Is it just us, or did 2010 seem like an abnormally long year? Of course, it was no longer than any other year in history. But, from a tech perspective, at least, this year saw more seismic changes and game-altering developments than any other in recent memory. From Android to Zuckerberg, 'FarmVille' to Foursquare, iPad to iPhone 4, 2010 certainly wasn't short on memorable moments. Here are 15 events and trends that we'll never forget.
Dr. Assange, or How We Learned to Stop Worrying, and Love WikiLeaks
It almost seems too scripted to be true: a devious computer genius who manages to get his hands on top-secret documents from the globe's leading governments. He and his team of devotees then make them public, as part of their tireless crusade for global transparency. Heads of state and political pundits condemn the man; some zealots even call for his death. Meanwhile, die-hard free speech advocates continue to laud him, even as he faces charges of rape in Sweden. All the while, the operation churns forward from deep within a high-tech cave
While it may sound like something out of a cookie-cutter spy movie, we've all found out that WikiLeaks is anything but familiar. Julian Assange's organization has jolted the worlds of journalism, politics and diplomacy in ways that no one could've ever envisioned. Is this brand of absolute transparency necessarily a good thing? Or, as some have argued, could it pose a legitimate threat to global security? We'll probably have to wait until the WikiLeaks story is written before answering these questions -- and ultimately, that's what makes the saga so compelling. The year may be drawing to a close, but it sure seems like WikiLeaks has only begun exerting its full influence on the world.
Facebook Realizes That Privacy Might Not Be Dead After All
Privacy has always been a particularly thorny issue among Facebook's notoriously finicky users. In 2010, though, their protests became more vociferous than ever. It all began in April, when the social network unveiled its new 'Instant Personalization
' feature at its F8 developer conference. The new service automatically shared user data with third-party sites, and, unlike other Facebook features, was "opt-out," rather than "opt-in." Users, privacy advocates and even some politicians
Eventually, the site decided to placate its restless members. It streamlined the baroque privacy settings
, and rolled out a new Groups service
, designed to offer users greater control over smaller online communities. Since then, the controversy has died down, but privacy remains the number one concern among the Facebook community. And, as the company learned from this Instant Personalization disaster, Facebook can only be as open as its users allow it to be.
Mark Zuckerberg Becomes a Human Being
Before 2010, Mark Zuckerberg was nothing more than a (largely) faceless name behind Facebook. Casual observers may have recognized him as the socially awkward boy billionaire. Others may have heard about his ongoing legal battles over ownership of the social network. But it wasn't until 2010 that Zuckerberg truly became a household name -- even if he never really wanted to.
Over the course of one year, Zuck has been the subject of a lengthy New Yorker profile
, an 'SNL' skit
, and a surprisingly smooth '60 Minutes' sit-down
. He even managed to score a cameo on 'The Simpsons,'
and Time magazine crowned him 'Person of the Year
.' And, oh yeah, he was the centerpiece of a little film called 'The Social Network.'
So, should we expect to see Zuck launch his own reality TV show in 2011? Maybe his own fragrance? Don't count on it. He may have become more of a public figure than he'd ever imagined, but he's still a transparently reluctant one. Still, it's safe to say that Zuckerberg finished the year on a triumphantly high note. He's no media darling, but he's no longer a nerd, either. This year, Facebook finally got its own face.
iPad Launches, Blows Minds
Apple does a great job of making every new product seem like the re-birth of sliced bread -- even if it's, um, not. The iPad, however, certainly lived up to its billing. Granted, the device wasn't the first e-reader to hit the market. It wasn't even the first tablet
. But it was
the first iPad -- and that, as we've found out
, is another category altogether.
At first, no one really knew
what to make of it. It certainly wasn't a netbook, but it wasn't a simple e-reader or glorified iPhone either. Instead, the iPad created an entirely new product space, devoted exclusively to interactive media consumption, on a sleek, portable and unequivocally pretty
platform. Today, of course, there are plenty of other tablets on the market, but it was the iPad that spearheaded the trend, and created a new technological niche that most consumers could've never imagined.
Android Joins the Big Kids' Table
The global smartphone competition used to be a two-man race. In much the same way that music fans could once be divided along the Elvis/Beatles divide, smartphone consumers, until recently, belonged to one of two camps: BlackBerry or iPhone. In 2010, though, RIM and Apple suddenly had to make room for a third guest at the table: Android.
