A lot can change in 10 years. When the sun rose on January 1st, 2010, Steve Jobs was still CEO of Apple, and the hottest Android phone was the newly minted Motorola Droid. Facebook was still an upstart, having just recently clawed its way to profitability. Uber hadn’t reached an app store yet, and Spotify hadn’t reached the US. Tinder, Twitch, and TikTok simply didn’t exist.
Taking the long view, the individual stories of the past 10 years tend to blur into a few big trends. Social networks consolidated and expanded globally, bringing new anxieties over their political power. Threatened by piracy, content companies traded hard copy sales for monthly streaming charges. The cult of the founder withered, while platforms sank into an endless war between the moderators and the moderated. Always political, technology became partisan and started to splinter.
We talk a lot about the tech world growing up, but this is how it happened — brick by brick, one moment at a time. If you want to understand how we got here, these moments are a good place to start.
Google leaves China
US tech companies have had a hard time dealing with China lately, caught between the draw of a billion new users and the threat of omnipresent surveillance and censorship. But that queasy tango was happening for a long time before Apple opened up shop in Beijing. Google has been operating in China since 2000, making significant censorship concessions to the government, but thinking that a searchable internet would force China to open up in the years that followed.
It didn’t work. The Great Firewall stayed up, and while Google’s moral compromises got more painful, China didn’t get any more open in response. After a targeted cyberattack and mounting criticism from human rights groups, Google finally gave up the ghost in January 2010, removing the censorship blocks mandated by the Chinese government and getting blocked by party censors almost immediately. It was a watershed moment for Google and an early acknowledgment that better information services don’t always change the world.
The launch of the iPhone 4
The rise of the smartphone officially started with the original iPhone in 2007, but it really started with the iPhone 4 in 2010. The iPhone 4 had an all-time great Apple design, introduced a high-resolution display and selfie camera, and showed us that rear cameras on smartphones could be worth using. More important than all that: several months after launch, it became the first iPhone to be available across all major US carriers.
Android phones were just starting to trickle out as the iPhone 4 hit the market, but it would be years before they could match Apple's quality and attention to detail. The iPhone 4 showed the world what a flagship phone should look like. And even if today's phones are a whole lot bigger and faster, they're still made in the model of 2010's finest phone.
Death of Google Wave
Google Wave was nothing if not ambitious. Unfortunately, it happened to arrive at a time when Google had plenty of ambition and almost no follow-through. Named after the science fiction show Firefly, Wave was a collaborative online editing tool designed for text and media, so it could act like a communications technology somewhere between instant messaging and public forum threading. It was a neat concept, using the decentralized nature of the web as a foundation for a new type of online conversation.
Unfortunately, Google had no idea what in the world Wave was supposed to do or who it was for. The service was announced in 2009, only for Google to suspend the development of the standalone version a mere two months after its public release. By January 2012, all existing Wave content went read-only, and four months later, it was permanently deleted. The Apache Software Foundation picked it up and kept an open-source version running until 2018, but Wave has since become a bit of an industry joke and a go-to reference point for the search giant’s propensity for announcing half-baked products and killing them almost immediately.
The launch of Twitch
Spotify comes to the US
When Spotify came to the United States in 2011, it permanently changed the way we listen to music. Spotify wasn’t the first music streaming platform in the States, but it tied together the strengths of services like Pandora, Last.fm, and SoundCloud into a single package. There was algorithm personalization, social listening, subscription models — and tens of millions of songs, all free with ads. For music listeners, the model was, and still is, a slam dunk proposition, and competitors like Google, Apple, and Tidal quickly followed suit.
For musicians, the new streaming landscape has been more of a mixed bag: more music is now listened to than ever before, but the money from those streams seems increasingly elusive — particularly from free listeners. But while the economics might be alarming, it’s already clear there’s no going back.
Netflix becomes Qwikster
It’s hard to imagine now, but before the streaming revolution hit, Netflix was best known for renting out DVDs through the mail. By 2011, it was clear that online streaming was the future, but it was also clear that mail delivery would be the bigger business for years to come. It was time to bring the two together, time for visionary leadership.
Unfortunately, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings screwed it up. He split the two subscriptions, which meant Netflix customers now needed to pay twice to get the same streaming-plus-DVDs service they’d been getting for years. Worse, he renamed the DVD subscription business to Qwikster, which sounds more like a rural convenience store than a next-generation entertainment company.
All told, the debacle cost the company 800,000 subscribers, and Hastings spent the next year walking it back. Netflix would recover in the years that followed, and Hastings became one of the main architects of the shift to streaming video, but the Qwikster debacle still stands as a reminder of just how hard navigating those shifts can be.
