We covered a lot of ground this past year here on ZDNet, tracking the movers and shakers of the tech industry. But along the way, we came across a few stories that I refer to as "talkers," spotlight stories that not only generated a fair amount of buzz among techies but sometimes even managed to cross over in other circles, including sports, Washington and Hollywood.
Here, in almost no particular order, is a recap on some of the talkers of 2010:
School spycams: Students weren't the only ones who "learned" a few things this year. Officials at the Lower Merion School District in Pennsylvania got a quick lesson about secretly activating webcams and spying on students in their homes. The technology was only supposed to be used for finding lost or stolen laptops. But when an administrator confronted a student with a webcam picture of what he thought was the student taking drugs (it was actually candy), it didn't take long to find out that the district had been spying on students in their homes and had captured about 56,000 images from those computers. In February, when the parents filed suit against the district, the story spread like wildfire. In October, the district settled for $610,000 and avoided criminal charges. The district may have dodged a ugly bullet but it also helped teach school officials everywhere a thing or two about accountability and understanding the implications of the technology they use.
Google's Nexus One experiment: Google found out the hard way that, despite its ability to develop smartphone technology that can go head-to-head with Apple's iPhone, there are some things it just cannot do. Selling directly to consumers is one of them. The company's January launch of an online Android phone store, where consumers would someday come to buy a phone and then sign with a carrier of their choice, seemed destined for failure. The ideas was hampered by phones that carried unsubsidized price tags, a second early termination fee and an online-only store - no face-to-face support or service. It didn't seem to go over well and when the carriers started backing away by supporting other Google phones, Google recognized it had been beat. By May, Google was changing the "store" to a "showroom.".
Twitter's Unexpected Endorsement: In September, a Washington Post sports columnist planted a fake tweet surrounding the multi-game suspension of Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger at the beginning of the NFL season. He was attempting to make a point about Twitter's lack of credibility as a medium for broadcasting news. But the experiment quickly backfired as his tweet was taken as truth, backed by the reputation of his employer. The experiment landed him in some hot water with his bosses - but it also legitimized Twitter as a broadcaster of news. As I wrote back then: "Microjournalism is doing its micro-job: it's informing. And while few of these tweets come with any actual details, most come with a link to direct me to more information. As a service, that's very powerful."
Zuck goes Hollywood: As Facebook continued its rocket-like journey into the mainstream, 20-something CEO Mark Zuckerberg became somewhat of a Hollywood celebrity. No, he's not hanging out on the Sunset Strip or sporting designer hoodies at the Oscars - yet. But his name seemed to be popping up more frequently than before. The Social Network, albeit an unauthorized movie about his life as Facebook's founder, sparked some controversy - but now is up for some awards. This past year, he shared the stage with Oprah Winfrey to announce a $100 million donation to schools in Newark, NJ. He also took a break from coding this summer to make a cameo appearance on The Simpsons. And let's not forget the recent crowning of Time Magazine's "Person of the Year." OK, maybe 2010 wasn't the year that Mark Zuckerberg went Hollywood. Maybe this was just the year that Hollywood went crazy for Zuck.
The stolen/lost iPhone: Remember Gray Powell, the 27-year-old Apple employee who accidentally left a prototype of the iPhone 4 in a Silicon Valley bar? Sure, that story sort of evaporated when Apple finally did release the new phone - but at that time, the story had so many twists and turns, everyone - including Letterman - was chiming in. When Gizmodo plastered photos of the prototype on the Internet, you'd have thought the editors were slinging drugs in a schoolyard the way the Apple and the cops reacted, bashing down the door of a journalist, seizing his computers. The issue sparked the debate over whether Gizmodo's editors were actual journalists who were protected from such aggressive policing and also whether the phone was really stolen or just "found." In the end, the buzz around the story sort of just faded into the night - and Powell is probably pretty happy about that.
Google's WiFi data collection: Those camera-wielding Google cars were only supposed to capture images for the Street View feature in Google Maps. Instead, they also picked up some data from unsecured WiFi networks. And even though no one knew it until Google came forward with the information, critics who regularly point to Google as an evil empire that steals your personal information came out in droves. And then, when it was determined that some lawmakers also had their information captured, it literally became a federal case. Today, the matter is far from settled as government officials across the US and in countries around the globe are still raking Google over the coals. What no one talks much about was how the WiFi networks that were tapped were all unsecured. And while you'd think that some folks would take responsibility for not protecting their data by putting access to their network behind a locked door, that hasn't happened. Google certainly isn't blame-free here - but it's not like the drivers of those cars were out there picking the locks of WiFi networks to steal data.
