear devices. Samsung seemed to be as lost and confused in the quest to build a good smartwatch as everyone else was. Inadequate battery life, high cost, and inelegant designs were the norm for smartwatches, and even the arrival of Apple's long-awaited Watch didn't move things forward as much as expected.

Samsung's Gear S2 was this year's biggest revelation. The company that tried and failed most often and most publicly with its smartwatches all of a sudden had the best-designed smartwatch. The S2 feels like a watch, and its rotating bezel is the smartest use of tactile controls on a smartwatch yet. Even the Tizen operating system is faster and more intuitive than the Android Wear and Apple Watch alternatives. That same OS constrains the Gear S2's potential, since it lacks the same potential for a vibrant app ecosystem, but purely in terms of design, Samsung outdid Apple this year.

We thought tech companies had given up on photo sharing. They haven’t.

"It’s a strange time for photo storage," we wrote in April. "It’s never been more important, and yet even the biggest consumer internet companies barely seem to be paying attention." A couple weeks later, Yahoo revealed a totally reinvented Flickr that combined generous free storage with powerful search. And a few weeks after that, Google launched Google Photos — a next-generation photo management tool with free, unlimited high-resolution storage and a search tool more powerful than even Yahoo's. Within five months, Google Photos had more than 100 million users a month. We've never been so happy to have been totally wrong.

We thought biometric scanners were going to revolutionize security. They haven’t.

Coming into 2015, we knew the password-based security model was hopelessly broken. We also knew that, by the end of the year, every flagship phone would come with a built-in fingerprint reader. Combined with the new FIDO standard and hack after hack after hack, it looked like this would be the year we finally put away our password managers.

Instead, nothing happened. There are millions of fingerprint readers out there, but less than 15 percent of iPhone users are actually using them to unlock their phones. Those numbers have made third-party apps a lot less eager to switch over. FIDO is still promising, but it looks a lot less inevitable than it did in January. The government losing track of 14 million employee fingerprints over the summer probably didn’t help. Passwords haven’t gotten any more secure, but the industry is less and less sure what to do about it. Whatever happens, we won’t be canceling our 1Password subscriptions any time soon.

We thought Twitter might meaningfully fix abuse problems. It didn’t.

Early this year in February, former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo said that "we suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we’ve sucked at it for years." We agreed with his assessment (hello, Gamergate), and we thought the strong words from Costolo might finally lead Twitter to deal with the problem in a serious way. Well, it did — sort of. Ten months later, the company released some improved tools for reporting abuse and harassment, but the nine-step reporting process it replaced was a pretty low bar to improve upon. And the effectiveness of the new reporting process hasn’t been proven yet. Meanwhile, the best tools — like features that help people collectively block groups of known trolls — still aren’t available to regular users. We’ll see if the company makes any improvements in 2016 under newly returned CEO Jack Dorsey, but so far his solutions to making Twitter nicer include slightly reworded rules and replacing star icons with heart icons.

We learned that video evidence won't save us from police violence.

The police shooting of Michael Brown in 2014 set off a national conversation about police violence and ways to fight it. One of those solutions, police body cameras, quickly became a popular technological fix for the problem. If only we had seen video evidence of police killing an unarmed teenager, the question of culpability would have been easily solved. But there wasn’t any video evidence, and the officer who killed Brown was let off the hook. So the Obama administration late last year announced funding for 50,000 law enforcement cameras, and police departments across the country have been adopting cameras more rapidly ever since. Unfortunately, cop cameras were not, and cannot, be a panacea for those seeking reform. The politics behind who controls the cameras are messy, and will only continue to get more complicated as a new industry is built around the technology. Worse, even having video evidence doesn’t guarantee that killers will face justice. While some police have been convicted this year while being caught on camera, others have gone free, signaling that a reduction in police violence will require more than a camera.

Jurassic World promotional images (UNIVERSAL)

We thought CGI was going away, but it’s here to stay.