Death of Steve Jobs
No one was more central to the tech world’s image of itself than Steve Jobs, and his death hit the industry like a cataclysm. Within Apple, the loss seemed unthinkable. Jobs embodied all of Apple’s best and worst qualities: its perfectionism, its self-satisfaction, its willingness to overturn whole industries when a better path presented itself. It wasn’t clear how far those qualities could extend beyond the man himself. How could Apple go on without him?
Looking back, we know that Apple kept being Apple. The iPad wasn’t the last big product launch, and the iPhone 4 wasn’t the last good iPhone. Apple has only gotten more ambitious, expanding into television, personal assistants, and health monitoring. Tim Cook has been a success by any plausible metric, but his tenure will always be thought of as the post-Jobs era, and Jobs’ spirit still looms over the company like an unfulfilled promise.
Facebook buys Instagram
The Avengers premieres
There’s a world in which The Avengers didn’t catch on, an alternate universe where the narrative elements didn’t quite come together, fans didn’t respond, and Disney CEO Bob Iger and Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige didn’t feel comfortable moving forward with the intricate plans Feige had for a Marvel Cinematic Universe. There is a version of the matrix where The Avengers essentially became the Justice League, and Disney had to figure out what to do with the $4 billion property it bought.
Of course, that’s not what happened. The Avengers succeeded and ushered in a decade of superhero blockbusters, permanently shifting the logic of Hollywood. Marvel movies have now more than paid back the $4 billion Disney paid in 2009, and they’ve given superhero fans and comic book aficionados a world of new stories to geek out about. The Avengers kicked off an incredible 22-movie run, coming to a close with the $3 billion success of Avengers: Endgame. It was the end of the franchise era, ushering in the era of the cinematic universe.
The Oculus Rift arrives on Kickstarter
Virtual reality was dead… until it wasn’t. In 2012, the Oculus Rift promised to pull consumer VR out of the ‘90s, cleverly turning mobile hardware into a cheap headset that had an otherworldly effect on users. The Rift got the backing of Doom co-creator John Carmack as well as almost 10,000 Kickstarter backers who pledged a total of $2.4 million toward the first development kit. This campaign set the stage for a $2 billion acquisition by Facebook and a massive VR hype wave — along with the strange, ongoing saga of Palmer Luckey. It still hasn’t translated into mainstream success, but the Oculus-borne VR boom has proven one of the decade’s weirdest and most interesting trends.
The launch of Tinder
It’s hard for me to remember the time before the swipe. I met people I wanted to date at… bars? Parties? Dorms? I didn’t have the ability to swipe left or right on thousands of people from the comfort of my bed on a winter night? Tinder launched in 2012, and it ushered in the decade of the swipe. At the same time, it destigmatized online dating and alarmed some people into believing that we’d all become corrupted, terrible people.
Tinder wasn’t the first online dating project, but it set a new standard for what we wanted from those apps. The complicated questionnaires were gone, along with the intricate profiles and messaging systems. Instead, you got a long line of faces and a single binary choice: swipe left or swipe right. Whether it’s for better or worse, how people meet and date will never be the same.
Adobe commits to Creative Cloud
When Photoshop CS6 was released in 2012, it cost $700, and it soon became one of the most pirated pieces of software in history. At that point, the Adobe Creative Suite included graphic design, web, and video editing software. It was too powerful to be cheap and so culturally ubiquitous that many users didn’t even consider paying for it.
As long as Adobe was selling Photoshop, the problem would only get worse, so Adobe decided to start renting it instead. On May 6th, 2013, the company announced that all future versions of Photoshop would only be available through the subscription-based Creative Cloud, which offered the full suite of apps for a running cost of $50 a month. It was a canny move, playing off the streaming model that was already taking hold in music and TV.
Customers weren’t wild about the idea that they couldn’t own their software anymore, but it solved the financial problem. Adobe stopped selling CS6 in 2017, and it hit $9 billion in revenue the following year. The company has never looked back.
Edward Snowden reveals the NSA’s PRISM project
Before PRISM, the idea that the government had secret access to tech companies was the stuff of Reddit threads. Edward Snowden changed that. Classified documents showed an ongoing National Security Agency program to steal data from the biggest tech companies in the world, codenamed “PRISM.” Diagrams showed direct access to databases at Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, and even AOL — companies that, between them, touched just about everyone on the internet. The industry scrambled to show that they knew nothing about the program, and later leaks seemed to suggest that the NSA had actively hacked into internal networks to secure the data, but the loss of trust was permanent. After PRISM, it was hard to believe that private data could really be private in the cloud.
