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Let’s face it: Technology this year was one big “fail” after another. And the biggest loser from all of this was you.
It’s easy to count the ways that tech did you wrong, especially when it came to information security. On the other hand, there was also plenty of good technology this year that worked well and offered benefits for your money.
So here’s a review of the tech in 2017 that needed the most fixing, and the tech that was actually fixed.
Tech That Needed Fixing
Epic failures this year exposed your personal data to hackers, wasted your money on unnecessary or ethically dubious products and fed you misinformation.
When security breaches happen, you typically just have to change your passwords or cancel your credit cards. But this year’s hacking of Equifax, one of the three major consumer credit reporting agencies, was unprecedented.
Hackers exploited a weak point in website software to gain access to sensitive information like Social Security numbers and driver’s license numbers for as many as 145 million Americans. What’s worse is that nobody opted in to Equifax — if you have any credit, you are probably part of the breach and vulnerable to identity theft.
The fallout will probably cause headaches for years. The best defense tactic is a hassle: You should freeze your credit with all three credit reporting agencies — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — because an identity thief could use your personal information to apply for credit at a lender or company that checks files with only one of the agencies. What’s more, freezing your credit may require a small fee, and the same fees may apply to unfreezing it whenever you want to apply for new credit.
Equifax’s top executives resigned after the scandal, but the company has yet to disclose what it will do to prevent another breach.
Juicero, a Silicon Valley start-up that raised about $120 million from investors, went belly up this year. It makes the list of this year’s tech failures because it created a kind of product that most of us never needed in the first place.
Juicero’s product? It sold a $700 juicer with a twist: The fresh produce came packaged in proprietary bags, which the juicer could press with four tons of pressure to create the juice. Because the produce came in neat packages, it could be easily discarded, sparing enthusiasts the cleanup of a typical juicer (a chore that you can easily handle with a dishwashing machine).
Here’s how we know that most of us didn’t need this: Some Juicero investors told Bloomberg News that people could simply squeeze the juice bags with their hands and get roughly the same amount of juice — sometimes even faster than the machine. (In our tests, a Juicero machine took more than three minutes to squeeze a bag of kale juice, but squeezing a bag by hand took about two minutes.) Over its short life span, the Juicero plummeted in price to $400 before the start-up shut down.
If you need a New Year’s resolution, you might consider boycotting Uber.
To be clear, Uber’s failures have more to do with the company and its work culture than the app you are familiar with. The ride-hailing start-up was a scandal magnet this year. After Uber employees aired complaints about sexual harassment, the company did an internal investigation and fired 20 people. The New York Times also reported that the company had used a secret program, code-named Greyball, to monitor and evade law enforcement officials.
It didn’t end there. Waymo, the self-driving car unit of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, sued Uber, accusing it of stealing trade secrets. In addition, Uber recently disclosed that hackers stole 57 million driver and rider accounts in October 2016 — after keeping the breach secret for more than a year.
Travis Kalanick resigned as the company’s chief executive amid a shareholder revolt. Uber’s new chief, Dara Khosrowshahi, now faces the tall order of repairing the company’s reputation.
Fake Accounts on Twitter and Facebook
Remember all those hate tweets that you saw about Hillary Clinton? Many of them may have been fake.
In 2017, many of us found out that we have been unwitting readers of propaganda and fake news seeded by Russian agents. We saw the posts on tech platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Google in 2016, which may have influenced how we voted during the presidential election. This year, investigations by The Times and the cybersecurity firm FireEye revealed that Russian operators had used hundreds of thousands of bots, or automated accounts pretending to be people, to post anti-Clinton messages.
Facebook and Twitter have said they are stepping up efforts to disable fake accounts. But the damage has been done. As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and the social media sites did very little to prevent fake accounts from being created in the first place.
Tech That Was Fixed
On the bright side, there were high-quality products that improved your mobile life and mobile security, your gaming experiences, and your home automation.
When Apple Watch debuted in 2015, it wasn’t a practical product for you to buy. The smart watch was sluggish, it required an iPhone to operate, battery life was dismal and the $10,000 price tag of the 18-karat gold model was outrageous.
But this year, Apple nailed it with the third iteration, the Apple Watch Series 3, which introduced optional cellular connectivity to make the watch work more independently from the iPhone.
An initial glitch caused the watch to occasionally lose cellular connection, but Apple quickly fixed the problem with a software update. More important, the new smart watch has exceptional battery life; in my tests, I had about 40 percent of battery life left, on average, after a full day of use. In addition, apps and features like the stopwatch and Siri work quickly.
This is the first smart watch that feels like a mature, well-executed product that you can buy with confidence.
For the last few years, your living room game console probably wasn’t a Nintendo. The Japanese game company’s previous console, the Wii U, was a flop.
But Nintendo Switch, the convertible console that debuted this year, was a hit. The device is essentially two gadgets in one — both a console that can sit in your living room and one that you can easily take on the go. And the new Zelda and Mario games, among others, received glowing reviews.
People are loving it. Nintendo has sold 10 million Switch consoles since March. In comparison, the company sold 3.9 million Wii U systems in that console’s first 10 months.
Year after year at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, start-ups have prophesied that everything in your home will be connected to the internet and automated with magical algorithms. That vision is finally becoming a reality.
These days, you can buy high-quality internet-connected home accessories, like light bulbs, thermostats and security cameras, that work well together and can easily be controlled with voice-powered virtual assistants including Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Assistant and Apple’s Siri.
The young smart home market is growing quickly. NPD Group, a research firm, says 15 percent of American households with an internet connection now own a home automation device, up from 10 percent in April 2016.
For decades, scanning a face to unlock a gadget was a science fiction fantasy that you saw only in movies like “Minority Report” or “The Incredibles.” Many companies tried it with no success; the face recognition in Samsung’s Galaxy smartphones, for example, could be tricked by holding a photograph of your face in front of the camera. Even worse, some older systems had problems identifying people with darker skin.
Then this year, iPhone X, Apple’s first premium-tier iPhone priced at about $1,000, introduced Face ID.
The face-recognition system sprays an object with infrared dots and then stitches the patterns into a detailed 3-D image of your face to determine if you are indeed the owner of your smartphone before unlocking it. Face ID learns more about your face over time so that it continues to work when your face changes, like when you are growing facial hair or wearing a hat or scarf. Face ID is the first example of reliable, secure face recognition on a mainstream device.
By: Brian X. Chen