Mossberg: My tech report card for 2016


It was a hit-and-miss year.

Welcome to Mossberg, a weekly commentary and reviews column on The Verge and Recode by veteran tech journalist Walt Mossberg, executive editor at The Verge and editor at large of Recode.


For lots of people, the year 2016 can’t end soon enough. Whether it’s the bitter, divisive presidential election; the misery in Syria; the horrible terrorist attacks in various cities; or the deaths of beloved figures, it’s been a lousy year.

It’s also been a mixed year for the major tech companies, with a few big strides and many other missed chances. Their leaders sure didn’t look happy at the year’s end, gathered at Trump Tower last week with a soon-to-be president most of them opposed.

At the start of the year, I wrote a column saying what I thought each of the digital giants should do to improve its products this year. Here’s how I think they fared, and how I missed some big issues that arose or ripened during the year.

Google

It was a big year for Google. The company became a vertically integrated hardware maker with the Pixel phone, along with the Google Home intelligent speaker and the Google Wi-Fi router system. This was something I called for in the start-of-the-year column, as well as in an entire earlier column from 2015. What I didn’t get into was the fact that this move, while it has other virtues, was closely tied to the company’s decision to stake its future on artificial intelligence and machine learning, for which the phone and speaker are vessels.

It’s too early to know if this move into hardware is paying off. I certainly doubt the Pixel will outsell the iPhone for the 2016 holiday quarter, despite lavish TV advertising. And the Google Assistant AI service is still rough around the edges.

Google didn’t implement my call to make Android apps function out of the box on every Chromebook this year. But I’ll take partial credit. That project was indeed announced in 2016, but is proceeding slowly and in many cases requires running a developer’s edition of the Chrome OS.

A hot issue I failed to mention back in January, with which Google is still wrestling, is the problem of excising fake news and hate speech from top-ranking search results. The company has taken a few steps, but has much further to go to preserve the credibility of its search results.

Apple

Though Apple is primarily a hardware company, in January I urged it to focus on improving its core software: The Apple-made mail, calendar, music, photos and other apps on its devices. And in fact the company did some of this. Examples include a new user interface for Apple Music, easier app access on the Apple Watch, lots of new features in iMessage and improvements in Apple Maps, and in the default keyboard’s predictive typing. And Apple’s commitment to privacy and security remains steadfast and admirable.

But the all-important Mail app, on both iOS and macOS, is still poor at handling the overwhelmingly popular Gmail service, and the iOS calendar is still clumsy; iTunes and Photos still need work.

Most importantly, and unforeseen by me back then, Apple managed to disappoint in 2016 with a series of hardware products that, while very good, weren’t up to the company’s high historical standards, in my view. In most cases, I attribute this to an overemphasis on design at the expense of function. This isn’t solely an Apple problem, but it’s most clearly evident there.

The iPhone 7, while boasting better specs, axed the longstanding, perfectly fine headphone jack, making a dongle necessary to charge the phone while using earbuds. The MacBook Pro was made thinner and lighter, and given a narrow function screen atop the keyboard called the Touch Bar. But, in the process, it became a tweener with less battery life. And the new, wireless AirPod earbuds, while impressive in many ways, can’t adjust the volume or skip a track without either interrupting the music to ask Siri to do it or fumbling for your phone or Apple Watch. That’s a step backward from the silent, manipulable control module on familiar old EarPods.

Microsoft

In January, I called for the software giant to find a way to get more modern, tablet-style apps developed for its cross-device Windows 10 operating system, especially to help its anemic phone business. But there’s been little or no progress. In fact, Windows Phone continued to wither — almost out of sight. And, partly because of that, the company was forced to back off its pledge to have a billion devices running Windows 10 by 2018.

However, the company’s relatively small Surface hardware group scored a coup by enchanting designers, video editors and other creatives with a gorgeous all-in-one desktop just as Apple was disappointing some of them with the new MacBook Pro.

Overall, Microsoft had a very good year. Beyond the small hardware unit, new CEO Satya Nadella has the company churning out good software for rival platforms — Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android — challenging Amazon in cloud services, and right in the thick of the coming AI battle.

Amazon

The company continued its pursuit of commerce and media, even delivering a package by drone in 13 minutes. But I had urged it to break out with a big new hardware push, beyond the Echo intelligent speaker. I suggested maybe even resurrecting its failed phone effort, this time backed by the Alexa AI platform that powers Echo. Instead, Amazon doubled down on the Echo, even as Google brought out Home to directly compete with it. The retailer has added thousands of new apps, or skills, to Alexa, but didn’t bust out with major new hardware in 2016. And it’s difficult to know how many users employ the Echo’s more sophisticated functions, beyond things like listening to music and setting timers.

Facebook

Back in January, I urged Facebook to “rethink the News Feed in a major way, with a central focus on giving users greater control and a clearer understanding of how to exercise it.” But, while the company is constantly tinkering with the News Feed, it didn’t give it a significant overhaul in 2016, though there are hints of bigger moves next year.

What I didn’t foresee is that Facebook would face a crisis in tamping down fake news and hate speech, a crisis which made it clearer than ever that the social network had become a major media company with new and more complex responsibilities. As the year is ending, Facebook is scrambling to form partnerships with fact-checking organizations, and taking internal steps, to try and suppress the fake news and hate speech. But it may never again be able to behave like it’s just a neutral canvas.

One more thing …

While it isn’t one of the major platform companies, and I didn’t touch on it back in January, no account of 2016 can ignore Samsung Electronics. The Korean colossus had an utterly miserable year in 2016 with the exploding Galaxy Note 7 disaster, a bungled recall and replacement, and finally a software patch that will disable remaining units. The company still hasn’t explained in any detail what went wrong and its reputation has taken severe damage.

Bottom Line

Personal tech never sleeps, and, while 2016 was a mixed bag, all these companies and many others will have a chance to delight or disappoint next year. Will the 2017 iPhone finally be “spectacular”? Will Facebook and Google really clean out the garbage infecting their precincts? Will Microsoft try for a phone breakthrough under the Surface brand? And how will all these companies get along with the Trump administration? Stay tuned for the real news @recode.


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