Facebook buys WhatsApp
Amazon raises Prime subscription fee for the first time
This was the moment when 4chan forum war tactics spilled out onto the rest of the internet, and the targeted harassment problem became impossible to ignore. Beginning as a feud between culturally ambitious game critics and a claque of revanchist fans, Gamergate became a free-floating snowball of grievance. Targets were identified, doxxed, and bombarded with threats and abusive messages. At the same time, it became almost impossible for outsiders to figure out what was going on. For months, simply saying the word on Twitter would summon dozens of partisans, insisting it was all about ethics in journalism. The specific targets and groups have faded away, but the techniques and free-floating misogyny feel like an inescapable part of the internet now.
The launch of the Amazon Echo
When the Echo came out in January 2015, we called it “one of the most compelling cases [we’ve] ever seen for the power of voice control.” In the years since, that power has become undeniable. Voice control is everywhere now — our phones, our cars, our TVs — and the Echo has remained at the head of the pack, thanks in part to its inexpensive sibling, the Echo Dot. Its wake word, “Alexa,” has become the punchline for hundreds of jokes. It’s gone from a curiosity to a hardware-agnostic platform with more than 100 million Alexa devices sold (at least by Amazon’s numbers).
Tom Wheeler implements net neutrality under Title II
Google lets a blind man drive
On a sunny day in October 2015, Steve Mahan became one of the first people to ride in a fully driverless car on a public road. The event was notable for several reasons, mostly because Mahan is legally blind and rode in a prototype vehicle from Google’s self-driving car unit (now called Waymo) that lacked a steering wheel and pedals. It also helped kick off what has grown into a multibillion-dollar race to commercialize autonomous vehicles. That race has had its regulatory and technical setbacks since then, but that first ride with Mahan made it look an awful lot like the future of transportation.
The signing of the Paris climate accord
As islands began to vanish beneath rising sea levels and record-breaking storms brought unprecedented devastation, all the world’s nations finally managed to come to an agreement in 2015 to take on climate change together. With the adoption of the pivotal Paris climate accord, countries vowed to cut down their greenhouse gas emissions enough to keep global warming from reaching catastrophic levels.
The agreement has taken heat from all sides, with climate scientists criticizing it as weak, and leaders like President Trump finding even those half-measures too strong. But for all its faults, the Paris agreement is still the gold standard for a coordinated international response to climate change. If humanity is able to avoid the most catastrophic effects of that change, Paris will be what pointed the way.
SpaceX lands a rocket
For all of spaceflight history, practically every rocket that took off vertically became garbage once it reached orbit. After they had deployed their satellites, rockets didn’t have an easy way of getting home, so they mostly fell back to Earth, never to be recovered.
With SpaceX, Elon Musk wanted to change that, programming each rocket to relight its engines on the way back down, lowering itself gently down onto a concrete landing pad or autonomous drone ship. But as complicated as that sounds, making it work was even harder. In the first few tries, the rockets simply exploded on impact — which Musk took to calling “rapid unscheduled disassemblies” or RUDs. It wasn’t clear how long that string of crash landings would go on, but SpaceX finally stuck its first landing on December 21st, 2015, with the company’s Falcon 9 rocket gently touching down on a concrete pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida. The novelty trick would soon become routine. SpaceX has since landed a total of 46 boosters, with RUDs becoming a rarity.
Donald Trump is elected president of the United States
Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal
When Facebook decided to share user data with third-party apps, it was envisioning a world where people are more connected and social. It was probably not expecting to single-handedly make people all over the globe suddenly care about data privacy. But that’s exactly what happened when The Guardian broke a story about a shady consulting firm Cambridge Analytica harvesting data from millions of unsuspecting Facebook users. The firm exploited a loophole in Facebook’s API to target Facebook users and their friends with a quiz, designed to help the Trump campaign reach potential voters more effectively. Facebook’s reputation did not survive the fallout. Dozens of privacy scandals followed as companies seemed constitutionally incapable of keeping data locked down. It was the beginning of a reckoning for Facebook and the industry at large, which set to work refactoring its APIs and rethinking how it handles consumer data in general. We’re still in the middle of that transformation, but it’s already one of the most intense political backlashes the industry has ever seen.
Amazon Buys Whole Foods
Ajit Pai repeals Title II net neutrality
Logan Paul films a dead body in Japan’s "suicide forest"
YouTube had a very good decade, but the last few years have been rough. We started hearing the term "creators" in the early 2010s, and YouTube used its biggest personalities to springboard itself as something more than a video platform in the eyes of advertisers. That all came crashing down in 2017 and 2018 when two of YouTube's biggest creators suffered major scandals at the same time. First, beloved gaming and comedic personality PewDiePie used anti-Semitic imagery in a video. Then, prankster-turned-vlogger Logan Paul showed a blatant disregard for human life in an infamous incursion into Japan's Aokigahara forest. Both videos highlighted the chaotic and controversial nature of the platform's most popular creators. The same people who YouTube touted years before as the future of its site were now the community's most glaring problems. Years later, YouTube still isn't quite sure what to do about it.
