2015 in review: The biggest tech stories of the year

A look back at the hot topics, major deals, and the technological breakthroughs of the year -- from security to product launches, and the year's successes and catastrophes.
By Zack Whittaker on
1 of 19 file photo

Windows 10 says hello, but not without controversy

Windows 10 couldn't have come as more of a breath of fresh air for those who were stuck on a widely-unpopular Windows 8. But there was still a good portion of people left on Windows 7, put off from upgrading -- not just because of the problems with Windows 8, but the subsequent allegations of data tracking and privacy invasions by Windows 10. Troubles only got worse when Microsoft tried to foist the operating system on existing users with mandatory upgrades. Despite the issues and controversies, the software still has about 7 percent usage share, according to the US government's analytics service.

2 of 19 file photo

HP splits up with itself, and thousands of its own workers

This year was when HP went from one, to two. It spun out its enterprise unit into its own publicly-traded Fortune 50 company, with chief executive Meg Whitman taking the helm. The other half provides consumers and businesses with PCs and printers. The decision to split also led to a necessary but bitter pill to swallow: mass layoffs. As many as 33,000 workers would lose their jobs related to the split-up. Let's hope that the hybrid cloud is the right thing to bet on.

3 of 19 CNET/CBS Interactive

Rise of the drones, registrations open

It was bound to happen eventually. Drones, or unmanned aircraft, can target or even be used by terrorists, sneak a peek into places where most aren't allowed to go, fly overhead, or help broadcast the news. The next big bet? Aerial delivery. The Federal Aviation Administration, tasked with creating drone regulations, eventually released rules governing the use of drones over US airspace. But drones remain controversial, and owning one can be legally problematic. The skies remain a jumbled mess, with manned aircraft fighting for space over their unmanned counterparts. What's for sure is that 2016 is going to be an interesting time for the future of aerial vehicles.

4 of 19 CNET/CBS Interactive

Apple Watch released with a whimper

One of the most anticipated products of the year was announced with a bang but received with a whimper. There aren't any official figures on how many Apple Watch wearables have been sold -- that's because Apple relegated them to a category of "other" mish-mash accessories and iPods it sells. But things aren't looking good for the wearable category. Data suggests the sales balloon popped almost immediately after the long-awaited product was released. With the second version of the watch released in the mid-year period, Apple isn't giving up on its new product. But until customers can figure out exactly what to do with it, the watch may just be another product ahead of its time.

5 of 19 CNET/CBS Interactive

Android hit by multiple major security flaws

Android stands as the world's most popular mobile operating system, in four-out-of-five hands around the world. But where it strives in customizability and popularity, it lacks a certain something in security. This year, the phone and tablet platform has been hit by a series of high-profile flaws, notably "Stagefright," which affected every Android device in the world and hit a second time after the first fix failed to do the job. An LTE-related flaw also affected all Android devices, and another issue affected more than half of all devices rendering most devices unusable. Things are getting better, and people are beginning to notice.

6 of 19 CNET/CBS Interactive

Internet of Things makes its mainstream debut

The internet is full of things, more so now than ever. Not just routers and computers, tablets and devices, but now there's set to be around six billion smart home gadgets -- from toy dolls to Wi-Fi-connected plant feeders -- connecting kids and homes, cars and you-name-it-what-else to the wider world. With that comes security issues. Most people have yet to take the Internet of Things (IoT) seriously, not least the feds, but that changed when millions of kids' and their parents' data was stolen earlier this year in a massive hack on Hong Kong toymaker VTech. If that isn't going to get more eyes on securing the smaller, lesser thought-of devices, it's hard to know what else will.

7 of 19 Justice Dept./US government

Microsoft's fights the feds in a Irish data warrant case

Imagine this: the US wants to use a search warrant to get access to data stored overseas. There's a big catch: It's stored and operated by a US company. In this case, it's Microsoft. This game-changing case, which continues into its second year, could determine whether the US can apply its laws outside its borders. If Microsoft loses the case -- a case in which it already swallowed a contempt of court charge to avoid turning over the overseas data -- it would threaten the trust (or what's left of it) of the entire US technology industry. The new US attorney general Loretta Lynch said she would continue the case on behalf of the Obama administration. So dedicated the company has been in fighting its data warrant case, it didn't notice that its own website dedicated to the case was itself hacked...

8 of 19 SpaceX via CNET/CBS Interactive

Space Race 2.0 as tech firms aim for the skies

Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, two of the most prominent entrepreneurs of a generation, restarted the space race this year when the two chief executives were working hard -- away from their everyday businesses of online retail and payment services -- to launch a reusable, self-landing rocket. Amazon's Blue Origin got there first, with Musk's SpaceX following just a few weeks later. Both companies are competing for further NASA contracts, which could see the private space sector a brand new industry.

9 of 19 Wikimedia Commons

Laws after laws pass to target the internet, critical infrastructure

The internet was for a while a relatively lawless place, with few US or international laws targeting the internet directly. Many proposed laws failed because of mass protests and mounting counter-pressure. But 2015 saw the rise of two major new laws and one executive action directly targeting users in the US and its allied nations. CISA is a cybersecurity bill that allows Silicon Valley firms to freely share "threat data" with the government with legal protections.. The aim was to prevent cyberattacks. Despite being in tech firms' favor, it was shot down by almost every company. The Trans-Pacific Partnership also reared its ugly head for the first time publicly, applying to alleged copyright infringers. Despite its secrecy, leaking site WikiLeaks published a portion of the agreement's text.