The platform began gaining steam toward the end of 2009
, and, in 2010, it only broadened its reach. During the second quarter of this fiscal year, sales of Android-equipped phones had risen by a staggering 886-percent
over the previous year, and began making serious inroads into its competitors' market shares. By October, phones running the Android OS were even outselling their BlackBerry and iPhone counterparts
among new buyers. Unfortunately for Google, not every product enjoyed the same kind of success. (Keep reading.)
The Curious Incident of the iPhone 4 in the Night-Time
It seems like ancient history now, but there once was a time, earlier this year, when the iPhone 4 flat-out dominated headlines. Even before the smartphone actually hit shelves
, the press was abuzz with speculation over the now infamous incident at a San Francisco bar, where an absentminded Apple engineer allegedly left his top-secret iPhone prototype behind. A Gizmodo writer snatched it up, took some pictures, and melodrama ensued
. Some thought it was a genuine (if rare) Steve Jobs slip-up. Others wrote it off as another (all-too common) Jobs PR stunt.
That debate, however, was soon overshadowed by a post-launch controversy, surrounding the iPhone 4's curious antenna placement. When people began complaining that they couldn't make or receive calls when covering the antenna with their fingers, Jobs scoffed that they were simply "holding it wrong
." Consumer Reports then determined that the problem was attributable to faulty design
on Apple's part -- not misplaced thumbs or software problems
. At the end of the day, though, the saga only underscored a fundamental truth: Apple is the only company in the world that can turn a new smartphone into a soap opera.
Location, Location, Location
Photo tags and status updates are still as enthralling as they ever were. But, this year, social networkers decided they needed to share even more
information with the rest of the world -- and they wanted to be rewarded for doing so. Enter Foursquare
, Gowalla, and the age of location-based silliness. This year, we saw politicians connecting with their constituents, teens marking their digital territory from the North Pole
, and astronauts checking in from outer space
Before long, both Facebook and Twitter began rolling out their own location-based features. Location, we were told, was the next frontier in social networking. But recent statistics suggest that many social networkers still aren't totally comfortable
with sharing their space with everyone else, badges be damned. Whether it was a passing fad or the dawn of a new era in over-sharing, it's clear that the location-based craze reached new heights in 2010.
It's hard to write off 2010 as an unmitigated disaster for Google, but it certainly wasn't a wild success, either. In February, the company launched the highly anticipated Google Buzz -- a service designed to unify disparate social networking sites under the Google umbrella. Simply put, Buzz was a bust. An uproar of protests from privacy advocates and a series of embarrassing blunders
forced Google to tweak the product
in the wake of a class-action lawsuit
. Undeterred, the company released the confusing Google Wave
in May. Two months later, it died in spectacularly unspectacular fashion
Google's troubles extended beyond the product sphere, as well. In Europe, controversy swirled around the company's Street View service, which many governments viewed as a threat to individual privacy rights
. Turns out, they were right. In May, Google admitted to inadvertently collecting personal data
on open Wi-Fi networks, including private passwords
. In October, the company formally apologized for the snafu, and promised that it would never happen again
. We can only hope that the same goes for Buzz.
3-D Goes Into Overdrive
"If it worked for James Cameron, it could work for anyone, right?" That, in a nutshell, was the approach that countless movie studios took with regards to 3-D technology this year. The 2009 box office success of 'Avatar' breathed new life into the medium, and, before we could say Na'vi
, a spate of new 3-D films splashed across theater screens. Some cinéastes loathed the trend
; others loved it
. Critical discrepancies aside, Hollywood continued to push 3-D down our throats with new movies and (often misguided
And the 3-D invasion didn't stop at the big screen, either. Electronics companies wasted no time in rolling out fresh 3-D TV sets
in the hopes that consumers would be willing to pay a little extra to watch sports
or Catholic church services
in higher relief. Unfortunately, many weren't
. By the end of the year, retailers were struggling to come to terms with lower than expected 3-D sales
and were forced to slash prices
Net Neutrality Might Actually Be Important
At the beginning of the year, most people probably held a pretty neutral opinion on Net neutrality. Sure, the issue had been under public discussion since 2007, when Comcast was caught blocking specific types of Web traffic
. And yes, Barack Obama mentioned it during his 2008 Presidential campaign. But, for many people, a corporate debate over Internet regulation simply seemed too arcane
(and frankly, too boring) for casual discussion. By the end of the year, that changed. In late December, the FCC passed a controversial (and largely unsatisfying) set of regulations
, after months of deliberation. The decision drew swift rebuke from politicians
and prominent Net neutrality advocates
, and will likely face further legal challenges in 2011, as well.