The Comcast Ruling: The ruling by a federal appeals court was a bit of a surprise when it was handed down in April. But, by ruling that the Federal Communications Commission did not have the authority to require Comcast to treat all Internet traffic equally on its network, the courts essentially delivered a crippling blow to the concept of Net Neutrality. Immediately, the ruling put the FCC's National Broadband Plan, which had been submitted to Congress a month earlier, in legal limbo. And even today, as the FCC has passed its widely criticized Net Neutrality plan, it's widely believed that the plan will never make it past the next Congress.
Antennagate: Despite the drama surrounding the lost/stolen iPhone prototype earlier in the year, the iPhone 4 launched with typical fanfare and jubilation - until reports of poor reception and dropped calls immediately started to surface. No, these weren't your typical "AT&T Sucks" types of reports but a new kind. It turns out that the design of the iPhone, with an external antenna, was the culprit - and Apple's immediate response - to tell consumers not to hold the phone a certain way - was not well-received. The company tried to blame the problems on an algorithm, too, but no one was buying that either. Quickly fed up with the negative "Antennagate" publicity, which included a thumbs down rating from Consumer Reports and calls for a recall, Apple sprang into action by holding an invitation-only press conference to announce that it would be offering free cases to iPhone 4 owners as a way to address a problem that the company didn't really see as a problem. Steve Jobs even went so far as to throw other smartphones under the bus for having similar problems - but those folks fired back with a "Don't blame us for your problems" response. In the end, the company determined that there was no Antennagate - but the damage had been done. Apple's band-aid fix to a design flaw didn't actually fix anything - it just lowered the standards on an Apple product.
Cloud Wars: The rise of cloud computing - whatever that really means - is an ongoing trend. But the battle over what it really means came to a head at the Oracle OpenWorld conference in San Francisco in September. This year marked a turning point in cloud computing. Google's push to get companies to adopt their cloud-based email and apps systems over legacy systems has been ongoing. And Salesforce's Marc Benioff is already talking about the next generation of cloud computing, called "Cloud 2." But when Oracle CEO Larry Ellison went on stage and referred to Exalogic - a $1 million hardware-software machine - as the "Cloud in a Box," Benioff had a hey day. "Clouds aren't in a box," he said, mocking Ellison - his former boss - for being out of touch on what cloud computing really is about. There are those who continue to have their reservations about cloud computing - largely over stability and security issues - but the trend isn't likely to slow down or even reverse anytime soon.
Leaving Camp Apple: This final entry of my Top 10 list of "talkers" for 2010 wasn't so much a talker for the industry as it was for me on a personal level. For the past few years, I've pretty much been a full-fledged, card-carrying Apple fanboy. I prefer Macs over Windows PCs and have not been shy about saying as much. I've had iPhone envy for a long time but wasn't willing to pay AT&T for poor service - based on my own experiences as a trial customer. But I pretty much got over that once I discovered Android and realized how much I liked it. It wasn't until the iPad came around and failed to wow me was one I realized that I wasn't part of Camp Apple, I was part of Camp Good Products.
There were two posts that I published this year that really drove this point home for me. One carried the headline, "Top 10 ways the HTC Droid Incredible killed my iPhone envy" and another cried out "Why this "Mac guy" will dump Apple fanboy club card."
Yes, the next computer I buy - probably this Spring - will most likely be a Mac, though I'm interested in what the PC makers will do with Google Chromebooks when they launch mid-year. My mind is open and I'm at a vulnerable point where I can be talked into trying something new.
Why the sudden change of heart? This excerpt from my second blog post sums it up best:
In this environment, we’re starting to see innovation again - in products, in services and in design. And that’s leading to some great choices for the consumer. But I refuse to get caught up in buying an iPad or an iPhone just because I prefer a Mac computer over Windows. Likewise, I also refuse to feel bad because I prefer Android for my phone or like the search results that Microsoft’s Bing provides. You know what I like more than anything else? Choice. Now that Android is giving mobile phone shoppers an alternative to iPhone, Bing is giving Web users an alternative to Google and Windows 7 is gaining some traction, consumers have choice again.
Choice is always a good thing. And I'm looking forward to a 2011 filled with new choices.