10 of 19 CNET/CBS Interactive

Amazon, T-Mobile become a little more transparent

Governments are increasingly using the law to demand data from private tech companies. Though not mandatory, only a few tech companies haven't disclosed how many government data requests they had received. Amazon and T-Mobile were the last major companies to disclose a transparency report this year, after significant pressure was thrown their way. If only BlackBerry, the last lone outlier, would follow suit...

11 of 19 Getty/file photo

The one-sided encryption debate rages on

The encryption debate reached a peak after the second terrorist attack on Paris this year. The attackers were accused of using encryption to carry out their attacks, though little evidence has backed up that claim. It reignited the debate over whether encryption should have backdoors, allowing law enforcement a way in. NSA whistleblowers have already said that all too often too much information is collected -- making vital intelligence near-impossible to find. With the data out there, but senior officials hellbent on a "collect it all" mantra, it shows a failure in leadership, not a failure of the intelligence.

12 of 19 CNET/CBS Interactive

Google, Microsoft make patent peace

And about time. After five years of legal spats between the two tech titans, Google and Microsoft promised to bury the hatchet and move on. Microsoft had gone after Motorola in 2010 with Android-related patent suits relating to its H.264 video compression patents and other networking patents. When Google bought Motorola a year later, it also agreed to a fight with its long-standing software rival. After years of fighting in more than two continents, the two firms eventually settled the score in 2015 and promised to go after the real villains: patent trolls.

13 of 19 US House/Congress

Freedom Act nixes the NSA's powers, albeit slightly

With parts the Patriot Act poised to expire in June, lawmakers wanted a new deal, allowing for a continuation of some surveillance powers without infringing civil liberties. Just one program was nixed in the freshly-minted Freedom Act, which all in all received some calls for more to be done by the tech industry, but an oddly muted stance from the Obama administration. Why the little resistance? Legal loopholes exist allowing much of the so-called "metadata" collection to continue regardless. It's better than nothing, but some in Congress have indicated more needs to be done -- particularly to prevent the government from weakening encryption used by the masses.

14 of 19 Reuters/Twitter

Twitter's executive suite shuffles as Costolo out, Dorsey in

It was bound to happen eventually. Dick Costolo, Twitter's chief executive, was ousted from the company in favor of the microblogging firm's co-founder, Jack Dorsey. The reason cited for giving Costolo the boot was a lack of user growth. Dorsey was later named full-time chief executive of the company. His first action? Cut more than 8 percent of the workforce in what he called "tough but necessary decisions."

15 of 19 Hacking Team via Vice/Motherboard; YouTube

Surveillance superpower Hacking Team leaves its mark

The data breach at Hacking Team wasn't just ironic, considering what the company does, but it also released a lot of dark stuff onto the web. The Italian company, famed for helping governments conduct surveillance, was hit by an attack that resulted in its entire network storage being posted online. As the company reeled from the hack, claiming it won't "shrivel up and go away," a number of zero-day software vulnerabilities were exposed in the cache, putting millions of devices at risk. On the plus side, the hack gave reporters an unprecedented insight into the private sector surveillance state.

16 of 19 Reuters/file photo

Google faces major antitrust fight with the EU

Just when Google thought it would get away with settling, a change in commissioner led the European bloc of nations into launching a full-on antitrust assault against the search giant. Making matters worse, the case also centered on Android, its popular mobile operating system, which has more than 80 percent of the global market share. Google was given more time to respond to the allegations that it abused its dominant market position. The case will continue on into 2016, which could see one of the largest fines -- up to $6 billion in revenue -- ever imposed against a company.

17 of 19 Getty/file photo

Superfish, eDellCert and the resurgence of bloatware

Two high-profile cases of "bloatware" gone wrong led many to question why hardware makers would bundle preinstalled junk apps on their products prior to their selling. Lenovo was caught installing a security certificate that could intercept secure and encrypted communications. Dell, later in the year, did almost exactly the same thing, under the guise of helping its customers. Another case of Dell, Toshiba, and Lenovo PCs put at risk of insecure software led the PC makers into rushing out patches for their products. Bloatware, a persistent security pest, likely won't go away any time soon, but after at least three high profile cases of things going wrong, the consumer market won't continue to put up with it.

18 of 19 ZDNet/CBS Interactive

News becomes an instant app commodity

More and more publishers are heading to social outlets to promote their work, including Apple News, a new app embedded in iPhone and iPad software, but also now Twitter's Moments and now Facebook, which released its own dedicated news app in early November. It's a stark shift away from news outlets drawing in users to their websites for clicky display ads. Though this new way of getting news into people's hands may increase the scope of access to a wider population, whether or not it catches on with users remains to be seen.

19 of 19 via Best Buy

PCs, tablet share continues to tumble down

The PC market continues to decline month over month, and year over year. Lenovo, HP and Dell, three of the largest PC makers on the market today, face an uncertain future. PC sales -- even ahead of Windows 10's release this year -- took a beating, with a decline of 7 percent in the first calendar quarter alone. Those figures were backed up later in the year, marking the fourth consecutive year of declining volume shipments for PCs. Even towards the end of the year, the future didn't look so bright. Can the market ever recover, or is it set to decline in favor of the tablet market, cannibalized by the iPad Pro and Surface tablets?

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