2015 saw some people (including us) trumpeting the glorious return of practical effects after years of ugly, obvious CGI. J.J. Abrams was careful in making it clear that Star Wars: The Force Awakens had moved away from the excessive use of green screen that marred the prequel trilogy. Mad Max: Fury Road involved delicately choreographed stunts involving actual cars. Tom Cruise strapped himself to the side of a plane for Mission Impossible–Rogue Nation. But the truth is CGI is alive and well, even in those movies. And more importantly, the CGI that people complain about may be bad, but good CGI is ever-present and often invisible. Those kind of effects can and do enhance their movies. Going into 2016, it’s possible more films will rely on practical effects. But we can also expect CGI to get even better. The challenge, now, is balancing the two.

We found out that studios can still succeed without superheroes.

Going into 2015, it was easy to imagine Disney crushing all other studios at the box office. The Marvel Cinematic Universe basically prints money at this point, and no other studio has a juggernaut like Star Wars. But surprise: Universal beat all the other major studios in terms of revenue, and they did it without a single superhero movie. That’s a big deal, and points toward a few trends. First, audiences may be getting tired of superhero epics in a way that spells trouble for every studio following Marvel’s lead. Second, movies like Straight Outta Compton and 50 Shades of Grey aren’t marketed at young white men and were extremely successful, meaning Hollywood would do well to aim its upcoming projects at broader audiences.

We didn’t expect to be talking so much about Nazis.

Nazis are one of the few groups so clearly and universally loathed that invoking them outside the context of World War II once seemed like a cop-out. One version of Godwin's Law posited that making a Hitler comparison in a debate was essentially forfeiting it. In movies and video games, "Nazi" was a generic monster archetype on the level of "zombie" or "werewolf."

Nazi zombies are still hanging around; they popped up in the latest Wolfenstein game this year. But 2015 has also been a year of surprisingly involved discussion about the Third Reich’s legacy. With an online poll about time travel, The New York Times managed to create a wave of commentary about Hitler’s role in 20th-century fascist politics. The Man in the High Castle gave us a detailed alternate history of Axis-occupied America, and the response to its ill-considered MTA ad campaign seemed like a rejection of the idea that Nazi symbolism had been reduced to an aesthetic. And that’s not even counting the controversy over Reddit’s white supremacist (but not technically Nazi) empire.

American political rhetoric has always been full of Nazi metaphors, but the current presidential race has gone beyond cliché and hyperbolic "Obama is Hitler" comparisons. Sure, there’s Jeb Bush weighing in on the baby Hitler question, and Ben Carson asserting that gun control facilitated the Holocaust. But Donald Trump’s popularity has turned the all-purpose insult of "fascist" into a real descriptor, starting a debate over what precisely defines a regime like Nazi Germany and whether an ideologue like Trump deserves the fascist label. In other words, the 2016 election is shaping up to be one big, justified, and absolutely serious invocation of Godwin’s Law.

We thought Snapchat Discover was going to be killer. It wasn’t.

At first blush, few platforms would seem to be better suited to reinventing media than Snapchat, with its enormous youth following and huge advertiser appeal. And yet Discover, Snapchat’s hand-picked collection of media brands, has floundered since its January launch. Where Snapchat’s messages and crowdsourced Live Stories are immersive and visceral, Discover is an odd, often text-heavy interloper. Users seem largely indifferent, even after Snapchat moved Discover to the top of the Stories feed. And publishers are starting to grumble about Snapchat’s heavy editorial hand and the weak return on their investment so far. In 2016, Discover is ripe for reinvention.

Destiny was awful at launch, but it's made a surprising comeback.

Destiny sucked at launch, but it’s made a surprisingly strong comeback. Telling people you play a lot of Destiny used to feel a bit like confessing you had a smoking habit. You’d find yourself apologizing for an addiction you couldn’t quite justify, and you’d try to make amends by promising you were cutting back (if not quitting entirely). It certainly felt that way a year ago: DLC pack The Dark Below was shallow and pricey, the game’s economy was broken, and developer Bungie couldn’t stop itself from alienating the game’s player base. The game’s skeleton was sturdy, but there wasn’t much meat on its bones.

