It’d be easy to just say all of 2020 was terrible and call it a day. But while most of the year was awful for everyone, some things in tech suffered more than others. TikTok, for example, got jerked around by the Trump administration for months, only to be ghosted at the end of the year. Streaming services thrived, sure, but one, in particular, was both born and killed all within 2020.
If you were hoping to buy yourself some relief from the pervasive dread and banality by getting some next-gen graphics cards or gaming consoles, all you got was more disappointment thanks to poorly prepared retailers. And, as always, there were terrible gadgets filling in as cherries topping the garbage cake that was 2020. Still, we made it. Perhaps instead of admitting we were all losers in 2020, we can feel better about leaving it all behind us by looking back at the worst things tech served up this year.
TikTok was never going to have an easy year. Thanks to a Chinese parent company and rising global dominance, the app was already facing suspicion and scrutiny. But 2020 was the year everything just kept getting worse.
The US military banned the app. The Senate called it a national security threat. Both political parties issued warnings to staffers. Then, a group of TikTok teens pulled an epic prank on a Donald Trump rally and the president began to take notice.
Trump delivered an ultimatum: sell to a US buyer or be banned in the US for good. Like so many of Trump’s executive orders, it hasn’t exactly played out that way. Microsoft angled for a deal with Bytedance, but the company ultimately settled on an arrangement with Oracle and Walmart (the exact details of which still aren’t clear several months later). There have been multiple lawsuits and Trump’s deadlines have come and gone without an actual ban — at least so far.
But TikTok is hardly unscathed. The legal nightmare ultimately resulted in TikTok’s newly-minted CEO stepping downbit.ly/Automationmadeeasy
after just three months on the job (a permanent replacement has yet to be named). It also significantly hurt the company’s ability to hire new talent. Both of which are particularly problematic considering Facebook and Snapchat have both launched their own TikTok-like features.
While none of this seems to have had much effect on the app’s popularity — it was still one of the most popular apps of 2020 — TikTok will no doubt be feeling the pain from 2020 for years to come.
Steve Marcus / Reuters
When we reviewed Quibi in April, the mobile video service seemed practically dead on arrival. So it was no surprise when the company announced just six months later that it would be shutting down. Even now, it seems confounding: Quibi was a subscription service that delivered original shows, with seemingly large budgets and major stars like Chrissy Teigen, that would only play on your phone. But there was no way to share any of its content or watch shows on larger screens. And the quality of the shows themselves was middling.
Quibi’s true innovation, if we dare to use that word, was Turnstyle, which allowed you to watch videos in both portrait and landscape modes seamlessly. The service actually delivered two video streams to your device at once, so there was no interruption when you switch orientations. Creators also shot their content with both aspect ratios in mind, so the portrait video was actually framed properly.
But while Turnstyle seemed cool, it wasn’t enough to justify paying $5 a month for the privilege of watching Quibi’s shows. At least, not while YouTube has a seemingly unlimited bounty of content for free, and other services like Netflix, Hulu, and Disney+ have content most people actually want to watch. It turns out Quibi was a service meant for nobody except for co-creator Jeffrey Katzenberg himself. And even $1.75 billion in funding couldn’t make it a success.
We have yet to properly test Amazon’s screenless wearable, which launched this year to a ton of criticism, but its premise alone puts it on our list of the worst things this year. I’ll be the first to admit: a wearable that can help measure your body fat appeals to me. I do want a way to understand how my exercise and diet changes have affected my body’s muscular and fat composition.
But it’s the way this thing works and some of its other features that are utterly appalling. After paying $100 for the band, which contains an accelerometer, heart rate monitor, temperature sensor and microphones, you’ll still have to pay $4 a month for additional features like sleep zone and body temperature tracking, body fat analysis and tone of voice sensing.
Maybe you don’t want to shell out for those dystopian-sounding features, in which case you’d be paying $100 for a very basic tracker (and there are plenty of cheaper alternatives). If you do, though, you’ll basically be paying every month for features that you’ll get for free when you buy, say, a Fitbit or Apple Watch. You’ll also be paying for something to police the way you speak. Though Amazon positions the tone-of-voice feature as a way to tell your mood, it’s all too easy for users to start feeling like they’ll need to sound happier to please the system.
Stress and emotional measurement are vague and hard to gauge anyway, but other products that have tried to do similar have used more quantifiable metrics like heart rate or galvanic skin response. The way a person’s speaking voice sounds is too subjective to be consistent and reliable.
Don’t get me wrong; I’ll still be testing the Halo band and service to see if there is a decent product buried under the mountain of criticism and backlash. But for now it seems like Amazon’s latest wearable was the last thing people needed in an already crushing year.
Console and graphics card pre-orders
This fall, gamers found out what it’s like to be a hypebeast. NVIDIA’s RTX 3000 launch in September was one of the most-anticipated in recent PC gaming history, and, just like the latest pair of Jordans, tens of thousands of people took Ls thanks to limited supply, scalpers using bots and stores crashing due to demand. Literally the next week, Microsoft’s Xbox Series consoles went up for pre-order and, surprise, the same thing happened. Then came the PS5, and more trouble.
Granted, there’s every chance the consoles would’ve sold out anyway — major retailers like Amazon clearly took more orders than they had stock, which led to more disappointment than was necessary — but the number of people I know personally who have had to pay upwards of $700 on sites like StockX to ensure their kids get a PS5 for Christmas is unreasonable.
Even those that successfully ordered the hardware they wanted saw some shipping problems. In the UK, a number of Amazon customers found themselves unboxing cat food or NERF guns instead of PlayStation 5s after a spate of thefts. In the US, there are reports of people who ordered Xboxes and PS5s that still haven’t shown up — our senior mobile editor Chris Velazco’s console has been stuck in FedEx limbo for weeks.
Qualcomm’s non-smartphone Snapdragon chips
It’s not that Qualcomm did a bad job with its Snapdragon Wear 4100 and the Snapdragon 8cx 2 this year. It’s not even that these are chipsets for products that have been struggling to find good software to run on for years. The main reason Qualcomm’s non-smartphone chipsets are one of the losers of 2020 is that Apple showed them up so badly with its M1 CPU, blowing away Intel rivals on benchmarks and delivering excellent performance even with emulation working in the background.
Qualcomm is in a tricky position. It could make the most powerful ARM-based processor for laptops ever and Snapdragon PCs could still fail because Windows on ARM is plagued with issues. And it’s not entirely Qualcomm’s fault. But the chip maker did deliver two weird and lackluster non-smartphone Snapdragon cards this year. The Wear 4100, for example, is meant for smartwatches and can support 16-megapixel cameras, for some reason. Did I miss a memo? Are wrist-snapped selfies coming back? Why, Qualcomm. Why?
Then there’s the Snapdragon 8cx 2, which doesn’t offer any actual speed or performance upgrades over last year’s 8cx. Its main hook is improved AI processing, in addition to supporting higher-res webcams and streaming to dual 4K monitors. But even the latest, most highly-specced laptops, not to mention Snapdragon PCs, come with at best 1080p webcams. Sure, a sharper sensor would be nice for my future Zoom calls, but this update on Qualcomm’s part seemed more idealistic than practical.
Of course, beyond a certain point it gets harder to deliver truly groundbreaking architectural and speed improvements. But Qualcomm needs to work harder with its partners to explore future developments that can advance wearables and Snapdragon PCs, instead of giving us unnecessary features again.