Recode and The Verge count down the 10 biggest tech stories of 2016


On the latest episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask: Samsung phones, Pokémon Go, Snapchat Spectacles, Theranos, Trump and more.

Normally on Too Embarrassed to Ask, we pick episode topics based on questions sent in by our readers and listeners. But this week, Recode’s Kara Swisher and The Verge’s Lauren Goode chatted with fellow Verger Casey Newton to answer one big question: What the hell happened in 2016?

The trio counted down the top 10 tech products and trends of the year, ranging from Pokémon to self-driving cars to fake news. You can listen to the full discussion in the podcast player embedded above, but here are a few highlights from the conversation:

10) Apple lost its headphone jack


Apple

In a stunning show of courage, one of the biggest changes in Apple’s annual iPhone refresh was the removal of the standard 3.5mm headphone jack. Instead, Cupertino now wants customers to use wireless headphones and earbuds, audio gear that plugs into the phone’s proprietary charging port, or a $9 dongle.

“I bought an iPhone 7 and it is both the least consequential and most infuriating iPhone upgrade in my entire life,” Newton said. “I am constantly having to swap out my charging cable for my Lightning earbuds, and it makes me unhappy. Brother, can you spare a dongle?”

“All signs point towards 2017 hopefully being the year where the iPhone gets really reinvented, because this year’s upgrade was, ehh, sort of incremental,” Goode said.

9) Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 is a literal garbage fire


Shawn Minter via The Verge

As you’ve no doubt heard in the news (or on an airplane), a rash of Samsung Galaxy Note 7 phones had severe battery overheating problems that caused a few of them to catch fire, and a botched recall effectively killed the Note brand. Goode said Samsung has released a software update to disable the remaining Galaxy Note 7s in the wild.

“I like that December was when they decided to do that,” Newton said. “What’s the rush, Samsung?”

“It’s hard to have a more catastrophic incident for a brand than to have your products literally bursting into flame,” he added. “Samsung found that out the hard way.”

Heading into 2017, then, the big question is how Samsung bounces back. Do consumers still trust it? Will it duck out of the phone business?

8) The Pokémon Go phenomenon

An Eevee looks on as cousins David and Kurt Wendler hunt for Pokémon on Thanksgiving 2016 at Santa Rosa’s Howarth Park.
Ina Fried for Recode

Finally, some good news! Despite some issues with the game’s servers at launch, Goode and Newton agreed that Pokémon Go was a win because of its social benefits.

“Walking around San Francisco playing it, I had more conversations with random San Franciscans than I did in six years of living here,” Newton said. “It was one of the first truly social mobile games, ‘social’ in the old-school sense of human beings talking to each other in person.”

But as Swisher pointed out, Pokémon Go has seen a drop-off in players, and it’s hard to get those people back once they’ve left. For more about the behind-the-scenes story of Pokémon Go, check out her interview with Niantic CEO John Hanke from Recode Decode:

7) Uber’s self-driving cars are here


Uber

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick alarmed his company’s drivers when he first spoke about autonomous vehicles at the 2014 Code Conference, but said at the time that it would be a “decades-long process.”

Two years later, Uber had self-driving cars on the streets of Pittsburgh (and, very briefly, San Francisco), and bought autonomous trucking company Otto.

“For Uber, from a business perspective, they’ve described this as an existential issue, because they know that the minute you don’t need a driver, that is Uber’s only real advantage these days,” Newton said. “The drivers are at the heart of what’s made Uber successful, so when you don’t have drivers, what do you do?”

However, it may still be years before fully autonomous vehicles — without a driver ready to take over, just in case — are as safe as companies like Uber, Google and others want them to be. Swisher said sensors in all roads that can talk to the cars may be the answer, which would be a massive undertaking.

6) Snapchat gets into hardware

Snapchat Spectacles
YouTube Screenshot

The company that makes Snapchat is now calling itself Snap and also making hardware. Its first physical product, the sunglass-camera combo Snapchat Spectacles, generated hours-long lines wherever it popped up for sale, via vending machines in most places and at a pop-up retail store in New York.

“I think people have gotten a little bit carried away with describing how important this could be,” Newton said. “This is a very limited production run for Snapchat. But they do have some pretty big business implications.”

“They’re not Google Glass,” Swisher pointed out.

“The reception has been 10 times better than Google Glass,” Newton said. “Let’s face it, technology is often more popular the second time it comes around. Nobody wanted a Newton MessagePad, but then the iPad comes out and people are like, ‘This is brilliant.’”

5) Lots of big M&A … but not for Twitter


Microsoft

In 2016, Microsoft bought LinkedIn for $26 billion, Dell completed its deal to buy EMC for $67 billion and AT&T said it intends to buy Time Warner for $85 billion. But one of Recode’s most-anticipated deals, the attempted sale of Twitter to companies such as Disney and Salesforce, never materialized. What gives?

“What would be a good thing to happen to Twitter? Google buying it?” Newton asked.

“Somebody who’s going to keep it alive,” Goode replied.

“Well, someone’s going to keep it alive,” Swisher said. “It’s a very valuable property. It’s just a question of how it runs, how you make money and how you control the cesspool of [abuse]. What do you do with Donald Trump?”

More on that later in this list!