It turns out Destiny diehards didn’t have to wait for the game’s inevitable sequel for an improved experience. May’s House of Wolves DLC and September’s mega-expansion The Taken King proved Bungie was capable of building mechanically distinct missions, satisfying characters, and a comprehensible narrative. It became easier for new players to advance and get stronger without grinding for gear. Even Peter Dinklage’s maligned Dinklebot was sent to the scrap heap, his voice having been replaced. Destiny isn’t perfect — its new microtransactions need a little work — but it’s closer than ever to fulfilling its immense promise.

We thought the FCC was going to fix 911, but carriers are getting what they wanted.

We’ve known that our 911 system was leaving some of our most vulnerable citizens at risk, but this was the year it seemed, briefly, like significant progress was being made. In January, the FCC passed new rules that were meant to solve a major gap in the 911 system: how calls are tracked. As one of the agency’s commissioners put it, before the rules passed, "if you call 911 from a wireless phone indoors, cross your fingers, because FCC location standards for emergency calls do not apply indoors." The new rules, the Commission said, would effectively save lives by allowing emergency responders to better pinpoint the locations of those calls.

But new information uncovered since suggests the rules, if a partial improvement, left more stringent accuracy requirements on the cutting room floor. Ultimately, after vigorous lobbying, the FCC quietly passed rules that hewed closely to what the major carriers wanted, over the objections of some groups representing emergency responders. It’s now unclear when, or if, the issue will be revisited.

Hoverboards were more than just a fad.

At first it seemed like the hoverboard would never be more than a novelty, something we’d look back on at the end of 2015 and wonder where it came from and where it went. Instead, it looks like we’re either just at the beginning, or in the thick of it. Even if hoverboards disappear they’ll still be one of the first electric rideables to become more than just a punchline. The hoverboard craze felt especially easy to dismiss because it happened so fast. One minute we’re fighting that uphill and ultimately futile battle about what to call them, the next they’re everywhere.

Then, of course, these scooters started catching fire, forcing many retailers (that were already hesitant to sell them) to reconsider making them this year’s signature holiday gift. Looking at 2016, it feels like it will take an established player (like hoverboard newcomer Razor, a company that started a massive scooter fad a decade ago) to put hoverboards under people’s feet without scaring them. Like the Razor, hoverboards may not be around forever, but they’re definitely here now.

Android cameras finally got better, but it didn’t increase sales.

The biggest development in mobile technology this year was the maturation of Android phone cameras. Every major manufacturer, from Sony to LG to Motorola, upped its game and delivered the best imaging equipment in their history. Even Google's flagship Nexus line now features a very good camera in the Nexus 6P. But a mature market is rarely a growing one, and the increase in smartphone sales showed its first signs of slowdown ever.

It's natural to expect that better products will sell in greater number, but that rarely happens in reality, where factors like a company's brand appeal and track record play a big part in forming purchasing decisions. LG's G2 smartphone was one of 2013's best devices, but its excellence was not reflected in immediate sales, owing to LG's uneven earlier record. It was the subsequent G3 and G4 generations that benefited from the credibility LG gained with the G2. The same will be true of Android camera improvements, whose payoff will be felt further down the line by keeping Android competitive against one of the iPhone's core strengths.

We all worried ad blockers would be the end of the world. They weren’t.

The announcement that Apple would enable ad blockers in iOS 9 sent a shiver of fear through us perennially pants-shitting media types. Just as digital media companies were beginning to have some success in building and profiting from web audiences, along comes Apple to end the party on mobile devices. In the hours after iOS 9's release, ad blockers rocketed to the top of the App Store, and media executives prepared for the worst. But then a funny thing happened: the ad blockers all fell off the charts, and publishers reported that they weren't ruining their businesses after all. Most people were simply too lazy to download and install an ad blocker, and we all still have jobs as a result. It was 2015's most personally welcome reprieve.