Chatroulette: Randomized Voyeurism, Randomized Genitalia
While most other companies were busy coming up with new and complex ways to expand online social interaction, a 17-year old in Russia
bucked the trend, and brought the Web back to its wild, untamed roots
. Chatroulette reminded us what it felt like to be young, when the Internet seemed like a brave new world, full of hidden treasures and endless surprises. A click of the mouse could put us face to face with a bondage enthusiast in Hungary, a penis, a lonely musician, or, um, another penis. As with any other online trend, Chatroulette's luster eventually wore off, but it still provided us with some of our most bizarre (and sometimes scarring) online experiences of the year.
Stuxnet Terrifies Everyone
Forget North Korea and Iran. The next frontier in global warfare might be sitting right in front of you. And, if you happen to work at an Iranian nuclear enrichment facility, it may be targeting you at this very moment. No, it's not a warhead or a looming drone strike. It's Stuxnet, the most advanced and complex worm
that cyber-security experts have ever seen. Unlike other cyber-threats, Stuxnet is capable of manipulating real-world machinery, and can wreak potentially disastrous real-world havoc. In a year that saw China orchestrate a massive attack on Google, and America redouble its efforts to counteract digital evil-doers
, Stuxnet reminded us that the world of cyber-warfare is anything but predictable.
Streaming Video Gets Real
We've been yearning for more video streaming options for a while, and, in 2010, our prayers were answered. This year saw a bevy of new streaming boxes
from Apple TV
to the Boxee Box
. Netflix, meanwhile, unveiled its long-awaited streaming-only plan
, and Hulu continued its expansion into the Internet-TV market
. Over the course of just a few months, streaming shows, movies and video games directly to our TVs has become exponentially easier. And, as the market expands, it'll probably only be more so. How fast is it growing? Even
Kmart and Sears are getting in on the action
. Kmart and Sears
Farmageddon: The Rise of Social Gaming
By this point, virtually every Facebook user can instantly recognize the tell-tale Wall posts. One might read, "Madison's pig just found a Brown Truffle on your farm!" Another proudly proclaims that "Maureen is sharing Pepper Bushels from her market stall!" And, by now, we all know that Madison and Maureen aren't actually herding pigs or harvesting peppers. They're just pretending
to. Because in 2010, fake farms inexplicably
'FarmVille,' of course, wasn't the only Facebook game to take the world by storm, but it was the most emblematic example of what would become a disturbingly widespread phenomenon. Game developer Zynga made hundreds of millions of dollars off this thing. One 12-year old racked up a $1,400 bill
. On fake crops
. For his fantasy farm
. This, dear readers, is the world we live in.
Motion-Based Gaming Causes Quite a Commotion
Video game historians may one day look back on 2010 as the year that the human body transformed into a controller. This was the year, after all, that saw the rise of Xbox Kinect
, a new game system that allows players to execute onscreen actions with their own, free-standing bodies. This new, motion-based technology meant that gamers could now play volleyball or dance like Michael Jackson
without even having to search for their handsets or controllers. And, perhaps best of all, the trend has given rise to a whole new genre of embarrassing game-related injuries
The Kin Cometh, The Kin Goeth
Some events are memorable not for their lasting impact on the world, but for their epic failure. Case in point: Kin. Microsoft's ill-fated social networking phone debuted in April
with wide-eyed hopes of making a dent in the smartphone market. After just a few weeks, though, it became clear that the Kin was headed for disaster. Reviews ranged from the disappointed to the downright scathing
. It was cumbersome, it felt cheap, and it was nearly impossible to use -- three crucial ingredients in a recipe for technological disaster. And that's exactly what happened to the poor little Kin. In June, Microsoft announced that it would turn its attention away from the Kin
and toward Windows Phone 7. Translation: the biggest tech train wreck of 2010.