In a year in which the coronavirus pandemic raged across the globe, infecting tens of millions and killing nearly 2 million people, words like “unprecedented,” “extraordinary” and “grim” became cliches. Alongside wildfires, a record season of hurricanes and a nationwide debate over racial justice, it’s easy to miss the flood of tech news that emerged in 2020.
From the simmering battle between DC and Big Tech companies to the streaming wars and Zoom’s emergence as sometimes our sole connection to other people, each entry reflects just how big a role technology now plays in our lives — for better or worse. In the midst of such terrible circumstances, tech often threw a lifeline to millions of people.
So as a recap, I cobbled together the 20 biggest stories of 2020. You’ll note that the coronavirus by itself doesn’t make the list. But virtually every one of these items was influenced by the pandemic. Here they are, in ascending (least to most) order of importance.
20. Foldables continued to be a thing. Let’s start with a light one. Last year saw the introduction of phones with foldable displays, but the industry added a bit more polish to them in 2020. Samsung’s Galaxy Z Flip fixed a lot of mechanical issues that hampered last year’s problematic Galaxy Fold, and the Galaxy Z Fold 2 5G offered even more refinement. Too bad the pandemic meant no one paid attention to these advancements.
19. Apple’s M1 shift. In a normal year, Apple breaking away from Intel and building its own processor for its Mac line would be a top five event. In 2020, it just barely makes the list. Don’t let the low ranking fool you, though — this move could have huge ramifications for Apple and its MacBooks down the line.
18. Elon Musk gets richer as EVs soar. Despite selling a fraction of the cars that larger automakers do, Tesla has been on a tear largely because of the perception that it remains head and shoulders above the competition, with other EVs failing to capture the attention of consumers. Experts call the runup a bubble, although the rise has made Musk the second richest man in the world, just behind Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos (you’ll see him later in this list).
17. 5G gets real (thanks to Apple). The carriers technically launched the first 5G networks in late 2018, but the rollout and the devices were a mixed bag in 2019. If it weren’t for the coronavirus, 5G would be much higher on the list. All three US carriers launched their nationwide networks (which were just OK), and Apple got into the mix by adding 5G into its entire iPhone 12 family. Too bad people hardly go out to try those networks.
16. Twitter bigwig accounts compromised. Hackers used a coordinated social engineering attack on employees to pry open access to some of the biggest accounts on Twitter, including those of Musk, Bill Gates, Kanye West, Barack Obama and other famous tech executives, entertainers and politicians. Fortunately, the hackers only wanted the accounts to hawk a Bitcoin scam. Imagine if they had more nefarious motives.
15. Space is the place. A strife-laden year on the surface of planet Earth didn’t stop NASA, SpaceX, China and others from making gains in orbit and beyond, according to Eric Mack. SpaceX brought human spaceflight back to US shores by sending two sets of astronauts to the International Space Station. Musk’s company also made major progress launching a broadband satellite constellation and developing its next-generation Starship. Musk didn’t blink when that rocket exploded spectacularly on landing after its first high-altitude test flight.
14. The digital divide widens. The coronavirus was terrible for everyone, but it was really bad if you lacked adequate broadband. Being on lockdown meant you needed a speedy connection for working from home or for remote education. But at least 18 million Americans lacked a good connection, which effectively barred them from participating in a society that has been forced to go more digital.
13. The climate change reckoning. I remember watching the coverage of the Australian wildfires at the start of 2020 and thinking this would be the story of the year. Oh, how wrong I was. Ultimately, 2020 would see wildfires rage throughout the US West Coast as well, while there were so many hurricanes this season that the World Meteorological Organization ran out of names. It got so bad we dedicated this year’s Road Trip theme to looking at the technology behind preparing for — or rebuilding from — natural disasters.
12. Amazon’s dominance. Being locked down meant you were more reliant on online retailers for deliveries. That was huge for Amazon, which was already a big part of many Americans’ lives, but became a real lifeline for basic goods like toilet paper and hand sanitizer. Amazon hired more than 375,000 employees to keep up with demand, and in the third quarter, posted a profit of $6.3 billion — after spending $2.5 billion on COVID-19-related costs. It wasn’t just Amazon: Online grocers like Fresh Direct and Instacart also saw huge jumps in demand.
11. Gaming’s big year. The coronavirus lockdown meant millions were stuck at home with a lot more free time. Many turned to gaming, with the Nintendo Switch being a hard item to find early this year. 2020 also marked the debut of the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X and Series S, which likewise have been hard to come by during the holiday season. Not everything with gaming went smoothly, as supply issues frustrated consumers — even next-gen Nvidia and AMD chips were in short supply. Then there was the launch of Cyberpunk 2077 being so bad that developer CD Projekt Red is offering refunds. At least Cyberpunk came out — Halo Infinite, the big launch title for Xbox Series X, will launch in the fall of 2021.
10. Tech and the Black Lives Matter movement. The killing of George Floyd was just the latest in a string of killings of Black people by police, but video footage of the incident and the way it spread on social media fueled a national debate over racial justice as protests erupted in cities across the country. The use of phones and livestreaming to chronicle the protests, the awkward role that services from Facebook and Google played in organizing the demonstrations, and tech firms themselves coming out for the Black Lives Matter movement all made clear that technology left its mark on the movement.
9. A massive government hack. This hack of the US government arguably should be higher up, but it broke so late in the year that we won’t likely know the full magnitude of the breach until 2021. Numerous parts of the US government, including the departments of Homeland Security, State, Commerce and Treasury, as well as the National Institutes of Health, were all affected by malware delivered through a compromised update from IT software services provider SolarWinds. The malware attacked Microsoft, which identified more than 40 customers that were targeted. We’re still getting more information on this unprecedented attack.