4) The San Bernardino iPhone case


A shooting and attempted bombing in San Bernardino, Calif., last year left 14 people dead and 22 seriously injured. Months later, one of the ripples of the terrorist attack hit the tech world, as the FBI locked horns with Apple over the locked iPhone of one of the shooters.

President Obama sided with the FBI, which wanted a way to get past Apple’s encryption to get to the phone’s data. But others within his administration — including Defense Secretary Ash Carter — leaned toward Apple’s side.

“It’s really interesting to think about this in the context of a Trump administration,” Newton said. “I wonder if there were some people who supported Obama in this case who are now glad that Apple stood up to the president, and will continue to do so.”

Ultimately, the FBI found an alternate method for getting into the locked phone. But Newton characterized this clash as the “opening battle in a war” that will escalate in coming years.

“It’ll be interesting to see how much Apple can stand up and who else does, and a lot of them are being a little squishy on it,” Swisher said.

3) Theranos implodes

Fortune Global Forum - Day 1
Photo by Kimberly White/Getty Images for Fortune

Reporting by the Wall Street Journal’s John Carreyrou exposed serious problems at the highly funded blood-testing startup Theranos, leading to a shutdown of its facilities and pending lawsuits from its investors. The stranger-than-fiction story rippled through all levels of tech, but Newton said he personally learned a lot as a journalist from following Carreyrou’s work.

“Listening to [CEO] Elizabeth Holmes try to explain herself, which she did many times both before and after these stories, I always found myself confused,” he said. “But I was likely to just stop and say, ‘Well, this is very complicated science. I clearly just don’t understand.’”

“Sometimes things that sound too good to be true often are, and man, this was a lesson in that,” he added.

“I think sometimes in Silicon Valley, too, there’s this attitude among some entrepreneurs,” Goode said. “They feel like history will absolve them in some way, and so they look to past figures like Steve Jobs, anyone who did something brash or not ethically sound and still managed to succeed.”

“There’s a difference between stock option issues and blood,” Swisher said.

2) Facebook & Google vs. fake news


Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Search and social platforms are being gamed by fraudsters, who are motivated by politics, profit or both. And the people who run those platforms, like Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, have dragged their feet in addressing the problem.

“Initially, Mark sort of dismissed it, then he modulated and he said ‘one percent’; I don’t know where he got that number,” Swisher said. “I feel like they’re abrogating their responsibility, almost completely. They are media companies, people get their news from them, people have some level of responsibility, and they always go the ‘we’re just a platform’ thing. It drives me mad.”

“They’re happy to tell you that they can build a plane in 18 months, based on ideas that they come up with in that time,” Newton added. “But how do we keep ‘Hillary Is a Lizard Person’ from getting 80 million shares? That’s impossible to them.”

“They’re terrified that if they become perceived as a partisan website, then they will die,” he said.

1) President-elect Donald Trump


Drew Angerer / Getty

There’s no way this wouldn’t be the top story of the year. Trump, who rose in part thanks to his bluntly authentic approach to social media and widespread TV coverage of his rallies, is deeply tied to the tech and media world.

“I think this is going to unfold in a hundred different ways over the next four years,” Newton said.

“What about President Trump tweeting?” Swisher asked. “He insults Boeing and the stock drops; who knows what he’s going to go after? Is this something a responsible person should be doing who’s running our country, using Twitter as a bully pulpit in the worst way possible?”

“I fully expect there will be a time, after he becomes president, that he will direct his mob of followers against an individual citizen for some perceived slight,” Newton said. “He’s done it already, but I think it’s going to become even more powerful and upsetting and scary after he becomes the president of the United States. That’s going to present Twitter with the question: What do we do about this?”

Also in play as we head into 2017: U.S. intelligence agencies have reported that the Russian government attempted to sway the election by hacking the Democratic National Committee. In response, the outgoing Obama administration has imposed sanctions on two Russian intelligence services ˜and ejected 35 Russian operatives from the country.


We’ll be back next year to answer your questions about any tech topic, so start tweeting them to @Recode with the hashtag #TooEmbarrassed. You can also email your questions to TooEmbarrassed@recode.net, in case Twitter isn’t your thing.

Be sure to follow @LaurenGoode, @KaraSwisher and @Recode to be alerted when we’re looking for questions about a specific topic.

You can listen to Too Embarrassed to Ask in the audio player above, or subscribe on iTunes, Google Play Music, TuneIn, Stitcher and SoundCloud.

If you like this show, you should also check out our other podcasts:

  • Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher is a weekly show featuring in-depth interviews with the movers and shakers in tech and media every Monday. You can subscribe on iTunes, Google Play Music, TuneIn, Stitcher and SoundCloud.
  • Recode Media with Peter Kafka features no-nonsense conversations with the smartest and most interesting people in the media world, with new episodes every Thursday. Use these links to subscribe on iTunes, Google Play Music, TuneIn, Stitcher and SoundCloud.
  • And finally, Recode Replay has all the audio from our live events, such as the Code Conference, Code Media and the Code Commerce Series. Subscribe today on iTunes, Google Play Music, TuneIn and Stitcher.

If you like what we’re doing, please write a review on iTunes — and if you don’t, just tweet-strafe Kara and Lauren. Tune in next Friday for another episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask!


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