Elon Musk tweets about taking Tesla private, then doesn’t
“Am considering taking Tesla private at $420,” Elon Musk tweeted on August 7th, 2018. “Funding secured.” Those nine words set off one of the more turbulent periods in Tesla’s history that ended with Musk losing his chairmanship of the company and paying a $20 million fine to the government. As it turned out, Musk did not have any funding secured, despite having held multiple meetings with Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund about backing the privatization effort. And because the promise of a mass stock buyback sent share prices soaring, that casual boast started to look an awful lot like securities fraud. The Justice Department is still investigating the failed attempt, but several shareholders have already sued Musk for market manipulation. It may go down in history as one of the most expensive tweets ever sent.
It’s one of the more flagrant examples of unhinged tech leadership, but it’s far from an isolated incident. Musk narrowly escaped a defamation lawsuit when he wasn’t busy selling flamethrowers and launching cars into space. The cult of tech founders reached its peak this decade, and for companies like WeWork and Theranos, that cult had disastrous effects. Elon showed us both sides of it — the visionary and the catastrophe.
The Camp Fire rages through California
The deadliest and most destructive fire in California history nearly wiped out the town of Paradise, California, in 2018, burning through 18,804 structures and killing 85 people. Wildfires have a long history in California, but their scale and devastation have gotten worse with climate change. The Camp Fire arrived in the middle of the longest drought in California’s history. That drought lasted from 2011 to 2019 — almost the whole decade — giving rise to arid conditions that fueled longer and more devastating fire seasons. After Pacific Gas and Electric was blamed for its power lines sparking the Camp Fire, utilities rolled out massive preemptive blackouts that could become more frequent in the future.
We’ve seen a new surge of climate activism in the years since that fire, from high-profile figures like Greta Thunberg to broader groups like the Sunrise Movement and Extinction Rebellion. It’s hard to pin down a single cause for the new surge of activism, but extreme events like the Camp Fire are a big part of it — one more way climate change slapped us in the face this decade and forced us to pay attention.
Spotify gets into podcasting
In 2019, Spotify stopped calling itself a music company and started calling itself an audio company — a subtle shift meant to bring podcasts into the fold. The company started acquiring podcast networks like Parcast and Gimlet Media as well as the podcast creation app Anchor. It chased high-profile deals with the Obama family, new playlist systems, and smarter ad targeting. It’s a new approach for podcasting, which has grown into a sprawling, decentralized marketplace. But if Spotify’s bet pays off, it could put the company at the center of its own ad marketplace — and take a bite out of Apple at the same time.
Apple cancels AirPower
The decade closed out with one of Apple’s most embarrassing moments ever: the sudden cancellation of AirPower, its wireless charging mat. The product seemed handy; it was supposed to simultaneously charge three devices, but reports said it had issues with overheating. When AirPower missed its original 2018 release, it seemed like an unannounced delay, not unusual given Apple’s secretive product cycle. In March, new images of AirPower appeared on Apple’s website and even on boxes of Apple’s second-generation AirPods, teasing that the product still existed. But then, at the end of March, Apple abruptly canceled AirPower, saying simply that it “will not achieve our high standards.” We may never know exactly what happened with AirPower, but I’d guess Apple will be even more hesitant than before to debut new products until they’re truly ready.
FCC affirms robocall blocking by default
Why it took 50 years to block spam calls
Larry Page and Sergey Brin leave Google
By the time Larry Page and Sergey Brin officially left Google, they had been absent for a long time. Neither had been to a company all-hands in months, and they had been largely out of the loop since Google restructured into Alphabet in 2015. The non-Google Alphabet projects had largely flamed out, and the meaningful business decisions were already left to Sundar Pichai. In some ways, it felt like the departure was an official recognition of something that had been true for years.
There was a time when the departure of the founders would have plunged a tech company into self-doubt, but at Google, the move was met with something closer to relief. The two men were closely tied to Andy Rubin’s sexual harassment payoff, which spurred the largest employee walkout in industry history, and they had left Pichai with a maddening set of problems. There was internal strife over government contracts, the daily battle of moderating the world’s biggest video platform, and a simmering feud with the Republican Party and Donald Trump. Pichai would need lots of help and luck getting through it, and Page and Brin would only be a distraction. It was time to get serious.
It was an anticlimactic note for the end of the decade but an important lesson. Google has grown up, like the rest of the industry, and it needs a wise caretaker more than a boy genius. As we head into 2020, those caretakers are in short supply.