8. Quibi flames out. A streaming video service with $1.75 billion in funding, as well as the backing of Hollywood power player Jeffrey Katzenberg and CEO Meg Whitman should last longer than seven months, right? That wasn’t the case for ill-fated Quibi, which shut itself down despite signing a talent roster that boasted Chrissy Teigen, Lebron James, Dwayne Johnson, Reese Witherspoon, Chance the Rapper, Kevin Hart and more. Launching a service exclusively on your mobile device in the middle of a pandemic was a prime bit of misfortune. Charging $5 a month for it when YouTube is available for free also made it a harder sell. But the hype around Quibi’s launch makes for a nice segue to the next item.
7. The streaming wars escalated big time. Being stuck at home meant you needed entertainment, and streaming services were there for you. More than ever, the various services filled our need for pop culture, with Netflix’s Tiger King capturing all the buzz at the start of the lockdown. Disney Plus cemented its top-tier status by offering Hamilton for no additional charge on the service (strategically after the free trial ended), although it ended up charging $30 for early access to Mulan. NBCUniversal’s Peacock launched, and it will require you to subscribe to its premium tier for full access to The Office catalog, while AT&T’s HBO Max made waves by offering Wonder Woman 1984 on its service for free, with a commitment to deliver all of its big movies to the streamer in 2021.
6. Trump and tech. President Donald Trump has had a love-hate relationship with technology. Chinese telecom supplier Huawei took the full brunt of his wrath, with the Commerce Department essentially cutting it off from any US components or technology. That meant its Android phones could no longer use core Google services like the Play store or Gmail — a huge blow to HUawei’s highly successful phone business around the world.
Trump’s later target was social phenom TikTok, which the White House said posed a security risk to Americans because its parent company is Chinese. In July, he issued an executive order requiring TikTok to sell itself to a US company or risk getting shut out of the market, citing security concerns over how much data the short-video app collects on US citizens. The move forced ByteDance, the app’s Chinese parent, to work out a deal with Oracle, which had Trump’s blessing. But since the elections, Trump has apparently lost interest in dealing with TikTok, and the administration has dropped its enforcement of the executive order, leaving TikTok in limbo with a deal that hadn’t been completed yet.
The other major issue Trump has taken up is rallying cry to remove or alter Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which provides a shield to online publishers from liability for content generated by users. It’s considered one of the foundational laws for flourishing online platforms, and lawmakers of both parties want change. It will likely continue to be a story in 2021.
5. Facebook and Twitter finally got proactive. When Trump shared allegations of voter fraud on social media, both social networks slapped on labels pointing to more accurate sources of election information. He wasn’t the only one to get that treatment as the companies tried to clamp down on misinformation. They also got more aggressive about banning conspiracy groups like QAnon. It’s unclear how effective these measures were — the labels were applied inconsistently, and not always quickly. But the effort marked a step forward for these companies more actively managing the misinformation that had proliferated throughout their networks.
4. Zoom’s rise. In-person meetings were quickly replaced by video conferencing, and no service blew up like Zoom. It’s impressive that the video service kept going despite a massive surge in usage, both for work and for personal connections. In April, the company said calls on the weekends had risen 2,000%. But attention also brought to light its mixed history with security, leading to pranks now known as “Zoom-bombing” and prompting Zoom to buy a security company. The fact that there’s a condition called “Zoom fatigue” from the overuse of video chat is proof that Zoo has made it big.
3. Big Government versus Big Tech. By the end of the year, tech executives appearing before Congress had happened with enough frequency that it lost its novelty factor. But the fact that the CEOs of Alphabet, Facebook, Apple and Amazon were all called to justify the immense power they wield shows that the age when tech companies could grow unchecked was over. Following the European Union, which has already been aggressive in levying fines and setting regulations, the US is expected to step up the scrutiny of the tech industry. Lawsuits filed by state attorneys general and the Justice Department seek a potential breakup of Alphabet, while separate lawsuits filed by the Federal Trade Commission and 48 attorneys general aim to curb Facebook’s power, with the FTC seeking a breakup of the company. Even Apple is facing criticism for the power it wields over its App Store, with developer Epic leading the charge in a lawsuit against its practice of taking a 30% cut of app revenue.
2. Misinformation was everywhere. I know I just gave the social networks credit for being more proactive about combating misinformation, but that was ultimately a drop in the bucket compared to all the baseless conspiracy theories, hoaxes and other bits of disinformation that proliferated online. Some people were so convinced 5G caused the coronavirus that they burned cellular equippment and assaulted technicians. Or that Bill Gates somehow caused the coronavirus and wants to implant chips in us. QAnon, a vast conspiracy theory that makes the baseless claim that Hollywood and Democratic elites are pedophiles and Satan worshippers, has somehow grown to the point that two elected officials have self-identified as QAnon believers.
It’s great that the social networks are getting more proactive at combating misinformation, but they’re fighting a five-alarm fire with a water gun.
1. Vaccines. I wanted to end this list on a bright note regardless, given the year we’ve all had. But the science behind developing COVID-19 vaccines so quickly more than justifies this top spot. The vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna use a molecule known as messenger RNA, or mRNA, which is like a set of instructions human cells use to build proteins. Both vaccines contain these instructions, tricking cells into producing a harmless fragment of the coronavirus. The body recognizes the fragment, generating antibodies against it and providing lasting immunity, according to CNET Science Editor Jackson Ryan.
Ryan calls the technique “a truly revolutionary step forward, reducing the time and cost to develop new vaccines in the future” and the reason why they cleared the regulatory review period so quickly. On a more optimistic note, the process will help speed the development of the vaccine for the next pandemic too.
That’s the kind of life-saving technology we can all get behind.